Sunday, December 18, 2011

Saturday, December 17, 2011


A Different Kind of Christmas Classic

At this time of year, the television networks are filled with holiday specials and Christmas films: much-loved staples like White Christmas and Holiday Inn, It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle On 34th Street. My personal favorite is the Barbara Stanwyck/Dennis Morgan classic, Christmas In Connecticut. It was on TCM recently and I watched it for what must be the 20th time. It’s a perfect Christmas confection, its plot totally implausible, but magical none-the-less.

Over the years several more films have joined the holiday classics club, from 1983’s A Christmas Story to Home Alone, Love Actually (another favorite of mine), and The Holiday, featuring Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet Jack Black and Jude Law, giving a particularly (don’t cringe), sweet performance. But if you’d like something with a little more substance, I suggest you look into a terrific 2005 French film called Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas).

Written and directed by Christian Carion, it is the fictional tale of a 1914 Christmas truce five months into World War I. Drawn from a variety of factual accounts, letters, speeches and documents, it is both thrilling and chilling, powerful and poignant.

Unlike most wartime movies, Joyeux Noel is devoid of bloody carnage, high action sequences, rough language and Patton-like bravado. It is, rather, a film about the men who fought the war, the generals who presided over it, the loved ones who feared it, and the truce that held it at bay.

The opening sequences of the film give the viewer a stylized picture of the years preceding what we would come to know as "he Great War" as European schoolboys recite poems and platitudes of hatred aimed at other European nations. Lifted directly from government pamphlets and periodicals of the period, these unsettling recitations give us an idea of how these children were indoctrinated and primed for a war that was as much as twenty years away. An 1895 newsletter from one minister of education dictates that boys over the eight learn to shoot a Lebel rifle on the playground, armed with real bullets. This militarization of children had its effect. By the time they were old enough to fight, they were enthusiastically lining up to enlist.

On the DVD’s commentary track, we are told that the number of enlisted men in the early day of the war swelled to the point where the army could no longer properly train and prepare them for war. Within a month, nearly half of those who had volunteered were dead.

From this prologue we are transported high above a long and winding road to a small Anglican church deep within the Scottish Highlands, where news of the war is fresh, and response, immediate. As the local parish priest looks on, a young man of eighteen or nineteen, races into the church to share the news with his younger brother. All three will soon leave the safety of their village for life on the Western Front, where all too soon the good father will pray over one of the boy’s lifeless bodies. From this brief sequence, we understand that war knows no bounds or boundaries. It is, by all accounts, an equal opportunity destroyer.

In a blink we find ourselves in the opulent Berlin Opera House, where the celebrated Danish soprano Anna Sorensen (Diane Kruger) is singing before a packed house. As her lover and co-star, tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann) waits in the wings, a German officer interrupts the concert to announce that war has been declared. Within moments the crowd has dispersed, and the lives of everyone in the hall, including the soprano and her tenor, have changed forever.

Five months pass. It is December 24th―Christmas Eve, 1914. We are on the Western Front, somewhere between Ostend, Belgium and Basel, Switzerland, where working farms―still unscathed by the ravages of war, dot the landscape.

Over the course of the film we will learn more about the men who inhabit the trenches of this no man’s land, from the Anglican priest and his two young parishioners, to a French lieutenant who had to leave his pregnant wife five months into a difficult pregnancy. He lives in a state of limbo, not knowing whether she survived the birth, or if he has a son or daughter. We’ll meet a Military father whose view of the war is very different than that of his soldier son, a Jewish soldier who will be warmed by the spirit of Christmas and a young man who will risk his life for a cup of coffee with his mother. These men, along with Nicholas and Anna, guide the film on an emotional journey ranging from exhilaration to distress, comfort to anger, and helplessness to hope. It is Anna, the only woman in the piece with any real dialogue, who represents the families and friends who watch, worry and pray for their loved one’s safe return.

As seen through the cinematographer’s lens, the battlefield is as intimate as it is foreboding, the area so small, you can easily walk from one trench to another other. As Christmas approaches, the battlefield is silent. Were it not for the snow-covered bodies of fallen soldiers lying in wait to be retrieved and buried at battle’s end, this star-studded night would be quite lovely.

The spirit of Christmas is not lost on these men. In the German trench, presents from home are passed around, and traditional holiday carols fill the air. The tenor, back from an ill-conceived concert for the Germany’s kronprinz, sings a stirring version of "Silent Night" for his fellow soldiers. It is a song all of Europe knows well, and as his voice waifs across the battlefield, it cannot help but warm the hearts of those in the French and Scottish trenches.

In the distance, there is the sound of gunfire, and sudden sparks of light, but here, in this place, at this time a silent night turns holy, as slowly but surely, the French, German and Scottish lieutenants lay down their rifles and come together in the center of the battlefield.

“I’m French.”
“I’m German.”
“I’m Scottish, not British” says another.
“Do you speak English?”
“Yes” replies the German. “A little.”

And so begins this dance – this fragile truce, and the chance set the war aside, if only for a little while.

“We’re talking about a ceasefire for Christmas Eve,” says one lieutenant. “What do you think? The outcome of this war won’t be decided tonight. I don’t think anyone will criticize us for laying down our rifles on Christmas Eve.”

Of course, he is wrong. There will be those who look upon this coming together as treasonous. But the men themselves will have no shame or regrets.

Were this another time, place or war, the very idea of such a truce would have been unthinkable. But this was 1914. The war had just begun, and memories of home were still fresh in these yet-to-be-hardened soldier’s minds. They were alone. The area was contained. They were, in some respects, suspended in time. News to and from the front was delivered by messenger, allowing them to pause without fear of being disbanded or reprimanded by their war room generals.

And so we see them come together, sharing a joke, a toast and a song, confiding their hopes and dreams, and admiring photos of wives and children left behind. Before the night is through, they will eat German chocolates, down Scottish mussels and drink French champagne. Returning to their trenches, they leave with a new regard for the men they will soon face in battle.

While, as the two lovers, Kruger and Furmann share the most screen time, there is little doubt that Joyeux Noel is an ensemble piece: a story of many stories based on real people and events. Most are told through brief conversations and visual cues. There are no long soliloquies. No lengthy revelations. No major character studies. Much of what we learn we learn through small bits and pieces of information: a sentence here, a close-up there.

Carion’s decision to cast actors who share the same nationality as their character’s was a bold but rewarding one. It certainly would have been easier to have had everyone speak the same language, adding an accent as needed. But you lose something when you do that. Only die-hard fans could ignore the fact that Sean Connery’s Russian Captain spoke with a decidedly Scottish accent in Hunt for Red October, or that Tom Cruises’ German Lieutenant in Valkyrie sounded like he was born and raised in Syracuse, New York.

In casting Germans as Germans, Frenchmen as Frenchmen, and Scots as Scots, Carion infused an authenticity into the film. But at the same time, his decision to do so no doubt cost him some ticket sales, as there are some people (you may be one of them) who are put off by subtitles. And when you have people speaking different languages within a film, there’s no way around them. So consider yourself forewarned. Unless you are fluent in English, French and German, you’re going to need them and read them. But dealing with subtitles is a small price to pay for the rewards. So put on your readers and enjoy the show. And take advantage of the DVD's commentary track and bonus interview. You'll find them to be a great resource in filling in the blanks. They're loaded with all manner of information, back-stories, facts and historical anecdotes that make the film even more engaging.

The music is pretty terrific as well. While Joyeux Noel is far from a musical, there are some wonderful musical moments within it, from the stirring group vocals to the opera stars’ solos as performed by Natalie Dessay and Rolando Villazon. Other instrumental interludes include the sound of bagpipes playing “I’m Dreaming of Home”, and the music and symbolism of a soldier’s harmonica. Carion was fascinated by the idea that music provided the common ground that set the stage for the truce, both historically and within the framework of the film.

Joyeux Noel is an idealized version of what could happen (and, in fact, did happen) when differences are (were) put aside. But if it seems more than a bit naïve, remember that unlike more recent conflicts, this war was more about defining territories and the balance of power than race, religion, or the fear of weapons of mass destruction. With that in mind, one can see where these men were able to set aside their guns if only for a little while, to celebrate life, and even contemplate a time when they might meet again in peace. Yet and still, Joyeux Noel is also a story of consequences, and the price too often paid for putting right above might.

At a time when much of the world is in conflict, and so many find so little room for compromise, this little movie gives us reason to believe that we will find that common ground, and feel better for it. That alone makes this film well worth watching.

Before I go, I want to thank you for supporting this blog, for sending in your Food Finds, telling your friends about the site, and coming back for more. Have a wonderful holiday, stay healthy, be happy and I’ll see you back here with another great film ‘pic’ before you know it.

Till the next time…

Thursday, October 27, 2011

LOST HORIZON - A tale for the times

My fascination with Lost Horizon began some years ago. I saw a documentary that tracked the retrieval, reconstruction and restoration of the movie by the American Film Institute. Begun in 1973, the project took years to complete, as most of the available prints had been edited (first by the studio and then, by local TV stations) beyond recognition. A massive search was launched to find a complete print, or at the very least, the missing footage. In the end, all but 7 of the film’s 112 minutes were recovered, with the irretrievable sections replaced by a series of production stills.

As luck would have it, the search also turned up a complete soundtrack that had survived unscathed. Using the track as its base, AFI’s restorers painstakingly put Humpty Dumpty together again.

Adapted from James Hilton’s 1933 best selling novel, and directed by Frank Capra, Lost Horizon centers around Shangri-La, a mythical Utopia where there is no pain or poverty, it's always fair weather, greed and crime are a non-issue, and youth is yours, as long as..

I'm not going to spoil it for you. You’ll have to see the film to find out.

The story begins in the dark of night at a small airport somewhere in China, as a group of refugees and expatriates are being pursued by an onslaught of bandits. Five of the chased find refuge in a small prop plane headed, they believe, for Great Britain. But at first light, a quick look out a cabin window confirms that outside forces have intervened, and they are headed in the opposite direction.

Though the plane crashes at the base of the Himalayan Mountains, the passengers survive. Among them, a smart, calm and internationally-recognized British diplomat named Robert Conway (Ronald Coleman), his younger, somewhat impetuous brother George (John Howard), Gloria Stone, an embittered prostitute dying of TB, (Isabelle Jewell), Alexander P. Lovett ("Lovey"), Edward Everett Horton’s prissy paleontologist, and Henry Bernard, (Thomas Mitchell)― a con on the run.

Rescued by a small but sturdy caravan of Tibetans, the survivors are lead over the treacherous terrain under extreme blizzard-like conditions. At long last, and seemingly out of nowhere, they come upon Shangri-La, a sparkling, Garden of Eden, protected from the harsh climate, politics, problems and dangers of the outside world by the mountains that surround it. The air is fresh, the sun is warm, the food is good and plentiful, the architecture is striking, and the population is gracious.

It is about as perfect as a place can be, but what is one man’s paradise, is another man’s prison, and almost from the beginning there is a great divide between the captives, with some desperate to remain, and others, to leave.

Within days, it becomes apparent that fate, happenstance or luck had nothing to do with the circumstances surrounding their arrival. The whys and wherefores of their kidnapping and transport are ultimately revealed when Robert Conway is granted an audience with an aging High Lama, portrayed by a then, middle-aged Sam Jaffe.

Rounding out the cast is a fresh-faced 19-year-old ingenue by the name of Jane Wyatt. Best known today for her role as Margaret Anderson in the 1950's TV sitcom Father Knows Best, she is lovely here as Sondra Bizet, the Shangri-La native who wins Conway's heart.

The film is an interesting study in human behavior, its characters well-drawn and artfully portrayed. Production Designer Stephen Gosson's sets―which drew from the Streamline Moderne architecture of the period, are equally impressive, and earned him an Academy Award for Best Art Direction.

But beyond the acting and art, it is the story that draws you in, and the mysteries that surround it. Is Shangri-La all it appears to be? Are the five captives destined to live their lives there, like it or not? And if not, then what? These and other questions keep you guessing to the very end.

Originally more than six hours long, Lost Horizon was snipped, clipped, chopped and whittled down to just under two hours. Small wonder that editor Gene Havlick received an Oscar for his work; awarded, I would imagine in some part, for sheer fortitude. While the film was well reviewed (the New York Times critic at the time included it in his Top Ten list that year), it came in more than a million dollars over budget, and wouldn’t turn a profit until its re-release some five years later. Behind the scenes, all manner of infighting and back-biting ensued. And yet, the film became a classic in spite of itself.

While all of the principal players are gone now, the DVD delivers satisfying commentary and a behind-the-scenes look at the production and restoration process, along with deleted scenes and an alternate ending. It is obvious that much time and attention was spent making sure this exquisite 1937 film would be here for future generations.

It is interesting to note that despite the fact that Lost Horizon had not been seen in its entirety for some fifty years, the word "Shangri-La" stayed with us, legitimized by dictionaries, where it came to represent "An imaginary remote paradise on earth; utopia."

I suppose there are dozens―even hundreds of words and phrases that originated in books and films and went on to become conversation staples. But when it comes to Shangri-La, I suspect that while most people know what it represents, few connect it to Hilton’s novel, or Capra’s film. It is far more likely to be associated with the Robert Maxwell and Matt Malneck tune by the same name. Written and recorded more than twenty years after the film’s original release, the Four Coins rendition made its way to the top of the charts in 1957. A decade later, the Four Freshmen's version introduced the tune to a whole new generation. M
ore recently, the off-Broadway musical Forever Plaid plucked it from the past, dusted it off, and served it up with style and panache.

Shangri-La is alive and well.

For in these challenging times, the idea of finding respite in a world where time stands still, good health and weather abound, material things are plentiful and available to all, and ill-will has been all but eradicated, is heady stuff. Lost Horizon puts the image out there, tosses it around, as ultimately leaves it to the viewer to question whether the good life can be too good. Too sure. Too serene. Too perfect.

It all makes for a thought-provoking, entertaining and agreeably imperfect film. Who could ask for anything more?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Who Is Harry Nilsson?

(And Why is Everybody Talkin' About Him)

Remember Harry Nilsson? It depends— in large part, on how old you are. Unlike some major talents, Harry’s life, music and legacy have been largely forgotten or at least overlooked since his career peeked in the mid 1970s.

Thankfully, writer/director John Scheinfeld has not forgotten Harry, reminding us what a talent he was through the musings of the singer/songwriter’s family, friends, business associates and fellow musicians. The result is the 2010 documentary, Who is Harry Nilsson? (And Why is Everybody Talkin' About Him)

If the name Nilsson doesn’t sound familiar, some of the songs he made famous may. Consider Midnight Cowboy’s “Everybody’s Talkin' at Me.” While Harry didn’t write the song, he sang the heck out of it, and won a Grammy for his efforts. He did write, "I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City", which has a similar feel. While it was rejected as the film’s theme, it still managed to makeits way up the charts and into a Sophia Loren film.

Remember “Remember” and/or ”The Puppy Song”? Both, along with Nilsson’s version of “Over the Rainbow”, were featured years after their release in You’ve Got Mail. Harry’s biggest hit, “Without You” (written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans”), earned him a second Grammy. Other well-loved Nilsson songs include “One is the Loneliest Number” and a kooky little ditty called “Coconut” (“Bruder bought a coconut, he bought it for a dime, his sister had anudder one she paid it for de lime…You put de lime in de coconut, you drank ‘em bot’ up…”)

Nilsson wrote most, but not all of his hits, as well as dozens of others for others, including Little Richard, the Monkees, Yardbirds and Three Dog Night, who hit it big with Harry’s “One”. Nilsson also wrote The Point - a lovely little children’s animated musical narrated by his friend, Ringo Starr. If you or your children haven’t seen it, make it a point to put it on your wish list.

But Scheinfeld’s documentary is far more than a visual discography. It is an in-depth look at a complicated life: the story of one funny, talented, complicated, mean-spirited, high-spirited, warm, generous, over-indulged and under-appreciated musician who, like many artists of his era, played too hard and died too soon.

Much of Harry’s story is told by his oldest and dearest, many of whom are legends in their own right. You’ll hear from Paul Williams, who wrote two of the Carpenter’s biggest hits, the Muppets' "Rainbow Connection", and, along with Barbra Streisand, the ever-popular "Evergreen".

Also on hand is Randy Newman, the multi-talented musician/ composer/performer who wrote, among other things, the soundtracks for the Toy Story films, The Natural and Avalon, along with Jimmy Webb, who penned such chart-busters as "MacArthur Park", "Didn’t We", Up Up and Away" and the bulk of Glen Campbell's hits. Webb is seen throughout the film, speaking both candidly and affectionately about his long-lost friend and fellow musician. And that’s just for starters.

Truth be told, I’ve never seen a film where so many famous folks went on camera to talk about a fellow performer with such obvious affection, respect, and sadness. Among them, Robin Williams, the Beach Boy’s Brian Wilson, Micky Dolenz of The Monkees, Yoko Ono, and Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle – whose comments, along with Webb’s were particularly interesting. We even hear from the man himself, thanks to an unfinished documentary he took part in while recording his Son of Schmilsson album. Notably absent, is Ringo Starr, who was by all accounts, Harry’s best friend. The former Beatle is seen, along with other members of the Fab four, in stills and clips, but either was not approached, or declined to be interviewed for the film.

A-listers aside, Nilsson and his songbook are the real stars of the film, just as they should be. You’ll learn how many of his songs came to be written and/or recorded, his state of mind at the time, and how his lifestyle impacted his voice, from the people who were at the scene of the crime. Among them, Richard Perry (Thelma & Louise, Lean on Me), animator/producer and director Fred Wolf, and composer/artist Van Dyke Parks.

Like so many of the others, Parks is also quick to praise, as he talks about Harry’s gift as a writer, referring to Nilsson’s “cartoon consciousness", which he defines as "using a few lines very wisely to demonstrate something.” I loved the phrase, and the whole idea of it, even more so as I listened to Harry’s lyrics, and Park’s piano demonstrating the way the man said so much musically, as in the heart-pumping, energy-boosting "Gotta Get Up", a song that was apparently written to the beat of a telephone’s busy signal.

Gotta get up
Gotta get out
Gotta get home before the morning comes
What if I’m late?
Gotta big date
Gotta get home before the sun comes up

Before I saw Who is Harry Nilsson? I knew very little about the man. Had I been asked, I probably would have said that he was British, as much of his music sounds like something the Beatles might have written. Apparently that’s one reason why they were attracted to it and to him, seeking him out, and bringing him into the fold.

Like the Beatles, Harry was equally at home writing sublimely silly and incredibly complex lyrics, melodies and rhythm patterns. Among his Beatlesque recordings, the child-like “Me and My Arrow”, and the aforementioned “One is the Loneliest Number” and “Gotta Get Up.”

Though there were some love songs in Harry’s repertoire, he generally didn’t write or sing about the usual suspects. Case in point, Harry’s ode to his “Good Old Desk”. Ostensibly about a piece of furniture, many believe - despite Harry’s denials - that the desk was a metaphor for God, as an ever-present, spiritual presence in his mixed-up, often out-of-control life.

Whatever the reason behind his lyrics, it was Harry’s gift for word-crafting and story telling that set the bar, as in the heart-wrenchingly autobiographical "1941".

Well in 1941 a happy father had a son
And by 1944, the father walked right out the door
In '45, the mom and son were still alive
But who could tell in '46 if the two were to survive

Born on Father’s Day, Harry Nilsson became fatherless at three, when he dad left and presumably died in World War II. Life from three to thirteen was spent in relative poverty, and I do mean, relative. Living in the overcrowded home of an uncle, he dropped out of school and took a job as an usher in a local movie theater. When he lost his job, his uncle told him that he could no longer afford him. It was all the restless teenager needed to hit the road and head for LA.

Who is Harry Nilsson… follows him there, leading the viewer through the twists and turns of his life via clips and photos from private collections, bits and pieces of Harry’s music, segments of a BBC concert, and a multitude of reflections regarding his life choices, unmistakable wit, undeniable charm, up and down sides, loves, losses, successes and failures.

Such failures were often prompted by the excesses that also fueled him. The breakup of his first marriage produced the x-rated, “You’re breaking my heart, you’re tearin’ it apart, so f--- you.” Of questionable taste, it nonetheless struck a chord with George Harrison and friends, who were both saddened and angry with their friend for dying on them. Breaking out in song at Harry’s grave site, it was his words that expressed their feelings.

Conversely, it is the feelings of those who Nilsson left behind, that drive this engaging film. The DVD's bonus section only adds to the wealth of material, with more clips focusing on Nilsson’s musicality, generosity, addictions, and everything in between.

Like many films I write about, Who is Harry Nilsson? is not, at least at first glance, for everyone. Certainly people in the entertainment industry and Nilsson fans will find it engrossing. But to put it in the same category as an MTV special, movie-of-the-week or Biography episode would be to dismiss a well-researched, highly personal film that addresses the way one man was impacted (some would say blindsided) by his fame, and how his troubled past influenced his future.

There is little doubt that the senior Nilsson’s departure affected his son in a very profound way. Ironically, some twenty years later, he would desert his eldest son, Zak, under similar circumstances. Reflecting on his father's departure, his son says somewhat hopefully,"I’m pretty sure that ‘s not how he intended it to be”, and hopefully, he’s right. Zak’s mom believes that Harry liked the idea of being a dad, but wasn’t ready to be a father. “The reality was just too much for him,” she says generously, given the things she could have said.

That the boy’s first real one-on-one time with his dad was also his last, says something thing about Harry. But just when you think you’ve sized him up, Scheinfeld introduces us to Harry’s second family, all of whom paint him as a near-perfect, devoted family man, despite his love of liquor, drugs and high adventure.

But then, a lot of people loved Harry. They loved, hated, admired, ran with and worked along side him. More than a few were used and discarded by him – seemingly without rhyme or reason. And yet, even those who had a bone to pick, including the Smothers Brothers, whose come-back, opening night performance at LA’s Troubadour was totally destroyed by the constant heckling of the inebriated Nilsson and Lennon, were quick to praise Harry’s talent.

Whether this documentary is or isn’t your cup of tea, I urge you to search out Nilsson’s music, most of which is as relevant as ever. Last May, James Durbin, one of the most talented American Idol hopefuls, sang “Without You”, bringing tears to his and everyone else’s’ eyes (“I can’t live, if living is without you, I can’t live, I can’t give anymore…”). Other Nilsson tunes continue to grace the soundtracks of films and TV shows like Life on Mars, My Name is Earl, Confessions of A Shopaholic, You Don't Know Jack, and Bones.

Harry Nilsson passed away on January 15, 1994 – the same day LA was rocked by a major earthquake. Felled by a heart attack sparked by a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse. Though his death came as no surprise, the aftershocks of his passing hit hard. It is a tribute to his talent that all these years later, those who worked and played with him remember him, despite his shortcomings, as a singular talent, whose music is worth remembering.

Released in 2010, Who is Harry Nilsson? is available on DVD. It is my hope that it will inspire you to see why seventeen years after his death, everybody’s still talking about Harry. Many regard his Nilsson Schmilsson album as his best. I have a special place in my heart for A Little Touch of Schmillson in the Night, which features some of America’s best-loved standards, each one enhanced by Sinatra arranger Gordon Jenkins’ remarkably lush charts and the London Philharmonic’s phenomenal musicians. While there are some gems among his more recent offerings, my advice would be to save his later stuff for later, and go for the gold.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Duvall, Spacek & Murray take a turn for the best

I really enjoyed this sliver of a film. Produced on a slim-to-nothing budget in less than a month, it is both simple and complex. The characters are well drawn; the script―an eight-year labor of love―is tight, and the plot’s twist and turns keep you guessing until the very end, or close to it.

Filmed in Georgia, but based loosely on the true story of an east Tennessee man named Felix "Bush" Breazeale, Get Low is, at first glance, a story about a man, a secret, and a funeral. On a more philosophical plane, it is about the multi-shades of love and loss. On yet another level, it’s about guilt, and coming to terms with the things you’ve done and left undone. These, and other profound subjects have been masterfully interwoven within a quirky script that is both funny and poignant.

As portrayed by Robert Duvall, Bush is an eccentric recluse (aren’t they all?) who has chosen to live a solitary life in the woods for some forty years. His only companion is a mule named Gracie. Two well-loved, long-gone dogs are buried in a fenced-in plot on the property, where, he says he too intends to ‘reside’ one day “―if they’ll have me.”

As the film opens, the 1930s are coming to a close, and Bush, now well into his seventies, has earned himself a reputation that comes from years of living in a self-imposed prison. Everyone, it seems, has a story to tell about this wild-haired, stoic-faced, rifle-toting septuagenarian, and none of them are good. Where the truth lies only Felix knows.

When a contemporary dies of old age, it forces this outsider to contemplate his own passing, along with the life he’s lived, and the consequences of his actions. In doing so, he comes up with a plan that is, to say the least, unconventional. He wants to have what he refers to as “a funeral party”, the only catch― he wants it to take place while he’s still alive and able to hear what everyone has to say about him. At least, that’s the way he lays it out to the local pastor.

When the pastor ( Simon & Simon’s Gerald McRaney) turns down a request to oversee the proceedings, Bush heads for the Quinn Funeral Home, where funeral director Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) has been stressing out over the lack of business. “You read the paper today?” he asks his young protege, Buddy Robinson. “People are dying in bunches everywhere but here… One thing about Chicago, people know how to die. They drown, get run over, shot, whatever it takes. “ “We get to dyin’ around here,” counters Buddy. “It’s just that we’re not in a hurry about it.”

Unfortunately for Quinn, time is running out, and what business there is, is fraught with problems. A one-way telephone conversational (think Bob Newhart), gives us a taste of what the funeral director is dealing with.

Quinn: Yes, ma’am, I do respect your wishes. But, you see, state law requires…
(He pauses as she interrupts)
No ma’am. We can’t bury him beneath the house.
All right. Well, just for argument’s sake, how would you get the casket under the house?
No casket. Well, but you have to have a container of some kind, ma’am, for decency and for sanitation…
Yes, ma’am, but there’s lots of things that are natural that aren’t decent. (Pause)
He did
Good God.
No ma’am, I didn’t know that about your husband.
Well, yeah, now I understand why you want him under the house, but still…”

It is arguably the best scene in the film – certainly the best funny scene, and Murray plays it for all it’s worth. When Bush’s entrance interrupts the call, the ‘fun’ continues.

“About time for me to get low” he tells the funeral director, who hasn’t a clue what he’s talking about.
“Get what?”
“Down to business. I need a funeral” he says plainly, laying out his plan. What’s more, he’s got the box, the plot, and the money to do it up right, with a band and food and who knows what all. He just needs Quinn to make it happen. Anyone within a four-county area that has a story to tell about him is welcome.

While Quinn sees Bush as the goose that laid the golden egg, Buddy is not as anxious to hop on the gravy train, questioning the morality of taking money from a man who is obviously out of his mind. “You can’t have a funeral if you’re not deceased” he says, his scruples outweighing his need to support his wife and child. “Hold on now,” says Quinn, who’s not about to let opportunity knock elsewhere. “It’s a detail. We can look at it.” And with that, we’re off and running.

In short order photos are taken, posters are posted and the media—such as it is, is alerted. A lottery is added to the mix as an extra incentive to get folks to come on down. Buy a five dollar ticket, and if yours is the lucky number, when Bush kicks the bucket you become the proud owner of his cabin, barn and the 300 acres of pristine timber they sit on.

As the money begins to pour in, Bush gets a makeover. Beard shaved. Hair cut, suit fitted and shoes tied, he bares little resemblance to the wild looking “crazy ol’ nutter” on the poster. Of his new look he says simple, “I’ve been pruned.”

While the reason for all this fuss appears to be his desire to hear what people have to say about him, we soon realize that it’s quite the opposite. And though we must wait until funeral day to learn the real reason for the party, we are given some clues, along with a hint as to who this man is, and was, thanks to a soft-spoken sixty-something widow lady named Mattie Darrow.

Darrow, as played by Sissy Spacek, knew Bush “a thousand years ago” – long before he tucked himself away behind a gnarly beard and a bunch of trees. She tells Buddy’s wife that Bush was (and is) the most interesting man she ever met. “Most people are laid out nice and simple,” she says. “You always know what they’re thinking,” While Bush was “like this big old cave that just went deeper and deeper.”

Over the course of the film, we come to understand what she’s talking about, as, through the smallest of gestures, Duvall peels away the layers, revealing the love, pain, and regret that has brought him to this place.

Why did Bush opt out? Hang in? Turn off? By the end of the film you’ll have your answer. In between, you’ll chuckle, sigh, and marvel at the way these consummate actors wrap their minds around their characters. Bill Cobbs, who plays Reverend Jackson, a black preacher from another time and town, is superb, as are many of the supporting players. Likewise, the clothes, settings and accoutrement's are spot-on. Even the hearse is of the period.

At first glance, the idea of pairing Duvall and Murray may sound like a casting mismatch. But once you see the two of them on screen together, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. Their timing – particularly in the aforementioned funeral parlor scene, is as good as it gets. The script, which was written and polished by three different and totally devoted writers, is an example of saying more with less, as when Quinn asks Bush how he knows the widow Darrow. So controlled is Duvall’s body language, that it appears he hasn’t heard the question. Then, after a beat, comes the answer: “We had a go.”

“We had a go”? Perfect.

Such Coen brothers-like moments are counter-balanced with insightful scenes that give the viewer something to think about, as when Mattie and Felix talk about aging. “The list of people who are gone is getting longer and longer” laments Mattie, “and it seems like all I’m doing is just waiting for my number to be called.” “You can’t wait for anything,” replies a thoughtful and reflective Bush. “Close your eyes. Hold your breath. Stay in a spot all your life, but you’re still moving, like the world is-you know, moving under you. There’s no waiting.”

Out of context, such dialogue may sound a bit preachy. But every bit of it is there for a reason, moving the story and telling us a little bit more about the characters we’ve come to care about.

Get Low is funny, touching and thought provoking. And while it’s not exactly Hitchcock, it manages to keep you guessing. My only complaint deals with a moment towards the end of the film that is a bit over the top for my taste, but the rest of it is quite extraordinary.

Throughout a multitude of bonus features the production team talks about how hard it was to find financing for the film, despite the impressive cast. It seems that in a world hooked on blockbusters, teen idols and comic book heroes, the studios aren’t interested in story lines devoid of special effects and freshly scrubbed faces. Thank goodness the producers persevered until they found investors who recognized the value in this small but worthy film.

Although the movie was well received (“Get Low is Duvall’s Greatest High”—Variety), Get Low pulled in less than ten million dollars worldwide, and came and went without fanfare. There was a bit of early Oscar buzz, but when the time came, no nominations were bestowed. The only major – or not-so-major award went to Duvall, who took home the 2010 Hollywood Best Actor Award for his work.

I think the title may have, if you’ll excuse the expression, done them in, as the phrase “get low” is a bit too close to “down low” – urban/African American slang that more than likely put off some movie-goers. Whatever the reason, Get Low got lost in the shuffle. Gratefully, thanks to a growing after-sale market, you have the chance to literally check it out.

As with many of the movies I write about, Get Low isn’t perfect. You want perfect? watch The King’s Speech. It is, in my opinion, about as perfect as a film can get. But one film does not a lifetime of movie-watching make. Thankfully, tucked inside decades of imperfect films are exquisitely perfect performances. You’ll find several of them in this sorely neglected film , as when Bush steps to the mic at his funeral party and faces a sea of storytellers.

Get Low is a small, well drawn and executed, satisfying film that is filled with good performances and unforgettable moments. I hope you’ll seek it out. First time director Aaron Schneider, who could have easily been intimidated by the weight of his cast's credentials, did a masterful job of putting it all together, his background as a cinematographer serving him well during filming and in the editing room. Rent or buy the DVD and you'll be treated to all kinds of extras that will give you an even greater appreciation for the film and the people behind it. After you've heard what everyone had to say, watch it again. I think you'll find that Get Low gets even better the second time around.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The First Annual Food Find Edition

Most readers think of this blog as a movie site: a place where I expound on the virtues of some of the better, generally small, often foreign films and TV series available on DVD. But it has always been my intention to include the occasional food find, which is where the ‘pans2’ ( as in 'pots and pans') comes into play.

While I’ve included a food fav or two through the years, I’ve never actually devoted a full post to food finds until now. Over the past few weeks I’ve asked readers, friends and family to pass on their favorites, adding them to my own list. Some may be available in your area, others, not. But there’s a lot to choose from, and hopefully, you’ll come away with a whole list of exciting new products to check out. With that in mind, let's take Mr. Hammerstein's advice and "..start at the very beginning—a very good place to start."


Are you a cereal person? Let me recommend Kroger’s Muesli with raisins, dates and almonds (190 calories). This store brand costs about half as much as its big brand competitors, and is on sale more often than not. Moistened with a bit of cold milk, it is a great way to start the day.

Ever think of giving someone cereal as a gift? Probably not. But think again. offers top-quality, artisanal cereals that you can mix and match to create the perfect blend. You can even name the concoction. Include a favorite photo with your on-line order, and the meandgoji folks will put it right on the label. I did just that when I sent my brother Harry a box of “Harry’s Hoops” for his birthday.

Aside from the clever packaging, the Meandgoji folks deliver a quality product made of all-natural ingredients that are as healthy as they are interesting. Why not check out their website and take a look around?

Not a big cereal eater? One New England reader recommends Chobani [Greek style] Peach Yogurt. Individual servings sell for about $1.49.

If you’re more of a toast and coffee person, save your pennies and buy a loaf of Pane Turano Italian Bread from the Campagna-Turano Bakery Company. The two-pound, over-sized, gloriously round, crusty loaf comes pre-sliced. Put it in your freezer and take out a slice or two at a time. It is delicious toasted and topped with a favorite preserve and/or Fresh Market’s Lightly Salted Butter ($3.29 a pound), which, to my mind is a good bit better than its pricier Irish and European-style counterparts. Pane Turano Italian Bread comes packaged in a large see-through bag, and sells for just under six dollars a loaf.

Another Fresh Market favorite is their seeded rye. Baked on the premises, it is as close to the cracked crust rye bread of my youth as I can find in this area. A reader who grew up in Chicago is a fan of this aromatic bread for much the same reason.

Rather have a bagel? Try Pepperidge Farms Bagel Thins. These slender little pre-sliced rounds weigh in at 150 calories, as opposed to the oversized, exceedingly plump 250-plus-calorie bagels that seem to have taken over the country. While they don’t have the chewiness of boiled bagels (the kind you can still find in major city Jewish bakeries), and don’t deliver as much flavor as their full-blown, hip-hugging counterparts, they toast beautifully, stay warm longer and melt the butter or cream cheese right off your knife. While I generally go for poppy seed or pain full-sized bagels, I prefer the “Everything” variety of these Bagel Thins. Matched with a cup of hot coffee, they are a guilt-free canvas on which to spread your favorite spread.

But wait – there’s more! A Melrose Park, PA. reader begins her day with a Borreli Italian Cracker or two, over which she spreads a glistening layer of Sarabeth’s Apricot-Orange Marmalade. Discovered on a visit to Sarabeth's Manhattan eatery years ago, she immediately became a fan. Lucky for us, this made-in-Manhattan favorite is now available throughout the country.

It seems that there are quite a few good jams, jellies and preserves out there. From Sarasota comes word of an exceptional Croatian product known as Dalmatia Sour Cherry Spread. Filled with tiny cherries, our reader suggests that, in addition to spreading it over some good bread, you try drizzling a spoonful or two over ice cream, angel food cake or pancakes.

Earlier this year a friend gifted me with a jar his favorite spread: Bonne Maman Four-fruit Preserves. I have to admit that it was mighty tasty. My all-time personal favorite comes from Greaves of Historic Niagara, a family-owned business in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. I came across it years ago, at a now-defunct country inn, where it sat glistening in a round little jam bowl beside a basket of freshly-baked scones, a tub of sweet butter, and a pot of breakfast tea. While the rest of the Greaves line-up including their orange marmalade is fine, it is the Orange, Grapefruit and Lemon Marmalade I crave. In true Goldilocks fashion, it is just right—not too sweet and not too tart or bitter like some marmalades I’ve known. Hot out of the toaster, and matched with a lightly buttered English muffin, it is quite exceptional. Not going to Canada any time soon? No problem. Greaves products are available on for just under six dollars a jar.

For the bakers among you, comes word that Simon Fischer’s Golden Apricot butter and Lekvar Prune Butter (from Solo Industries) are not to be missed. My sister says they take pastries, cookies, hamentashen, rugelach and twists to a whole new level. She buys them by the case. According to Solo's website, you'll find them in supermarkets from one end of the country to the other. Major outlets include Kroger, Safeway, Publix, Albertsons, Acme, Giant, ShopRite, WinnDixie, and Ralph’s.


Longing for a schtickle of pickle? Puckers Pickle Company, Barrel Select Kosher Crunchy Deli Dills taste very much like the pickles of my youth; the ones my mother used to pluck from the pickle barrel in our neighborhood delicatessen. Crisp and crunchy, these pickles taste less like cukes and more like pickles – a good thing, in my opinion. You’ll find them in the refrigerated case in the Kosher food section of your supermarket. Whole or in spears, these chunky little dills are joy in a jar.

Like Pucker’s, Raffetto Chut Nut Chutney can add a little zip to an otherwise common meal, and is unlike any chutney I have had before or since I first tried it, It hasn’t been available in this city for some time, but it can be found with some ease on the eastern seaboard, and is just a call away from being shipped to your door.

I remember it with great fondness, sandwiched inside two slices of good bread and some home made roasted turkey or chicken. The company was purchased some years ago, and if you read consumer comments on the Internet, there is some question as to whether the chutney is made the same way it was before the sale. If you care to give it a try call IVB Foods at 1-877-IB Foods, 908-359-4050. While the product itself sells for around $5.00 a jar, the shipping (a minimum of $11,00, depending where you live), can make it cost-prohibitive. As with many mail-order food products, it pays to buy in bulk.

Into salsa? Who isn’t these days. Years ago – I’m talking twenty-plus years ago – I held a “blind” bottled salsa taste test. Tasters shuttled from one brand to the next – rating the spicy collection in order of preference. There were at least eight brands – maybe as many as ten to choose from, all decked out in festive bowls so as not to reveal their identity. The clear winner? Newman’s Own Medium Salsa. Not the pineapple version or other exotic alternates, this is the one that started it all. Please note: If you adore cilantro, Newman’s Own is not for you. That said, ice cold and married to a bowl of Dorito’s Nacho Cheese chips, it is, for my money, one of the best jarred salsas around.

And while we’re in the business of munching, may I suggest Fresh Market’s rice-stuffed grape leaves and red cherry peppers, which you’ll find along with a variety of olives and marinated this and that in their antipasto bar. The cigar-shaped rice packages are perfect for staving off hunger pangs before a formal dinner, and the peppers are both ‘lovely to look at”, and sweeter than the kind you’ll find in the majority of jarred peppers. I use them to perk up pasta, rice, salads, deli sandwiches and subs. If something needs a little kick, these cherry-red cherry-reds always seem to do the trick.

Cheese prices have really zoomed upwards over the past year or two, but who can resist a bite of extra sharp Cheddar or Swiss, a slice of creamy Brie, or a salad dressing made with a favorite blue? The next time you go for the gold, add a wedge of Morbier to your cheese plate. This French, semi-soft, cow’s milk cheese looks as good as it tastes, with a thin smoky ribbon of ash stretching delicately across its middle. Rich and creamy, with a hint of a bitter after-taste, it spreads well, and stands up to some of the more flavor-intense crackers.

Which brings me to a tasty little seeded 8-grain by Dare. Packaged in a bright red box, Vinta Original Flavor Crackers can be found at your local supermarket. Modestly priced (I recently found them sale-priced at two for four dollars), these wonderful crackers pump up the flavor when paired with everything from Boursin’s Garlic and Herb Cheese Spread to a fancy shmantzy canapé. They are, without a doubt, my cracker of choice for all things savory.

Looking for something a bit more exotic? Margaret’s Roasted Garlic and Chive Artisan Flatbread is one of the best. Rest a slice of your favorite cheese on this bumpy but beautiful flatbread and prepare to swoon. Packaged in near foot-long pieces, you can break them up and arrange them artfully into a bread bowl, or just eat them right out of their see-through bag.

When I was a girl, vinegar was vinegar. Clear, cheap and magnificent when mixed with vegetable oil and a little garlic salt, celery salt and pepper. Admittedly, that was in the Dark Ages, long before Martha and Bobby and Rachael shunned it in favor of more exciting options. Over the years I added cider and wine vinegar to my pantry, but it wasn’t until I was introduced to balsamic vinegar that I found my true love.

I can remember our first meeting. I was in a trendy little Italian restaurant, seated at a table overlooking the first floor. My eyes drifted away from the who’s who below, and rested upon a little bottle of the mysterious liquid. I had to ask the waiter what it was, and what one would do with it. Now this was some twenty-plus years ago, before the Food Network turned us all into top chefs, and I didn’t quite know what to make of it. But once smitten, I never looked back.

If you haven’t tried balsamic vinegar – real balsamic vinegar, you’re long overdue. It is richer and sweeter and – for want of a better word—thicker than other vinegars, which makes it a perfect addition to salads, soups, sauces and marinades.

To qualify as real balsamic vinegar it must come from Modena, Italy, and be at least 10 years old. You’ll find lots of cheaper caramel-colored look-alikes on your local supermarket shelf, but be forewarned. Real balsamic and fake balsamic vinegar have little in common. It’s kind of like the difference between butter and margarine.

My favorite among the brands that don't require taking out a loan, is Lapeana Balsamic Vinegar. It's not cheap, (somewhere around $17.00 for 8.4 ounces) but it is so worth it—especially when compared to white distilled vinegar. But here’s the thing: It is delicious. Truly delicious. What’s more, this particular brand of balsamic vinegar comes in a charming round glass bottle that once empty, makes a perfect vase you’ll enjoy using for years to come.

Lunch time, dinner time, party time, anytime is a good time for hot wings, though I’m about to recommend an unlikely choice. Banquet (yes, Banquet) Hot & Spicy Wings cost about two dollars less than Friday’s offering, while delivering a lot more chicken, and just as much, if not more flavor. For less than $4.00 a box you get 15-to-16 good-sized pieces that bake up crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. Serve them with blue cheese or ranch dressing and celery and carrot sticks, or all by their lonesome. They reheat nicely, and at 270 calories for 4 wings, they’re a tasty alterative to their fast-food cousins.

Looking for something a little spicier? Zateran’s Frozen Blackened Chicken and Pasta Dinner fills the bill. I’m not generally a fan of New Orlean’s-type fare, but along with Cherchere’s seasoning, this hearty microwavable entrée delivers the goods. The pieces of chicken are fairly sizeable and loaded with flavor. Served with a salad, it sets the bar for frozen chicken entrees.

Pizza lover? Who isn’t. Today’s frozen pies are a far cry from their cardboard forefathers, many of them as good or better than those served at your local pizzeria. Yet and still, if you’re looking for something a little different, I urge you to try American Flatbread’s Ionian Awakening, a marvelous combination of tomato sauce, four cheeses, red onion, Kalamata olives, garlic and rosemary. A 9-inch, individual-size pie is a party for one. Available in health food stores and larger supermarkets for somewhere around $8.49, you need only look at the ingredients to understand why it costs more than other pies of their size. Year before I found them, A New York Times food aficionado noted that American Flatbread was the best frozen pizza out there. They come in two sizes, depending upon the toppings, and are packed in white pizza boxes with colorful artwork on top.

While you may not think of Walmart as the gourmet capital of the world, I found a very tasty tilapia dinner in their frozen fish section. Fishin’ Forever’s Tilapia Mango Tango from their Delitefuls collection, is a fragrant combination of tilapia, white rice, red pepper, snap peas and edamname in a tangy mango sauce. Boasting 17g of protein, and zero grams of transfat, it is satisfying while weighing in at a skinny 250 calories! With two separately-wrapped portions per package, and priced to please, Tilapia Mango Tango far outshines Delitefuls’ other entrees which run the gamut (in my not-so-humble opinion) from “okay” to “no way.”

Crazy about Sole food? One reader is hooked on Oven Poppers Crab Stuffed Sole, which, like the afore-mentioned Tilapia, delivers two individually-wrapped portions per package. She buys them at Schnuck’s (A St. Louis-based chain), but according to their home office, aside from Florida and Wisconsin, you’ll find them at BJ’s Wholesale Clubs, Price Choppers, Stop & Shop, Giant, Eagle and Dominics and a bunch of smaller stores around the country.

Like shrimp? While you’re shopping for stuffed grape leaves, cherry peppers, bread and butter at Fresh Market, head over to the seafood counter and buy a handful of their frozen large or jumbo pre-cooked shrimp. I don’t know where they get them – but they’re big and firm and succulent and loaded with flavor. I keep a supply in the freezer, and when I don’t feel like cooking or turning on the oven, I just run some cold water over them, pop them into a big bowl, hit them with a splash of fresh lemon juice and, if I’m in the mood, sprinkle a little Tony Chechere’s Creole Seasoning over them. After that it’s just a matter of dipping them into some tried and true Heinz Cocktail Sauce. Four stars.

Our last fish find isn’t for everyone, as gefilte fish is one of those foods that is, to say the least, an acquired taste. If you didn’t grown up eating gefilte fish (pronounced gah-fil-tah), chances are you are not going to like it. But – if you did, and do, have I got a jar for you!

Meal Mart Gefilte Fish is unique in that, unlike most other brands, you don’t have to doctor it. It tastes absolutely great as is. Just put it in the frig and let it chill. Served with a square of crisp fresh buttered matzo and some red beet horseradish, you’ve got a meal to remember.


Pronounced "keen-wa", this healthy grain has apparently been around forever, although I hadn't heard of it until my sister mentioned it in passing recently. Her brand of choice is Ancient Harvest Quinoa Pasta, which she vows is a tasty, low fat, low-sodium alternative to spaghetti. The company’s website notes that “Quinoa contains more protein than any other grain; an average of 16.2 percent compared with 7.5 percent for rice, 9.9 percent for millet, and 14 percent for wheat.” reports that many in the culinary community refer to it as the ‘super grain of the future.’ It isn’t often that something that’s good for you tastes good too. Try it, and let me know what you think.

I know that summer is fast approaching, but I had to include this most unlikely find. If, like me, you like an occasional bowl of chili but don’t want to go to all the trouble of starting from scratch, pick up a can of Bush’s Best Chili Magic Chili Starter (Traditional mild). It, along with a pound of browned ground chuck, makes great chili in no time, and when topped with some shredded sharp cheddar and a dollop of sour cream, the results are extremely satisfying. Spice it up for more of a kick, or eat it as-is. Die-hard chili fans, will undoubtedly be horrified by the very thought of using a pre-packaged mix, but I’ll tell you, on a cold rainy or snowy day, it really hits the spot.


So Cal, Low Cal or No-Cal, the carbonated beverage market has exploded, with more brands than you can shake a bottle at. Last year I discovered an amazing melon-flavored soda at a speciality market, only to find that it had been discontinued shortly thereafter. This next ‘find’ is far less trendy than the afore mentioned melon variety, but it tastes great and it's a great buy.

I'm talking about Kroger's Dr. K Diet Soda , and obvious knock-off of Dr. Pepper's no-cal product. It looks and tastes remarkably like the original, but is a good bit cheaper. Their diet grape—if you can find it— isn’t bad either.

While you’re at Kroger, head over to the refrigerated beverage case, where you’ll find a jug of their Apple Juice. In my thirsty opinion, this juice is a far better than any of the brands I grew up with. And because it’s a store brand, it goes on sale all the time. What’s more, it goes down cool on a hot summer day, and isn’t overly sweet, like some brands I know.

Back in late March or early April, I was disspointed to find that my local market was out of Dunkin' Donuts Original Blend coffee . While that section of the shelf was empty, the next row, featuring their new Dunkin' Donuts Turbo coffee was well-stocked. I decided to give it a try.

It instantly became a 'must-have' - even though the price is a bit daunting. I spent a lot of years trying store brands, coffee shop grinds, and major old-time favorites. I ground my own beans, ordered online, and used some gift cards to get what had to be the most expensive pound of coffee ever - and the most bitter - at the largest sit-down-and-spend-your-entire fortune coffee shops in the world.

None of these blends came anywhere near Turbo's rich, full taste. The fact that it's not bitter, and goes with just about everything, is worth the price. The Duncan Donuts folks have been pushing it pretty hard on TV lately. But I'm proud to say that in this case, I was the first kid on the block to try it. If you like coffee, you'll love Turbo. Despite its name, I don't believe it has any more caffiene than the other guys. And it is unbeleivably good. By the way - it's at least a dollar cheaper - often more - at Walmart.

As the days grow longer and hotter, we tend to put hot tea on the back burner. But I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about two of my favorite blends. The first, PG TIPS is advertised as "Britain’s top selling tea” – and rightly so. It’s a pure tea, which is to say that unless you keep the teabag in your cup or pot overnight, it won’t be bitter. I love it with a bit of Australian honey instead of sugar or sugar substitute.

I am also a fan of The Republic of Tea, but like so many things these days, you have to take out a second mortgage to by a tin of these round little teabags. However, if you truly love a good cuppa, you might want to invest in a tin of their Ginger Peach longevity tea. I’m not a big ginger person, but it is so subtle, and so perfect, I can’t imagine it any other way. Their Wild Berry Plum tea bags are also a favorite of mine, but I don’t think there’s a bad batch in the bunch, which includes a wide variety of regular and decafinated white, red, green and black tea.


Who doesn’t love ice cream? We all have our favorites. A year or so ago I cued you in to GAGA ice cream (no relation to Lady G). I still think they make a great product, but I have to say that Graeter’s Dark Raspberry Chip is even better. It just became available in this area, but you can buy it online if you’re feeling flush, or in one of their stores, if you live in Ohio, Minneapolis or Indiana, where it is a household word. I grew up with Breyers, and still love Bryers Vanilla Fudge Twirl and Peach. I'm also nuts about Haagen Dazs Vanilla Swiss Almond. They're all delicious, and fairly weighty. A half a cup of Haagen Daz will cost you 300 calories. Graeters weighs in at 260.

If you’re looking for something less caloric, a Boston reader recommends Skinny Cow Chocolate Truffle bars. She says she’s addicted, but at just 100-calories per bar, and 3 grams of fiber, who cares? Pick up a pack of six. And remember, you’re not getting wider, you’re getting healthier. Here – have two!

With more than forty products to temp your taste buds, I think you'll be busy trying new and exciting finds for
a good while. But, before I wrap things up, I have one more find to pass along as we say good-bye to May: a time when barbecue fans around the world head for Memphis, for the International Barbecue Contest.

I came across Neely’s Memphis Style Honey Kissed Barbeque Sauce quite by accident a few weeks ago, as I poked around the "Bent and Dent" section of my neighborhood supermarket. Manufactured by the Neely family (stars of one of the Food Network's most popular shows), it called to me. Over the years I’ve found some wonderful products in the Bent and Dent section: products I would have never otherwise known about or tried.

That bottle sat in my cupboard until this afternoon, waiting patiently for me to remember it was there. I had been trying to decide what to do with a half-rack of ribs I’d brought home for the holiday weekend, finally deciding to go back to a recipe I’d tried years ago from Sylvia’s Soul Food cookbook. The last and only time I’d made the recipe was on an overnight camping trip, when we’d cooked our ribs over a grill. I say ‘camping trip' – we stayed in a cabin, but it was in the woods, and the grill was one of those permanent outdoorsy numbers that makes you feel like you’ve really got pork “chops.”

Anyway, Sylvia’s sauce was delicious, as were the ribs it was slathered over, but as I surveyed my cabinets, I came up short on several fronts. Not enough this. Outdated that. It clearly wasn’t going to work. And then, I remembered the Neely’s sauce, and decided to marry Sylvia's marinade and rub with the Neely's sauce. The results were spectacular.

First, I cleaned the ribs, removing the thin white connective tissue on the back with the tip of a paring knife. Then I seasoned them on both sides with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes – being careful not to overdo the flakes.

I wrapped the ribs in foil, and put them back in the frig for about 5 hours. Sylvia’s recipe called for them to hang in there overnight, but since I wanted to eat them for dinner tonight, that just wasn’t possible. No matter, five hours turned out to be more than enough time.

Just before I was ready to cook the ribs, I turned the oven to 450 degrees, and while I was waiting for it to reach the desired temperature I took out a metal pan, and lined it (sides and all) with heavy-duty foil for easy clean-up. Then I put the ribs in the pan, and poured enough apple cider vinegar around them to go about half way up the sides. Sylvia’s original recipe called for white wine vinegar, but I didn’t have white wine vinegar, and the apple cider vinegar worked wonderfully.

After about 40 minutes, I took the pan out of the oven, and turned the ribs over. As I was only making half a rack, they were already well on their way to being ready for the next step. So, after ten more minutes (instead of Sylvia’s hour-and-a-half) I turned the oven down to 400, took the pan of ribs out, poured out the vinegar, and poured a little Neely’s barbeque sauce over both sides of the ribs. Then I put the ribs back in the oven, meaty side, up.
Ten minutes later I took them out and poured a little more sauce on top before popping them back in the oven for a final ten-minute bake.

They were so good. I mean, really good. "Let-me-write-the-recipe-down-so-that-I-can-make-them again" good. Try them out and see how they fit. I know I haven't given you an exact amount of salt, pepper, flakes or vinegar, but the thing is, it depends on how many ribs you're cooking, and how spicy you like them. All I can tell you is, that at least on this day, at this time, with this sauce and this method, the pork was so tender, it came clear off the bone with no trouble at all.

So that's it. I want to thank those of you who shared your favorite food finds. Hope to see you here next time, when I’ll be back with another DVD selection. Meanwhile, I suggest you cook up a slab or two of those pork ribs, and pig out.

Till the next time…

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

I Served the King of England

This 2006 Czechoslovakian import is an odd little film. In some ways, its quirky script and offbeat sense of humor remind me of The Coen Brothers' films. In other ways, it could very well be taken for a Merchant Ivory piece, in that it is magnificently filmed, divinely cast with a wonderful assortment of character actors, sophisticated, charming, and historically thought-provoking. Filled with imaginative but relatively small special effects (no parting of the Red Sea here), it is also appalling, as the central character’s political leanings have him literally sleeping (or at least bedding down) with the enemy.

As the movie opens, we meet Jan Dítě (Oldrich Kaiser), a fifty-something ex-con, who will serve as our narrator and focus for the next two hours. It is 1963, and Dítě has just been released from a Czech prison, after some fifteen years. Dispatched to a war-torn, long-deserted village on the Czech/German border, he needs no key to open the door of his government-issued home—a shell of a place in need of just about everything. As Jan goes about rebuilding it – and his life, he mentally revisits the circumstances that brought him to this place. His musings take us back to the late 1930s, when he was a young man in search of two things: great wealth and great women.

The young Jan, as played by Ivan Barnev, is impish - almost Chaplinesque in his movements. Short in stature (His name – Dítě - literally means “child” in Czechoslovakian) but long on ambition, he pursues his dreams with gusto, opportunism and slight-of-hand. An early encounter with a salesman who admires his unorthodox methods, evolves into a friendship/mentoring of sorts, leading to a series of positions as a waiter in some of the best hotels, spas and resorts in the country.

With each situation comes more power, more money and more women. As the film moves effortlessly between the past and present, we learn more about this often naive, fiercely ambitious, ever-clever young man and the times, while the reason behind his recent incarceration remains a mystery.

The film’s title refers not to Jan, but another mentor (the Maître d', Skřivánek)—at the exclusive Hotel Paříž in Prague. Skřivánek’s claim to fame? The 'fact' that he once served the King of England, and has an uncanny sense of intuition, knowing a customer’s financial situation, and food preference before he or she sits down to dine.

Over time, the ever-opportunistic Dítě acquires both experience and recognition, albeit at a price. Shunned by his countrymen, barely tolerated by the Germans he serves, he does what he has to, to become a millionaire.

Humor runs rampant here, even as the political climate darkens with the 1938 German occupation of Czechoslovakia. This is a side of the war seldom seen in film, as Jan’s political leanings and romantic yearnings lead him to marry and buy into Hitler’s agenda regarding the creation of a “master race”.

While there are many humorous moments in this movie, one scene in particular involving a bed, a portrait and a fuhrer-loving young lady, is laugh-out loud funny. Mel Brooks funny. I can’t believe I’m laughing at this, funny. It is –as I said– an odd little film, loaded with irony, small moments and events that lead to one of the all-time cinematic twists of fate: a gem of a plot point that this reviewer did not see coming.

Filmed in Prague and the surrounding area, I Served the King of England has much to recommend it, including a marvelous cast and terrific script by director Jiri Menzel and the late Bohumil Hrabal-whose novel provided the source material. Add to that a visually-stunning movie full of great settings and sets, beautiful women, mouth-watering food sequences and a satisfying conclusion. It is not to be missed.

And speaking of missing things – Some picsandpans2 followers have missed the occasional food find. That being the case, and as the ‘pans’ in 'picsandpans' refers to such culinary delights, I plan to devote my next posting to some of the more interesting and purchase-worthy foods I've come across over the past year. Aside from a few local offerings, most are available throughout the country. Until then, you’ll have to feast on great movies like this one. Bon Appetit!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg!

Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg! takes those of us over the age of fifty back to the black and white days of television, when Gertrude Berg brought her well-loved radio show to CBS.

Berg was the Oprah of her day: the first woman to create, produce, write and star in her own vehicle, the first to win an Emmy for her efforts, and the first to lose a top-ten show for refusing to fire one of her cast members.

For those of you who are too young or didn’t have access to a TV back in the 1950s, I offer a little background. If Berg was, as I suggest, the Oprah of her day, she was also the Tina Feye of her generation: a woman who not only acted but wrote the episodes she appeared in, first on radio, and then TV.

A supreme business woman, Gertrude Berg barreled her way onto the small screen as Molly Goldberg – a Jewish immigrant who shared a cozy apartment with her husband Jake, two very American teenage children (Rosalie and Sammy), and Molly’s brother David, or “Uncle David” as he was most often called.

The Goldbergs lived happily in the Bronx, a working class, New York neighborhood where neighbors regularly raised their windows in order to converse with their friends across the alley (“Yoo-Hoo! Mrs. Goldberg!"), and everyday problems were gently and creatively solved in thirty minutes.

The documentary begins with Berg’s own story, which was a good bit darker –at least in her formative years, than the fictional one she would later create. We learn of her mother’s decent into mental illness, and her father’s inability to make a decent living or support his daughter’s dreams.

It wasn’t until she met and married Englishman Lewis Berg that her life took a happy turn. A staunch supporter of his young bride's ambitions, the chemical engineer moved the family to New York city, where his wife could hone her craft. by 1929 Gertrude had won a spot on the NBC radio network, with a daily show she dubbed The Rise of the Goldbergs.

The show quickly morphed into The Goldbergs, a 15-minute slice of newly-American pie. Like Levy’s Rye, you didn’t have to be Jewish to love it. An instant hit, it demanded nearly all of Berg’s time, as she went about the task of rehearsing and performing by day, and writing the next day’s episode by night, with just an hour or two break for dinner with her family.

The Goldbergs transitioned into television in 1949, moving to its Monday nighttime slot on CBS. It was the first situation comedy of the new medium, and would earn Berg an Emmy as the first woman to receive an Emmy for her work in a comedy series.

Like Arthur Godfrey, Gertrude Berg delivered the sponsor’s commercials as if they were part of the show. In her case, that meant resting Molly’s ample arms on her dining room windowsill and touting the virtues of Sanka Instant Coffee.

But Yoo Yoo Mrs. Goldberg is more than just another nostalgic look at television’s so-called “Golden Age”, with the documentary taking you down the dark and winding road of McCarthyism. At the height of the show's popularity, Philip Loeb -Jake to Gertrude's Molly, was labeled a communist sympathizer, blacklisted and forced to resign. Berg stood by him, but to no avail. In the end her loyalty would cost her dearly. Though it consistently won its time slot, and Sanka’s sponsorship translated into a 50% spike in sales, the show was cancelled, replaced by a new sit com featuring a thirty-something red head and her Cuban bandleader husband.

Depressed, and unable to get work of any kind, Philip Loeb would take his own life, and The Goldbergs would languish in nowhereland for nearly two years before being picked up by another network. But by then it’s time had come and gone.

Gratefully, a few old kinescopes have survived. You’ll find segments of some, (one of which features a young unknown by the name of Anne Bancroft), along with a terrifically clever episode built around the naming of a new baby, on the bonus disc. Other goodies include Berg’s appearance on Person to Person with Edward R. Morrow, a lengthy narrative on Ed Sullivan’s Christmas show, insights from some of Berg’s now-grown grand children, family photos, home movies and words of Molly-sparked wisdom from the likes of Norman Lear and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

The package also includes a totally unrelated piece of film that the producer/writer Aviva Kempner felt compelled to include, and an embarrassing series of outtakes featuring Kempner’s family shouting “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg!” into the camera.

Despite this last piece of nonsense, if you can get past the original show’s crudely drawn graphics and outdated pace, you'll find a wealth of information and entertainment in this two-disc series. And while Yoo-Hoo Molly Goldberg isn't everyone's bowl of borscht, if you have an interest in the origins of the situation comedy, feminism, Jewish culture, New York in the 1950s or the infamous black list, you’ll find much to think about in this well-researched tribute.

As for the show itself, compared to today's slick pace quick cuts, and edgy humor, it will appear more-than-a-bit dated. But that's all right, at least, with me. Eli Mintz as Uncle David, and Gertrude Berg bring so much heart to each episode, you'll wonder how so many have forgotten them. This, along with the fact that the look, feel, and lessons learned in their home and as seen from Molly's window, are still magical, all these years later.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Cairo Time

Given the fact that Cairo has barreled its way to the top of the world news this week, it seems like a good time to introduce you to a small but beautifully made film called Cairo Time.

Written and directed by Canadian Ruba Nidda, it is one of those films that grows on you, which is to say that when I initially watched it, I found it a bit slow, its plot simple, and dialogue sparse. And yet, this quiet little story stuck with me. The bonus section of the DVD was instrumental in opening my eyes and mind to what an interesting film it really was, in that both the interviewer and the actors brought out points that I had not considered: points well worth examining. Even more so now than when I first saw it some months ago.

As one film critic so eloquently put it, Cairo Time is “a slow walk through ancient landscape.” It is the simple story of American Juliette Grant, an empty nester who happens to be a magazine editor, though far removed in temperament from someone like Vogue’s Anna Wintour, (as immortalized in Merle Streep’s Miranda Priestly in 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada. Though, as portrayed by Patricia Clarkson, she might just as well been a housewife, schoolteacher or shopkeeper. She is, in fact, the wife of UN diplomat Mark Grant, (Tom McCamus) who has been working in Gaza, where he oversees a refugee camp.

When the film opens our heroine - the fair-haired, fifty-year-old Juliette, is going through Customs, having flown from the states to meet Mark for a vacation in Cairo, but soon finds that circumstance within the camp are such that he can’t get away. He sends former U.N. employee Tareq Khalifa (played by a then 44–year-old Alexander Siddig), in his stead. Tareq is a gentle soul, who resigned his post under Mark to take over his father’s coffee shop. Tareq is Muslim. An Arab―someone Sidding described back in 2009 as being a direct contradiction to the more violent roles he has played in the past. With Juliette left to fend for herself, Tareq takes on the role of guide and friend. And over time, bonds between the two are formed, affections are felt, and choices are made.

The going is slow here – the film could almost be called Real Time rather than Cairo Time. We are given a chance to see the relationship between Juliette and Tareq grow. Had there been quick cuts, and a faster pace, we would not have felt the same way about these two people, which is to say that in this case, slow is a good thing.

What we do see is a city that is hot, crowded, dirty and a bit frightening on one hand, and beautiful and calm on the other. Pyramids can be seen in the not-too-distant distance; children and goats mix and mingle with cars and businessmen.

The plot basically revolves around how Juliette spends her time as she waits for her detained but devoted husband to return to Cairo so that, among other things, they can see the Pyramids together. It is a tale of restraint and affection, where things are insinuated rather than investigated. Though, at 37, writer/director Nidda was somewhat younger than her middle-aged characters, she skillfully and quietly managed to inhabit their dilemmas, thoughts, and decisions. In the DVD’s accompanying Q&A, both she and the film’s stars note that this story wouldn’t have worked had the characters been younger. "When you’re older," notes Siddig, “you worry about mistakes more. Acts become more significant and have more at stake.” And so this is a romantic story where the smallest of gestures divulge great affection.

Never having been to Egypt, I found the vistas and pictorials fascinating – a tribute to both the land and cinematographer Luc Montpellier. One has to wonder what it will look like once the dust has cleared.

Siddig is handsome, warm, and attractive in a non-movie star way. Up until now he has, apparently, played more volatile characters. In the DVD’s bonus piece he says that he hopes that people who see this film will come to know that while there are those whose motives are not pure, there are many more good, kind and giving men in that part of the world.

The fact that Cairo is currently in chaos makes this 2009 film all the more interesting. While Juliette’s safety is a concern, and the volatility of the area underscored by her husband’s absence and a brief but frightening bus scene, it is not a political film as such– at least I didn’t see it that way. But now, as word comes that statues of Tutankhamun and other irreplaceable antiquities have been damaged or destroyed by looters over the past few days, the images captured in this 2009 film take on a new importance.

In and of itself, Cairo Time won’t win any awards. Some reviewers criticize the director for choosing to avoid the trendier side of the city. Others point to the fact that Alexander Sidding’s accent is not that of an Egyptian, and Clarkson’s attire is politically incorrect – particularly given the fact that she works for a fashion magazine and would be aware of such things. Despite those and other perceived flaws,I believe it is worth seeing, for no other reason than that every now and again we need to get away from the highly predictable, formula romantic pics where strangers meet and fall into each other’s arms, despite the consequences.

Slow? Yes. This movie is slow. But, as Ms. Clarkson put it, "the silences are earned" here. For it is what is not said that makes Cairo Time a movie to remember.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Mid-August Lunch

While other folks were sifting through the ever-shrinking Sunday paper, preparing for the coming work week or whisking the last vestiges of food off the city’s supermarket shelves in anticipation of a major snowfall, I was watching Mid-August Lunch, a 2008 75-minute labor of love the New York Times referred to as "a luminous sliver of a film."

What this Italian trifle lacks in size and scope, it makes up in charm. It is the simple tale of an unemployed middle-aged fellow name Gianni (Gianni Di Gregorio) who lives with Valeria, his ninety-three year old, strong-willed mother in their working class neighborhood condo.

Forget your idea of what a condo should look like. This one is old and dilapidated, with neither air conditioning or doorman. The pint-sized apartment is devoid of granite counter tops and flat-screen TVs. The paint is chipping. The air is thick. The stove is dated and the elevator is rickety. It couldn’t cost much to live there, and yet as we soon find out, hard times have kept Gianni from paying his share of the condominium fees for over three years, and the natives are restless.

As the film opens, it is mid summer – August – and the day before Pranzo di Ferragosto, one of those sun-soaked holidays where residents head for someplace other than their place to celebrate. Gianni and his mother are two of the few who remain, she, watching her pint-sized portable TV, he, nursing his mild heart condition with a glass of wine or two or three. When condo manager Luigi knocks, Valeria fails to answer, not so much for fear of strangers, but because she knows Luigi is there to collect.

With no money to offer, and much to be gained, a bargain is struck. Luigi is itching to get out of town, but can’t leave his elderly mother (Marina) alone. If Gianni will ‘baby sit’ her for the next day or so, he will forgive his debt. Sounds like a plan, and so it is that Gianni and Valeria agree to welcome Luigi’s mother (Marina Cacciotti) with – if not open arms, than at least, a sofa bed’s-worth of comfort and some of Gianni’s tasty vitals.

But wait – there’s more! Luigi arrives not only with Mama Marina, but Auntie Maria (Maria Calì) who, it turns out, has a wee bit of dementia. But there’s no turning back, and Gianni’s heart begins to pound from the stress.

Fast forward, as the doctor arrives – allaying Gianni’s fears that he is having a heart attack, and promising a full work up after the holiday (“if”) Gianni will tend to the doc’s elderly mother (Grazia Cesarini Sforza) while he does a holiday hospital shift. There’s nothing to say but “Yes”, and soon Grazia arrives, complete with a full list of do’s, don’ts and medications she must take throughout the day.

And so it is that this little apartment becomes a home for the aged literally overnight, – with each of the four ladies trying to carve out her own place in the pecking order. As the exasperated Gianni, writer/director Di Gregorio is low key and totally believable, as are the four ladies who make up the list of major players in this winsome little film.

It's interesting to note that the idea for this film came from personal experience. It seems that despite the fact that Di Gregorio was married with children, his aging mother expected him to leave his family and take care of her in her small apartment. And because he was a good Mediterranean-born son, he did just that for the better part of a decade.

As Gregorio's condominium debts grew, the manager approached him with a proposition similar to the one made in the film. If Di Gregorio would pop downstairs each day and play a game of cards with the manager's aging mom, the debt would be forgiven.

Unlike Gianni, Di Gregorio declined. He said there was no way he could manage it, but over the years he thought about what would have happened had he agreed. The script for Mid-August Lunch grew out of such contemplations.

It took a long time to get this movie made. As with other films about the elderly (Driving Miss Daisy comes to mind) investors weren't anxious to produce a film about 'old people.' When financing did come through, it was very limited, which was one of the main reasons non-professionals were recruited.

In fact, the only professional in the troupe is Alfonso Santagata, who shines in the role of the condo manager. Gianni’s friend Viking was played by Luigi Marchett, a lifelong friend of Di Gregorio's. Similarly, the role of the doctor is played by his friend and physician, who used his notes on his own mother's care as a prop.

Of the four women in Lunch, only one had anything close to an acting credit prior to filming. Even Di Gregorio was a novice. He became the 'star' of the piece when the actor he had hoped to secure bowed out. With money tight, and time a wasting, the producers suggested that he take on the role, which, they pointed out, called for a middle-aged man who liked his wine, had lived with his mother as an adult, and knew what it was like to be in debt.

Making life easier for all involved, Di Garegorio allowed the ladies to use their own first names in the film, along with some personal keepsakes. Other treasured props include a tablecloth and crockery from his mother's apartment, which, as you may have guessed by now, is the very same apartment you see on screen. The owners gladly gave him permission to shoot there, in hopes that if the film actually made any money, Di Garegorio would finally be able to pay off the last of his condo debts.

The resulting film is a happy mix of home-style Italian cooking, unlikely friendships and gentle humor. Bonus-section treats include an interview with De Garegorio and a trip down memory lane, as the writer/director/actor visits with each of his unassuming co-stars. These one-on-one in-home conversations give you an idea of how much the ladies got out of their unexpected burst of fame, at a time when they least expected it.

Mid-August Lunch, like other films I have featured here, is far from a perfect piece. It is, at times slow, and the cinematography won’t win any awards. But the fact that it isn’t slick, has no quick cuts or deep conversations and lacks any star power, makes it all the more charming and worth while.

Short and not altogether sweet, funny and touching, this Italian treat is one of life’s simple pleasures.

Sometimes less really is more.