Thursday, December 13, 2012


Last year at just about this time, I introduced you to a film called Joyeux Noel. Based on fact, it revolved around a 1941 World War I Christmas truce, as seen through the eyes of French, German and Scottish soldiers.

One year later, I find myself writing about another wartime film, 2009’s Glorious 39. I was drawn to this British import by its extraordinary cast of personal favorites, including Julie Christie – Dr. Zhivago’s “Laura”, Hugh Bonneville of Downton Abbey fame, and Bill Nighy, who first came to my attention as the woozy over-the-hill rocker in Love Actually.

Writer/director Stephen Poliakoff wrote Glorious 39 with Nighy in mind, having worked with him twice before. But it is Romala Garai, who is the star of the piece, as she is in nearly every frame.

Far from a perfect movie, the film is still worth watching for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it looks into the whys and wherefores of the appeasement movement, a subject that is often sidelined by other WWII films.

Promoted by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in the late nineteen thirties, appeasement was championed by those who believed that by making certain concessions, or as historian Paul Kennedy put it, "satisfying grievances through rational negotiation and compromise”, Great Britain could avoid war with Nazi Germany.

Many of those who were directly involved in the movement had served in World War I - the memory of the horrors of war, still fresh in their collective minds. The thought of another war following so closely on its heels was unthinkable, and to be avoided at all costs. Those words – “at all costs” – found so-called “good” people doing very bad things for what they believed to be the greater good.

Judging them and their motives now, with the benefit of hindsight, gives the viewer a decided advantage. But at the time, they believed that there was no way Great Britain could outfight Germany. For them, (particularly those on the top financial and social tiers of society), appeasement was a viable alternative to almost certain defeat, and the demise of a lifestyle to which they had become accustomed.

Apparently historians are still debating the issue, but for me at least, this film, fictional though it may be, sheds some light on the times, temperament and transgressions of the people within the movement.

Taking its title from what has been described as the picture-perfect summer of 1939, Glorious 39 begins on a stunningly beautiful afternoon in mid-August. We are in the low lands of Norfolk, some 100 miles east London. Here,on the grounds of a grand country estate, where everything is as it has been for decades,seemingly undisturbed by the dark, foreboding under-current of the approaching ‘storm'.

We watch as a small cluster of young people play some sort of harmless war game amidst the stones and sheds that dot the property. And then, in one digi-second, we are transported to 2009, where, on a tony London street, a young boy by the name of Michael Walton (Toby Regbo) calls on Walter and Oliver Page, his two elderly cousins. It is the first time the brothers have seen the boy since he was a toddler, and they are obviously and humorously unraveled by his visit.

Michael explains that he has sought them out in order to solve a family mystery involving his great aunt, Anne Keyes (Romola Garai), a beautiful young actress who disappeared during the first days of World War II. The brothers, it seems, are the only surviving members of the family who are old enough to have been there when she disappeared.

Decidedly uncomfortable with the idea of revisiting those fateful days, Walter is hesitant. “It’s not always a good place to go, Michael – the past” he warns, but back we go, to Norfolk, and the great estate, where the youngsters we saw earlier, slightly older now in their late teens and early twenties, are showing some friends around the grounds of the Keyes family’s country estate.

We hear Walter’s voice over their laughter and mindless chatter, as he recalls the summer of thirty-nine.

WALTER: “It was the most glorious summer most people could remember for a very long time. The year before it seemed that the war with Germany had been averted a policy of appeasing Hitler and reasoning with him really had worked. And even now, it seemed it might still work.”

And now we are there. The sky is blue. The sun is warm. The view is to die for. In the center of the grounds we see a large tent dressed, ready and waiting in quiet anticipation. It is one of those willowy-romantic affairs that speaks of a privileged lifestyle. Inside its billowy walls, a formal table covered in crisp white linen is set with crystal stemware and fine china, as staff, family and invited guests await the arrival of Sir Alexander Keyes (Bill Nighy), the family patriarch. It is Sir Alexander’s birthday, and no expense has been spared, no napkin, plate or goblet left unturned for what will certainly be a night to remember.

We learn that Sir Alexander, a well-respected member of the House of Commons, has, over time, chosen to take a back seat in the political hierarchy for health reasons that are never explored. And yet we are told, he still wields considerable influence. Charming, noble - writer of books and giver of speeches, he is, by all accounts a man to be admired. A family man who loves and is loved by his wife and children. His eldest, Michael’s great aunt Anne, was adopted by Alexander and his wife Maud some twenty years before, believing that they were incapable of having children of their own. To their great surprise, a few months after Anne’s arrival, Maud became pregnant with a son they would name Ralph (Eddie Rayme), and later, a daughter named Celia (Juno Temple).

Now in her late teens, Celia looks up to her twenty-something older sister, whom she views as living a wildly romantic life both on and off the screen. Brother Ralph, who has followed his father into government service, is extremely fond of Anne as well, although there is an inescapable competitiveness his part. Yet and still, this is a loving, family, where Anne is treated as an equal. There are even times when it would appear that she holds a special place in her father’s heart.

As portrayed by Bill Nighy, Sir Alexander outwardly views the times with quiet reserve. While he is obviously against the war, he is far from its most vocal critic. Having fought and been wounded in WWI, his memories of the war are still fresh, and he tells Anne that he is fearful of what a second war – following so closely on the heels of the first, could mean to his country, his family, and life as they know it. Brother Ralph and sister Celia have similar leanings. Mother Maud says little, preferring to concentrate on the health of the estate’s garden.

Alexander’s sister, Elizabeth (Julie Christie), is a much stronger presence: a woman who enjoys the life afforded her by her station. Flighty and self-consumed, she is both a party-giver and goer, appearing to see the war as more of a nuisance than anything else.

While the Keyes family grounds the story, friends, lovers and colleagues drive it forward, establishing motives and revealing consequences. When Anne stumbles upon some potentially damaging recorded material on the grounds of the estate, the war becomes far more personal, as she is catapulted into the quiet fury of the times. Suddenly people she cares about are dying all around her, silenced by their own hand, or murdered for their political beliefs. It doesn’t take long for her to realize that no one is safe, and everyone is suspect. And while her family goes to extraordinary lengths to keep her free from harm, she cannot help by see her place and status within their ranks change, as her roots are questioned, and ties, unbound.

One can see how, in the light of impending war, the line between right and might can become blurred, and even those with no political connections, must figure out who to trust and who to fear. What to believe and what to question. What to do, and what not to do when everything you thought to be true, isn’t.

In Poliakoff’s ’s world, wolves gad about in sheep’s clothing, with few obvious villains aside from the menacing Joseph Balcombe (Jeremy Northham), a decidedly evil government operative who arrives with Alexander in time for the birthday dinner.

Beyond the high drama, and the answer―if there is one― to young Michael's question as to what became of his great aunt, there is the undeniable reality of how quickly things can change in time of war. Rules go out the window. Identities are challenged. Families are uprooted. Homes are abandoned. Animals are euthanized. Hearts are broken. Lives are shattered, and time is suspended. The only certainty―uncertainty.

Days after watching this motion picture, knowing what I know about Hitler, and the horror of the Holocaust, I find myself wondering what the world would be like today, had the misguided efforts of the appeasement movement gone unchecked.

Talk about scary stuff.

Glorious 39 is an unsettling and uneven movie: a bit too slow, too long and too wordy. Those of you who are fans of the quick cut and short scene will no doubt grow impatient with its deliberate pace. Billed as a thriller, it never set my heart racing. There were no great reveals. No red herrings. No amazing plot twists or Hitchcockian moments. I tell you this as I believe that you will realize early-on who has done what to whom. Yet, despite its girth, pace and probability, this thoughtful, handsomely cast film offers a unique perspective on one of history’s defining moments. For that reason alone, I believe that it is well worth your time and (im)patience.

Why now? Why not? This is, after all, a time when we sing of peace on earth and good will toward men. A time to reflect on our many blessings, not the least of which is the freedom we enjoy and the brave men and women who are putting their lives on the line to protect all that we hold dear.

There are a lot of wonderful, uplifting Christmas films out there. You’ll find many of them listed in previous posts. My favorite, Christmas in Connecticut, is a delightful bit of whimsy that the whole family can enjoy.

So what will it be? Glorious 39 or Christmas in Connecticut? They are about as different as different can be. Watch one, or both, when and where you like. As we used to say when I was a little girl, "It's a free country, and you can do as you please."

Friday, September 28, 2012



Yesterday, as I was preparing for my day, I saw a segment on NBC's Today Show about a 31-year-old former ball player named Adam Greenberg. I’m not a sports buff, but Adam’s story caught my attention. Back in 2005, on his very first day in the majors, the Chicago Cubs’ outfielder was hit in the back of his head by a 92-mph fastball, literally ending his career. To hear Greenberg tell it, it was much like the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities going from the best of times to the worst of times in one, life-altering moment.

Filmmaker Matt Liston couldn’t get Adam’s story out of his mind, and though he literally didn’t know Adam from Adam, he set out to help the ballplayer get one official major league at-bat. Undeterred by the Cub’s dismissal of the idea, Liston posted an on-line petition asking for support, with the hope of getting one of the majors to give Adam a chance. At the time of this writing, over 25,000 people had signed on.

In the seven years between that ill-fated day and Thursday’s interview, a determined Adam Greenberg was hard at work, getting his body in shape, while knowing that at thirty-one, his chances of getting a second chance at bat were slim.

The morning show’s segment began with an explanatory video followed by a brief interview with host, Matt Lauer. Moments before the segment was set to end, there was, as they say, the great reveal, by remote broadcast, David Samson, General Manager of the Marlins (the very team the Cubs were playing on what was to be his first and last game) stepped up to the virtual plate. In a mighty mix of good will and great PR, Samson offered Goldberg a one-day contract. Both Goldberg and Liston were understandably overwhelmed.

While Greenberg’s story reminded Liston of Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones’ cantankerous recluse in 1989’s Field of Dreams, I was reminded of Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford), the central character in The Natural, the film that breathed new life to an aging and discarded genre. Like Hobbs, Greenberg's story is about baseball, a thirty-something rookie, and a chance at a second chance. Any similarity ends there.

Now, I don’t usually write about big pictures, and this film, with its four-star company and equal number of Academy Award nominations, certainly falls into that category. But it’s a picture worth seeing again, especially since a few years back a DVD Anniversary Edition provided us with the Director’s cut, featuring twenty minutes of never-before-seen footage and a totally reworked first act.

By tightening some sequences and expanding others, the production team was able to add only six minutes to the film's total running time, while producing a piece that, we are told, a great deal closer to the original intent of the script. Director Barry Levinson offers it as an alternative rather than a substitute for the original. With more time to establish why Hobbs is the way he is, it is a darker, more intimate view of the ballplayer’s life and mindset.

Based on the 1952 novel by Bernard Malamud, The Natural begins somewhere in the Midwest. It’s 1923, and, spotted by Sam Simpson, and older but wiser scout/agent, the 19-year-old minor league player is given the opportunity to try out for the Chicago Cubs. And so it is that Hobbs leaves his boyhood home and sweetheart (Iris Gaines - a fetchingly warm, Glenn Close)behind, promising to bring her to Chicago as soon as he is able.

Fresh from an eight-game streak of no hitters, the young ballplayer’s confidence is shaken when, shortly after boarding the train to Chicago, he is introduced to Max Mercy (Robert Duvall), a hard-nosed syndicated sportswriter/cartoonist and his Babe-Ruth-like pal, known to baseball fans as “The Whammer.” Mercy obviously enjoys his relationship with the idol, a bigheaded bully who likes nothing better than to belittle anyone who might possibly threaten his standing. Moments after the obligatory handshake, The mean-spirited duo set about undermining Roy's confidence, raising doubts in his mind as to his readiness for the majors.

A short time later the train makes a 30-minute water stop, where a carnival is in progress. While the Whammer parades his batting skills before a captive crowd, Hobbs seeks out one of the carnival's games of skill, hurling balls at bottles with an uncanny rate of accuracy. When one ball fails to connect, The Whammer and his pal show no mercy, taunting the player with a series of cruel and demeaning barbs. Having had enough, Simpson lays his money down and places his bet: Hobbs vs. the Whammer: three throws/three strikes.

The far-from-humble icon is both unfazed by the challenge. "You old boozer," he retorts, "your brain must be full of mush. This sh-t-kicker couldn't strike me out with 100 pitches."

But strike him out he does: a feat that does not go unnoticed by Mercy, who, while shrugging it off as pure luck, is impressed enough to draw a quick sketch of the match, underscored by the words, "Three balls - three strikes". His relationship with Whammer in jeopardy should he print it, there is little doubt that the cartoon will ever make the morning paper.

Back on the train, a mysterious woman in black by the name of Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey) takes Hobbs’ win seriously. Making her way to his seat, she turns on the charm, showering him with compliments. Flattered, his confidence boosted by the day's triumph, Hobbs confides, “Someday I’ll break every record in the book. I know I got it in me.”

“What do you hope to accomplish?” she prods.

“When I walk down the street, people will say, ‘There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.'"

“Is that all?” she asks.

“Well,” he replies, quizzically, "what else is there?”

It is the answer to that question that drives the story and turns the tide, as, in short order, a life-altering event insures that Hobbs never makes it to first base.

When he resurfaces some sixteen years later, seemingly out of nowhere, any connection to his triumph by the train has been all but forgotten. He is a man with no past, and a very imposing present, almost single-handedly digging the flailing New York Knights out of last place. Hell bent on finding out who this mystery man is, Mercy (whose is vaguely aware that he’s seen the ball payer before) pokes and prods and pokes some more. But Hobbs isn’t talking.

What Mercy finds, and how it impacts the thirty-six year old rookie and baseball in general, are just two of the components in this darkly shaded, finely tuned tale.

The Natural is of the few films of substance that has something for just about everyone. Funny, romantic, serious and sensuous, troubled and triumphant, it is a story about a boy and his bat, a man and his woman, a player and his dream, and the uplifting and underbelly sides of the great American pastime.

Some of the generations’ most formidable actors serve up first-rate performances, with Redford, Close and Duvall leading the way. They are backed up by one of the best supporting casts ever assembled in one film, including Wilford Brimley and one of my all-time favorite character actors, the late Richard Farnsworth. The chemistry between the two men is palpable, and makes for some of the film’s most natural and amusing exchanges. Kim Bassinger, as a woman with split alliances and motivations, won a Golden Globe for her role as femme fatalle, Memo Paris. Like a heavy-hitter at the top of his game, this wildly talented ensemble knocks it out of the park.

Some years ago I was wandering through an open-air, Nashville flea market when I came upon a booth filled with movie memorabilia. Among the offerings, a series of waist-up, life-size, particle board-backed, black and white photographs of men in vintage clothing, posed as if they were seated in a baseball stadium. There must have been twenty-to-thirty different groups of two, all of which were used to fill out large expanses of empty seats in sequences calling for a backdrop of people-filled bleachers.

A thick elastic band on the backside of each photo enabled the film’s crew to attach the boards to large sections of umanned seats, supplementing the six thousand extras that moved about the rows, booing, cheering and going wild with excitement on cue. Choosing one of the more colorful duos, I dubbed them “Vinny and Guido”. On the ride home, I felt safe and sound, my rear-view mirror filled with what appeared to be two men of dubious character guarding me from any and all intruders.

Such ingenuity on the part of the production team made for a smartly propped and dressed, divinely photographed film, with a soft focus and color palate reminiscent of Edward Hopper's work punctuating the dusty railroad stations and Chicago neighborhoods of that era. So perfectly designed is the lighting and cinematography, that nearly every frame is a work of art. Lovers, silhouetted against a summer moon, Redford waiting for a train, the lovely Iris, seated behind an ice cream parlor window. A baseball thrown from a train at sunset, each and every one of them, exquisite.

While music can often upstage or overwhelm a film, Randy Newman’s score is pitch-perfect: a complex mix of humor and wall-to-wall, bigger-than-life, Americana that makes you want to raise a barn, stand up and cheer, or drive along a wide expanse of lush country road, as I have, to the sound of this big, bold, sumptuous score.

Amazingly enough, The Natural was only Newman’s second film, and he was more than a bit nervous about pulling it off. Once filming began the entire project was put on fast-forward, with everyone racing to complete the feature by the studio's mandatory release date. As a result, while the film was being edited in one room, the music to whatever sequence had been completed last, was being written in the next. So thin were the walls, that the director could hear the piano, as Newman went about his work.

In one of the DVD's featurettes, the director recalls the day he heard the movie's haunting theme for the very first time.

“I’m hearing this fiddling on the piano, and all of a sudden I hear [he sings] ‘Da da da da, da da da. Da da da da, da da da’, and I think, 'I wonder if that’s going to be the main theme?' You can imagine how thrilling that is: to be hearing through the wall the moment of the birth of a piece of theme.”

Newman concedes that in a very real way, necessity was the mother of invention, as, had he not been forced to write to the edited footage, the ‘heroic horns’ that are so identifiable, would have never come to mind, as they were, he says, against his natural inclination.

Such tidbits make the Anniversary DVD a treasure trove of information. Aside from the all-new, high-definition digital transfer, the Director's Cut is enhanced by a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, and comes complete with a diverse collection of featurettes that address everything from the differences between Malamud’s much-loved novel and the film, to how it came to be written, cast, produced, scored. The hours it took to film and edit the picture's key baseball sequences, particularly the final game, which called for over six hundred separate shots and edits.

You’ll also learn which events, characters and quotes were drawn from real life, and share a laugh with the director, as he tells of an opening day visit to a local movie theater, where he was met by a group of disgruntled ticket holders, who wanted their money back. The whys and wherefores of it all make for hours of interesting viewing. Fascinating stuff, all.

Much of the credit for the on-going popularity of this film goes to Barry Levinson, who job it was to take the script from conception to completion. The fact that Redford saw in Levinson the ability to carry it off, despite the fact that he had only one small, though highly successful film (Diner), is to his credit. And carry it off, he did.

Close to fifty movies later, Barry Levinson’s filmography is filled with instant classics like Rain Man, Avalon, Good Morning, Viet Nam, High Anxiety, and Wag the Dog, But it was The Natural that paved the way for other great baseball movies, including Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, A League of Their Own, Eight Men Out, The Rookie, and more recently, 2011’s Moneyball and Trouble with the Curve, which is currently showing at your local movieplex.

Suffice to say, The Natural was a natural: a wonderful tale, told well. It, like Roy Hobbs and Adam Greenberg, deserves another turn at bat.

A final note: Adam Greenberg signed the afore-mentioned one-day contract yesterday. Unless you hear differently, he'll be in the batter’s box next Tuesday (October 2nd), when the Marlins go head-to-head with the New York Mets.

Saturday, July 21, 2012


At first glance, Queen To Play appears to be a simple tale of a woman who finds her passion in the game of Chess. But don’t be fooled. It is one of those small, but eloquent films that the French are so rightly famous for. Its cast of characters is small, its dialogue, sparse, and its settings, unremarkable, save for a few wistfully idyllic bicycle rides through the Corsican countryside, a far off ocean view or two, and a balcony setting that is, by its very nature, romantic.

At its core, this 2009 film is about one woman’s search for meaning in her life― to feel as if she has something to offer, and to have that something be acknowledged, as much by herself, as by others. And while it is far from the traditional boy-meets-girl kind of love story, it is very much about love: the love between a husband and wife, mother and daughter, and teacher and student. It is also about learning to love one’s self, and the love one feels for something rather than someone, be it art, music, sports, literature, science, history, or in this case, Chess.

As the film opens, Hélène (our heroine) is getting ready to leave for work. Pleasant but plain looking, her hair in a bun, her face devoid of make-up save for a bit of lipstick, she is a face in the crowd.

As portrayed by Sandrine Bonnaire, Hélène is a woman who observes life, rather than living it. She watches as a female co-worker steals a kiss from her lover, then listens as the young woman reveals her plans to leave the island in search of something more. It is during this brief but telling conversation that we learn that once upon a time Hélène had much the same plans and dreams, leaving her home, friends and family in exchange for the promise of a better life.

But as we see, that promise has gone unfulfilled. Easing into middle age, her life has been far from easy. As a chambermaid at a small but elegant island retreat, she works where others play. Her day involves a series of mundane routines: the washing and ironing of the hotel’s linens, the making of beds, replacing of towels, and removing of room service trays, stains, crumbs, personal items and other left-behinds, so that each room is in pristine condition by check-in.

At quitting time she does not quit, taking the bus to her second job as housekeeper for the somewhat eccentric and reclusive Dr. Kröger (Kevin Kline), a sixty-something American expatriate who is hard pressed to remember her name, even though she has, it appears, been in his service for some time.

If Hélène is unfulfilled at work, she receives little-to-no validation at home. Her husband Ange (Francis Renaud), is a good looking but inattentive partner, who thinks nothing of spending a night or two each week playing backgammon with his friend Jacky, while being all but oblivious to his wife’s needs and desires. When he confides that work is slow and getting slower, she asks how they will manage if he is laid off. “We’ll see” he says, shifting the onus onto her shoulders. “Did you ask your Yankee for a raise?”

She hasn’t, but does—haltingly, and Kröger is quick to pick up on her insecurities.

Hélène: I wanted to ask –
Kröger: Yes?
Hélène: It’s about my—
Kröger: —about your..?
Hélène: Salary. My husband thinks—
Kröger: Does he think for you?
Hélène: No, I think so too.
Kröger: Yes - - ?
Hélène: You could give me a raise: Ten euros.

But clearly, she has, over time, put Ange’s thoughts, desires, and wishes before her own.

In the end, “the Yankee” comes through, though it is doubtful that the extra money will offset the couple’s financial woes. Unlike their teenage daughter (Alexandra Gentil), who is ashamed of their social status, they accept the fact that they are members of the working poor, and destined to stay that way.

And then one day, the chambermaid enters an American couple’s room to straighten up, only to find that the guests are still in residence. Startled, she turns to leave, but the couple, flirtatiously playing a game of Chess on the balcony, encourages her to stay.

From her place by their unmade bed, Hélène finds herself transfixed, as the two engage in what might be termed intellectual foreplay over a Chessboard. She (Jennifer Beals), in her negligee, he, (Dominic Gould), divinely handsome in his linen-white shirt and slacks, do a delicate “dance” that is as intimate as if they were physically making love.

Later, the woman asks the voyeur, “Do you play?”— a question of Chess, with underlying undertones. Hélène responds with a quiet, almost bashful, “No”, but her fascination with the game, its pieces, process, power and sensuality is instantaneous. Soon, she will find herself, as she finds herself consumed by it.

But to play Chess, one has to have a Chessboard and pieces, and money is tight. Realizing that this is not the time to buy something for herself, let alone something frivolous, she, like the man who buys his wife a big-screen TV for their anniversary so that he can watch the Super Bowl, buys her husband an electronic Chess set for his birthday. His displeasure is obvious.

Ange: What’s this?
Hélène: An electronic Chess set.
Ange: So, I see. What’s it for?
Helene: Playing Chess, I’d say.
Ange: But I can’t play.
Hélène: You can learn. It’s a change from Backgammon.
Ange: Who am I supposed to play with?
Hélène: I don’t know—with me (pregnant pause), or on your own—It's a game you can play on your own.
Ange: On my own?

Bewildered, disappointed and annoyed, Ange sets the game aside, with a barely audible "thank you", and the telling, “I hope it didn’t cost too much.”

But whatever the cost, Hélène is hooked, and as soon as the birthday boy has fallen asleep, she rises from their bed, reclaims the set, and submerges herself in the rule book, examining the pieces and finding her way around the Chessboard.

Within days, fascination has turned into obsession, though it soon becomes apparent that if she is to progress, she will need both a partner and teacher. With her husband both unwilling and unable to fill the bill, she sets out to find someone who can.

She finds that someone in Kröger. His initial reluctance is soothed by her offer to forgo her wages in exchange for a daily game of Chess. Soon, any reservations he may have had are replaced by the realization that Hélène has a real gift for the game: a gift that goes well beyond his own level of play. Mentor and cheerleader, the doctor encourages her to enter a local competition: a step that will cause her to reach higher, dig deeper, and potentially change the course of her life.

But change seldom comes without consequence. Her work suffers, and she seems distracted at home, no longer willing to put everything and everyone else first. And as is so often the case, those who initially cheer her on begin to feel threatened as her role in their lives begins to change. Some reactions are subtle, others more overt. And though, after a few initial missteps Ange tries to be supportive, it’s clear that he is uncomfortable with his wife’s newly found confidence. Even Hélène is torn, wondering if the prize was worth the price. “I liked it better before I didn’t question everything.”

Her angst is apparent when discussing Martin Eden (Jack London’s semi-autobiographical novel) with her daughter, Lisa. Though the circumstances are very different, the similarities between the hero’s life and her own are palpable, and in talking about him, Hélène is really talking about herself. “Have you read it?” She asks.

Lisa: It made me cry. Beautiful—The sailor who became a writer.
Hélène: You mean the writer who should have stayed a sailor.
Lisa: Why do you say that?
Hélène: Because he was unhappy. Because he realizes it wasn’t worth the effort, and he doesn’t belong anywhere.
Lisa: Yes, but he did it. If he’s an outsider, it’s because he's better than those he tried to impress. impress.
Hélène: Why be better if you don’t do anything with it?

And there’s the rub.

As Hélène and her family begin to sort it all out, the reclusive doctor is doing some sorting of his own. His secrets, fears, failing health, longings and ambitions make up a bittersweet subplot that is skillfully unraveled by the ever-fascinating Kline.

But it is Hélène’s relationships that are front and center here, and ultimately, the film is not as much about Chess, or class, as it is about love, passion and self worth. I tend to disagree with writer/director Caroline Bottaro’s feeling that the film would have worked just as well had Hélène’s obsession been with Backgammon or Bridge, as I find the queen’s power in the game, as spelled out by daughter Lisa (“She [the queen] can do anything, go anywhere she likes. She’s stronger than the king.”) an interesting counterpoint to the way Hélène interacts with, and is viewed by her family, friends, employer and co-workers.

In an interview following the release of the film, Bonnaire points out that it isn’t so much the game that initially arouses the chambermaid’s interest, as it is the intimacy - how deeply the American couple appears to love each other– savoring every moment, “falling all over the chess board.” It is an intimacy Hélène yearns for, one―to her astonishment―that remains in tact, even when the woman wins the game.

Originally titled Jouyese,(the feminine form of “player”), and based on Bertina Henrich’s novel La Joueuse d’échecs, Queen To Play is a study in understatement, save for a few flashes of overt symbolism and telepathy. The dialogue is simple, the scenes, short, and the acting, low-key, belying the fact that it took eighteen drafts and five years to get it to the screen.

That simplicity, if you'll pardon the cliché, speaks volumes, for while this is a film about finding your passion, pursuing your dreams and changing your destiny despite your origin, education, or surroundings, it is not Rocky or Breaking Away. This to say that Hélène’s triumphs are not underscored by pulsating trumpets, an over synthesized sound track or the roaring of crowds, and yet, you will find much to cheer about in this small, well put and played film about every day people whose lives while not shaken, are stirred.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Welcome to our Second Annual Food Find edition, the one time each year that this blog focuses on food rather than film. The following 'finds' have either been sent in by readers, or discovered by yours truly over the past year. Save for a few regional offerings, they are all readily available at supermarkets and specialty stores throughout the United States, or by mail order. This year our finds range from the sinfully rich, to low cal and gluten-free standouts. There’s something for everyone, so let’s get started!


Smithfield Pouch Pack Bacon is perfect for those of us who only eat bacon occasionally, or have small households where you only need a slice or two at a time. It’s made up of two slim, breakaway sections that fit into even the most crowded freezers. Not only does the bacon freeze well, but the slices (six to a pouch) are longer than most packaged brands, with one slice the near equivalent of two. I happen to like the Hometown Original variety, but there are several options to choose from. You’ll find them in supermarkets around the country including Spartan’s, Lowe's, Winn Dixie, Safeway, Food Lion, Acme, and Kroger.

One of our more health-conscious readers recommends Cliff’s Mountain Mix MoJo Bars. She says she enjoys them as “an afternoon pick-me-up” at work. The bars come in a variety of flavor combinations, with ingredients like chocolate chips, rice, oats, raisins, almonds, cashews, pecans, white chocolate chips, and peanut butter-filled pretzels. “You get eight-to-nine grams of protein in every bar” she writes, with no trans fats or processed sugars. Weighing in at 200 calories a bar, they are, "delicious."


Last year’s Food Find edition included Pepperidge Farm’s Bagel Flats. This year, Audrey of Little Neck, New York adds their Thin Sliced white and whole wheat bread to our list, noting that at 40 calories per slice, “You can make a sandwich [or at least the bread component] for just eighty calories.” I’ll buy that.

George of Hot Springs, Arkansas is a fan of Wolferman’s English Muffins, which he says, are ‘to die for!!!” “I grew up on the original recipe,” he writes, “ but have come to savor the blueberry as well. We lived two blocks from the main Wolferman’s store in Kansas City, and four of six kids worked there at one time or another.” George fondly remembers Saturdays, when “one of the kids who worked that day would come home with grocery bags full of produce and baked goods that would not hold over ‘til Monday. With six kids, this was a Godsend to mom and dad, and we never got in trouble if we snuck some of the ‘free stuff.’” George also recommends Wolferman's preserves and jelly, which were also a part of those early day goodie bags. “The owner used to throw a few jars in ‘for the baby’ – moi!” writes George, “All their products are good enough to make you wanna slap yo momma, as they say ‘roun here.” Find these and other Wolferman's treats at

I’m not sure why, but this year we’ve got a barrelful of crackers 'finds' ― big and small, long and round, wavy, bite-size and otherwise, each one deliciously unique in its own way.

Perhaps the most unusually shaped cracker on our list is a Canadian entry. Leslie Stowe appears to be Canada’s answer to Martha Stewart, and she, like Martha, has built a line of products that bear her name.

Leslie Stowe Raincoast Crisps don’t look or taste anything like the crackers you grew up with. If I had to describe them in familiar terms, I would say that they are a far far far distant cousin of Melba toast – but that would be doing a major disservice to these wonderfully quirky, slightly wavy crackers. During the Christmas holidays, a friend was a guest at a party where they were served, and fell in love. She said they were laced with lovely paper-thin slivers of fruit and nuts. Intrigued, I set out to find them, and was richly rewarded for my efforts.

Of the three varieties I’ve tried, Leslie Stowe's Cranberry Hazelnut Crisps are, to my mind, the best. You’ll find them at Whole Foods, which charges more than a dollar more per box than this region’s Fresh Market chain. But even at Fresh Market, they are a splurge. Other flavors include Salty Date and Almond (I couldn’t taste the dates), Fig and Olive (I couldn’t taste the fig), Rosemary Raisin Pecan (haven’t tried them), and the original crisps, which are good with cheese, but in my opinion, nowhere near as interesting as the Cranberry Hazelnut crisps.

Margaret’s Artisan Bakery, whose Roasted Garlic and Chive Artisan Flatbread was on last year’s list of finds, makes a slightly less expensive version of Stowe's oddly shaped crisps. Their various blends veer only slightly from the originals, combining for example, cranberries and pumpkin seeds rather than cranberries and hazelnuts. Some pairings fare better than others. While, as noted earlier, I could hardly find the dates in Stowe’s Raincoast Crisps, Margaret’s Date and Walnut Crisps seem to have gotten it right, with a slightly sweet, mildly nutty flavor that goes well with butter, Boursin or similarly flavored cheeses and spreads.

Paula in Memphis, Tennessee sent this next find in just after the first edition was published, giving me plenty of time to find it on my grocer’s shelf. While she wrote about Blue Diamond Hazelnut Thins (16 crackers = 130 calories), which were her absolute favorite, I got hooked on Blue Diamond's Nut and Rice with Sea Salt Nut Thins (17 crackers = 130 calories). They sell for from $2.50 to $3.00 a box, and appear to go on sale fairly often.

Strangely, I got hooked on the crunch, as much as the taste of these crackers, which reminded me of Fritos Corn Chips. I also marveled at the fact that despite the fact that they were the lower salt version of the line, I could still taste the salt. Just seven or eight calories a cracker-depending upon the flavor, these bite-sized, incredibly crunchy, grab a bunchy crackers, are often found in the Health Food section of the country's supermarkets.

From Florida comes word of a Sam's find. Margene in Sarasota, recommends the wholesale warehouse club's Crunchmaster Multi-Grain Crackers.“They’re really good,” she writes, “and gluten-free.”

And while we're talking 'gluten-free', even if, like me, you're not glucose intolerant, you're going to love Sesmark gluten-free Savory Rice Thins. I just happened to stumble upon them in the cracker section of my local market. Modestly priced, tasty alone or topped with whatever you're in the mood for, they hit the spot and the mark at just 18 calories a cracker.

Paula in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma is a fan of Kellogg’s Special K Crackers. She didn’t specify which flavor she favors, but the multi-gain variety I sampled tasted a little like a graham cracker. At 120 calories for 24 bite-sized crackers, you can have your fill.

Dena, from Flourtown, Pennsylvania, sends in two Trader Joe finds. Trader Joe’s Thin Mini Crackers are short on everything but flavor. “Just grab a handful like you would peanuts or pretzels,” says she. Grab two; they're just 27 calories a serving, with no fat, carbs or protein. Look for Dena's other Trader Joe find, under Pretzels, Chips, Dips and Other Snacks.

Say ‘Cheese” and Jackie from Bartlett, Tennessee’s mind immediately turns to Mississippi State University, which, she writes, “has a renowned dairy science department.” While the school sells everything from butter to ice cream, it's their cheese that gets Jackie's family’s attention. Their favorite is the Edam cheese, which Jackie describes as savory and mellow. According to Mississippi State's web site, they use fresh milk from their own dairy herds. Jackie's also a fan of their Vallagret cheese, “a Swiss-type cheese without the holes." The two-pound wheel arrives unsliced, and has "a nutty, buttery flavor.” Interested? Be forewarned, you can't dawdle when it comes to ordering. “It’s so popular that they usually sell out before we can get our order in”, she writes, "but THIS spring we managed to buy some for the whole family and we all agree that it’s scrumptious.” She goes on to say that Mississippi State also sells juice, cider, condiments, peanuts, meat and other non-dairy products. For more information go to

These next two cheeses are types, rather than brands of cheese. The first is a hugely popular Swiss cow’s milk cheese known as Gruyere. If you haven’t tried it, make room in your budget for a small, hand-sliced wedge. At its best, it has a slight crunch to it, and little in common with the pre-packaged bricks or pre-sliced, household brand versions in your grocer’s refrigerated case.

Parrano is another personal favorite. This Dutch cow's milk cheese is not nearly as well known as Gruyere, and often gets confused with the far more famous Grana Padano (a hard cheese that has earned the distinction of being the most popular cheese in Italy.) Parrano may not be as popular, but it is every bit as delicious, and can be eaten as is, grated or used for cooking. As cheese is so expensive these days, I tend to eat it full on, one slice at a time. It goes well with grapes, a bite of salami, Capicola or Proscuitto, and if you are so inclined, a glass of wine. One Internet cheese purveyor describes Parrano as “sweet and salty, mild and nutty.” All I can say is, I adore it.

Boursin Garlic & Herbs cheese made last year’s list, but at 41 grams of fat per serving, isn’t exactly what you’d call ‘diet-friendly’. Enter Boursin Light Garlic & Fine Herbs Gournay cheese in a handy dandy re-closeable tub. I tend to avoid products labeled lite, light, and sugar-free (except for an occasional diet soft drinks), choosing instead to have less of the real thing. But in this case, Boursin hits it out of the park with a spread that― could it be? ―is even better than the original. And with 50% less fat and 35% fewer calories, you can indulge. Two tablespoon’s-worth comes in at only 50 calories. Slather it over two or three of those pricey-but-worth-it Leslie Stowe Cranberry Hazelnut Raincoast Crisps, or Margaret’s Date and Walnut Crisps and prepare to swoon.

Missy from Germantown, TN. writes, “I've never been much of a marmalade fan, but the Tangerine Marmalade by Stonewall Kitchen is irresistible! Fresh Market sells the brand but not this variety. (We were served this at a B&B in Portland, Oregon, and I have vowed to never be without.) I order directly online and add their scone mix for an awesomely wonderful breakfast treat.” After receiving Missy's note, I logged into the company’s website at and found all manner of tempting and reasonably priced vittles, including four scone mixes: traditional, toasted coconut, blueberry sour cream and orange cranberry. Now all you need is some butter (no margarine allowed), and you’re set!

Which reminds me - Last November, I stopped by the cheese counter at my local Kroger, where they had a short supply of hand-blended Orange/Lemon/Grapefruit butter for sale. You may think it sounds a little crazy, but let me tell you, spread across one of George’s English muffins. Missy’s scones, Audrey’s bread, or melted over a hot sweet potato, snuggled inside some hot rice, or drizzled over baked rainbow trout, Brussels Sprouts or any number of veggies, quick breads and cobblers, it’s heavenly.


I found this next ‘find’ while ogling the pots, pans, spatulas and other handy dandy cooking utensils at a restaurant supply store. I'm not sure what drew me to the large (32 ounce) jar of Cajun Chef Louisiana Spicy Green Tomato Pickles, but drawn I was. Reading the nutritional facts on the label, I was pleased to find that 23 bite-sized tomato chunks translated into only 28 calories, This was clearly my kind of snack. It was also a bargain at less than $4.50 a jar. I carried one home, put it in the fridge, and started a love affair that continues to this day. They are both sweet and hot (not scary hot, but with a bit of bite after the fact). Packed in a vinegar bath, they’re great chilled and served right out of the jar. Add them to your relish tray, use them as a garnish on your martini, or to stave off hunger pains before dinner, or pair them with fried catfish, as we do in this part of the country. If you can’t find them at your local market or restaurant supply store you can order them by mail at

Love rice, but tired of the same old same old? Try Sadaf Basmati Rice Mix―Sweet Harmony. I came across this box of deliciousness at a Mediterranean grocery store some years ago. The vegetarian blend is a heady mix of orzo pasta, raisins, almonds, currents and cranberries, and orange peel, onion, cinnamon, saffron, a little sugar, and some exotic spices that add a wonderful flavor to the overall dish, and the golden color of the rice and other ingredients really perk up a plate!


Losing weight isn’t easy. Low cal foods generally don’t cut it, which is why I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for Lean Cuisine’s Frozen Dinners. Comparing them to the so-called “TV dinners” of yesteryear is ridiculous, as they have little in common with the uninviting slab of meat and instant mashed potatoes that once were the norm. Several of the brand’s latest offerings are actually better than homemade, and that’s saying something. In fact, some of them are better than similar dishes you’ll find at your neighborhood restaurant. Truly.

Lean Cuisine Frozen Dinners come in boxes and steamable pouches. Both can be microwaved. The pouches, which are fairly new to the brand, really work beautifully, their contents steamed to perfection in a matter of minutes. Among my favorites, is their boxed Butternut Squash Ravioli (a slimming and delicious 260 calories). My favorite pouch dinners include Asagio Cheese Tortelloni (280 calories), Mushroom Tortelloni (310 calories) and Alfredo Pasta with Chicken and Broccoli (300 calories).


Geoffrey who lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland and summered in Atlantic City, New Jersey, offered up some nostalgic finds, including Berger's Hand-Dipped Cookies. A Baltimore favorite since 1835, they are, says, ‘firm and cakey’ with a ‘thick topping of dense chocolate frosting.” According to the city's CBS-TV outlet, Berger’s sells some 20,000 of their generously chocolate-coated cookies a week―that’s a lot of cookies! Find them in stores throughout the Baltimore area, or order them through the company’s website at A 15-ounce package is just $5.25 plus postage.

Geoffrey also sent in a shout-out to “Tripician's Almond Maccaroooooons!” A boardwalk 'must-have', G. Carl Tripician Almond Macaroons are what are often referred to as “French macaroons.” Large, soft and totally unlike the hard, chunky concoctions you find in the supermarket, they are available on line at, and make an incredibly generous gift (Thank you, Geoffrey!). Coconut nuts will be happy to note that Tripician's offers a coconut version of these superior macaroons as well.

Next, an old time favorite takes the spotlight, as Audrey, of Little Neck, New York writes to remind us of Nabisco Mallomars were most recently seen on-screen in a cameo appearance in When Harry Met Sally (“the greatest cookie of all times), and were often mentioned in Seinfeld. Leave it to writer Nora Ephron to wax nostalgic about the cookies of her youth. In the film, Billy Crystal explains how he eats these international favorites. Audrey has been eating them since she was a child. “My brother would take the whole box, which had 10 or 12 in it, and give me two. And he would eat the rest with a quart of milk” she says. How does she eat them? I eat around the cookie first, “she says, then I eat the cookie (graham cracker), and then I pop the marshmallow with the dark chocolate in my mouth and let it melt.” Here in the states, they are only available between October through April, and according to one site, ‘devoted eaters stockpile them for the summer months.”


Several categories ago I mentioned that our Flourtown reader's second 'find' could be found here, and so it is. Trader Joe’s Red Pepper Spread is a tasty blend of red peppers, eggplant and garlic, and at under $2.00 a jar, it’s easy on the budget. Dena says she slathers it on everything from Matzo to crackers and bread, adding, “When I make a wrap for myself or a sandwich, I use it in place of mayonnaise to make it more interesting.” An added benefit for some readers is that fact that is both gluten-and-onion-free.

A Memphis reader suggests Fountain of Health Hummus – Premium Traditional. I found a tub in the refrigerated section of the cheese case at my local Kroger store. While they have a garlic-flavored variety, I, like our reader, far prefer the Premium traditional.

And from the New York area, comes word of Snyder’s of Hanover’s Honey Mustard and Onion Nibbler Pretzels (Pieces). With just 110 calories for 20 pretzels, you can snack away.

And while I generally don’t add local fare that isn’t available at least regionally to our list, Denise from Memphis recommends Martha’s Family Favorites. The bakery’s snack cakes, pies and cookies have been showing up in stores like Easy Way and the Highpoint Grocery. Martha uses family recipes and all-natural ingredients, and caters to people who have special dietary needs.

Are you nuts about nuts? Try Paramount Farms Everybody’s Nuts California salt and pepper pistachio nuts. Pepper on pistachios? You betcha. They are big and beautiful and easy to open―so easy, that the company guarantees that you’ll be able to open every single nut! And they taste great. You’ll appreciate the pepper, without being overwhelmed by it. When the company first introduced these tasty nuts, they were actually inexpensive, but once the roll out ended, they went on to become competitively priced. You’ll find them in larger quantities at Sam’s Club, and Walmart. The smaller packages can be found at Wegman’s and other supermarkets around the country.

Diamond Foods' Emerald Premium Snacks standout in their shiny bright green canisters, and they taste as good as they look. I've tried several varieties, most of which are well above average. Their Deluxe Mixed Nuts as seriously craveable. Less caloric, but delicious just the same, Emerald's Dry Roasted Almonds are tasty, crunchy and, unlike some whole almonds, light to bite.

Returning to the city by the sea (well, ocean), When it comes to candy, the following Atlantic City "finds" are bound to satisfy your sweet tooth. Steel’s Fudge tastes great and travels and freezes well. Personal favorites include vanilla, strawberry and pistachio. They are cut into bars and served up in a pre-selected or custom-filled selection. By them on the boardwalk or on line

James and Frailinger’s Salt Water Taffy used to be competitors, but somewhere along the way, the two companies joined forces, while retaining the products their fans had come to love. James makes a chunky taffy, Frailinger's, an elongated version. Both have a similar consistency that you won't find in the run-of-the-mill taffy sold at state and county fairs across the country. These delightful bites come a wide variety of flavors that go far beyond the usual chocolate, vanilla and banana.

Are you a chocoholic? Their Chocolate Covered Molasses and/or Peanut Taffy Paddles are heaven on a stick (assuming you have good, sturdy teeth), and James foil-wrapped chocolate-covered taffy is quite exceptional. Care for a mint? Both companies offer individually wrapped mints that literally melt in your mouth. I love them both. Order all of the above products at one of their stores along the Jersey shore, through their mutual catalogue, or on line at

Remember Geoffrey of Macaroon and cookie fame? He's wild about another one of his hometown goodies: Rheb's Vanilla Butter Creams. To order, go to, where milk and dark chocolate assortments of these luscious buttercreams abound.

Looking for a super duper hard candy? I've found one that is low in calories and high on flavor, without being 'sugar-free.' Balis' Best Espresso Candy is made with real Sumatran coffee. Each piece comes in its own foil wrapper, and is just 12 ½ calories. Balis also makes a terrific regular coffee flavored candy with a liquid center. Both are long-lasting and infinitely satisfying. I initially found them at Tuesday Morning, which never seems to carry the same items twice. Happily, I discovered them in totally different packaging at the Dollar Tree, where the price was definitely right.

Audrey of Little Neck, New York pops in again to recommend Popcorn Indiana’s Original All Natural Kettlecorn Crispy Crunchy Sweet and Salty Popcorn. A smart alternative to regular candied corn offering, it’s gluten-free, with zero trans fats and 16 grams of whole grain in every 4-ounce bag. She’s also a fan of their Caramel Corn Chips, all of which are available at Walgreen’s.

Always on the lookout for superior sugar-free candy, Audrey is a major fan of Miles Kimball’s Candy Shoppe ( She says that their Sugar-free Peanut Brittle is exceptionally delicious, and comes packaged in a pretty copper-colored tin. ($15.99 for a 12-ounces worth of brittle). It’s sweetened with maltatol. She also likes their Baby Jelly Beans, which come individually wrapped in assorted flavors, as do their Sugar-free Fruit Slices. They’re just $6.99 a package.

Our friend George in Hot Springs, Arkansas starts us off with Kroger’s Deluxe Strawberry Lemon Delight ice cream and Deluxe Churned Blueberry Pomegranate Chocolate Chunk ice cream. Who knew a store brand could be so creative? Margene in Sarasota recommends Blue Bell No Sugar Added Country Vanilla Ice Cream.


You know the song, “You say to-may-to and I say to-mah-to…”? Well, as one New York reader writes, however you say it, Red Gold Sacramento Tomato Juice is a delicious and thrifty choice; priced at just $1.79 a can in her neck of the woods.

From Melrose Park, PA. comes two beverage suggestions, the first being Cheribundi Tart Cherry Juice. Introduced to her by a neighbor, Elissa says it tastes great, and offers a refreshing alternative to the usual squeeze. The true cherry variety boasts half a pound of cherries per bottle, and ‘an abundance of antioxidants and nutrients.” There’s a skinny cherry version as well. Look for it in the juice aisle. After visiting the company's website (, I was intrigued by the possibilities of not just drinking the juice, but baking with it. Among the suggested recipes: cherry-lemon preserves, red cherry winter bread pudding, and cherry-pecan bread.

Several months ago a package of 8 O’Clock Whole Bean Columbian Coffee appeared on my grocer’s ‘bent-and-dent’ shelf, where bent, dented, crushed, nearly outdated and/or discontinued products are discounted beyond all reason, allowing the thrifty and adventurous shopper to try new things at up to 90% off.

My parents were 8 O’Clock and Chock full o’ Nut’s fans, and while I’d tried the latter, I had never sipped a drip of Eight O’Clock. And so it was that I tossed the beans into the supermarket grinder and came to know and love this old timey, amazingly rich coffee. If you like your coffee strong but not bitter, this brew’s for you. After reading up on this old time favorite I was not surprised to learn that Consumer Reports’ taste testers ranked it #1 in taste among Columbian coffees.

Want to try a new brew? Melody in Cordova, Tennessee wrote to recommend both a brew and a brewer. “Two years ago I bought my husband a Nespresso Coffee Machine for Christmas from Williams Sonoma. It’s a little pricey, but a great investment. It makes coffee shop style espresso and it’s very user-friendly. It operates like a Keurig machine, but there is just no other comparison. The coffees are amazing.”

She went on to describe Nespresso’s Vivalto Lungo as “a very smooth blend with no bitterness.” It is her absolute favorite. “The capsules come in two strengths,” she explains.
“If they have the name Lungo attached to them, they are formulated for a larger cup, which is what I like.”

While there are some pricier choices, most average out to about 55 cents a cup. If there’s a downside, it’s that they can only be ordered through Nespresso’s website, but Melody has only good things to say about their service. Last Christmas Melody upgraded to a Nespresso DeLong with a built-in steamed milk frother, and the treat goes on. For more information, on the brews and the brewers go to” .

Invited to someone’s home for dinner? Want to bring along a bottle of wine, but don’t know what’s on the menu? Our friend Elissa suggests Val d’Oca Extra Dry Prosecco, which, she says, “goes with everything.” A cousin to champagne, this sparkling wine from the Veneto region of Italy is dry. crisp and bubbly, and priced somewhere around $14.00 a bottle. Buy two and keep one for yourself! For more information, go to

It’s always nice to end on a sweet note, and what could be sweeter than sugar? If you are of a certain age, you may remember a time when fine restaurants set out sugar bowls filled with individually wrapped cubes. Those days are long gone, but if you want to add a little sparkle to your next coffee klatch or dinner table, bring out the turbinado or demerara sugar.

Though they are slightly different, (one being named for the turbine from which it is spun, the other from the region where the cane was originally grown), they are fraternal twins. They look and taste very much the same, their golden brown crystals turning the most modest of sugar bowls into a work of art. Both of these sugars have a bit of a butterscotch taste to them, but just a touch. If you’ve ever melted sugar to candy something, and gotten to the point where it’s no longer white, but not yet a syrup, that’s about as close as I can get to describing their delicate taste. While iced tea and coffee are better served with superfine sugar that dissolves easily, hot beverages will be enriched by these golden crystals. And while I’ve never baked with either of them, the last box I bought of the turbinado included recipes for banana bread and pumpkin pie. Look for both of these sweet somethings among the sugars and sweeteners in your local market and specialty store. In this part of the country, Kroger’s Private Selection label is readily available, and Fresh Market carriers a could of different choice, including those elusive sugar cubes.

And there you have it - more than fifty nifty, not always thrifty but fabulously fantastic food finds. Thank you to everyone who took the time to share their favorites. If yours wasn’t listed, chances are it was among last year’s offerings. To check them out, scroll down to the bottom of the page, and click on “OLDER POSTS.” The first annual edition was posted on May 29th, 2011.

And if, per chance, you’ve just found your way to this site, I hope you’ll join me next time, when I return to writing about generally small, sometimes foreign, often quirky films that I believe are worth watching. All of them are available on DVD.
Meanwhile, I hope you'll check out some of my other posts.

Till the next time…

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Conversations With Other Women

This is one of those film reviews where less is best. To tell you too much about the plot is to ruin the great reveals that take place almost from the get-go. So forgive me if I’m a bit vague. What I can tell you is that the film takes place during and after a wedding reception in a New York hotel, and that it is a story of love, rather than a traditional love story.

The title is a bit misleading, as one woman does the majority of the conversing. First time director Hans Canosa defends the title, explaining that it refers more to the many sides of her character than to conversations with other women.

Produced on a shoestring budget of $300,000, this independent film is unique in a number of ways, the most obvious being the use of a split screen from the first frame to the very last.

The split-screen effect is hardly new, having been used for years to create suspense, punch up an action sequence, or show both sides of a telephone conversation, as in 1959's Pillow Talk, where Rock Hudson and Doris Day played footsie while soaking in separate tubs.

Using a split screen throughout, is something else again, and takes a short but necessary period of adjustment. As a result, the whys, wherefores and revelations come slowly at first, giving the viewer time to get the hang of it.

But have no fear, within moments you will be totally engrossed in the story, as frame by frame you learn more about the man and woman who are at the center of the piece. Listed only as "He" and "She" in the movie's cast of characters, their story at first glance, is like millions of others' who cross paths at a wedding reception.

He, as played by Aaron Eckhart, is a good-looking thirty-eight year-old-male, who, as the film opens, is captivated by one of the bridesmaids: a woman who is desperately trying to find a place to have a smoke.

Stationed at the bar, he watches as she (Helena Bonham Carter) is twarted again and again before finding a quiet spot to light up. Grabbing a couple of glasses of wine, he leaves the bar and tender behind with a “Wish me luck,” catching her in mid drag.

Their conversation is benign at first: clipped and witty repartee that reveals little more than the fact that she is a last-minute replacement for the seventh of seven bridesmaids, having flown in from London to fill the suddenly vacated spot in the wedding party.

Before long the conversation shifts to more intimate matters involving past dalliances and current relationships. We learn that both are 'involved'. She is married to a doctor (“Jeffrey, the cardiologist”), while he is going with a Broadway hoofer half his age (“Sarah, the dancer”).

As the night wears on, we get to know a bit more about our couple, learning how he came to be at the party, and where she fits in. From time to time his and her frames nearly overlap, appearing to merge into one figure at the center of the screen. And that’s the point of it, says the director – who notes that as two people grow closer, there is a melding and blending of souls.

But blending is only one of the many ways Canosa uses the split screen to capture memories and explore motivations, generally reserving Screen Left for the action, and Screen Right for the reaction, in real time.

The split screen also allows a character to reminisce on one screen, while on the other, we see a flashback of the event. In some cases, the memory and the reality are quite different, guilded or tarnished by time. (Think Gigi, and the Chevalier/Gingold duet, "I Remember It Well.")

While Conversations with Other Women is basically a drama, it is not without its comedic moments, one of which takes place immediately following the reception, as the wedding guests go their separate ways. Contemplating the consequences of what they are about to do, our couple stands motionless in front of a hotel elevator, even as the doors slide open.

Enter the O.C.’s Olivia Wilde as a bridesmaid who quickly sizes up the situation. A friend of “Sarah the dancer”, she is determined to let Sarah’s beau know how displeased she is with this turn of events. Awkward, embarrassing, off-putting and humorously realistic, the scene is beautifully written and executed.

Once in the relative safety of her hotel room, the couple sheds a bit of their emotional armor along with their clothes. Despite his good looks, he, at least in this situation, is far from the self-assured, bon ve vant we are accustomed to seeing in American film. Vulnerable without being neurotic, thoughtful, while not drowning in sentimentality, he is, despite this obvious indiscretion, a decent fellow. She is a bit edgier: a woman who is hesitant to put herself out there and reveal or expose that which is most precious and closely guarded. This reversal of common stereotypes makes for some interesting and unexpected moments in an interesting and unexpected movie.

Conversations with Other Women was filmed well before the Harry Potter movies and The King’s Speech put Bonham Carter on Hollywood’s “A” list, and Eckhart took on more visible roles in films like No Reservations and The Dark Knight. Yet and still, money (they worked for scale) was obviously not the guiding force in their signing on to the project. Rather, they, like most of those associated with the film, were intrigued by Gabrielle Zevin’s tightly knit script, and Canosa’s unique vision.

Winner of several Independent Spirit awards and other international contests, Conversations with Other Women is far from a perfect movie, but considering the size of the budget, incredible time constraints (two five-day weeks of primary filming), and last minute twists and turns that could easily have brought production to halt, it is a triumph.

Those of you who are into the technical side of filmmaking will enjoy the DVD's commentary track, which is filled with all manner of ‘This is how we did that’ tidbits: stories of how the cast and crew came together to make the impossible, possible. But tidbits aside, this small but absorbing film stands on its own as an offbeat, captivatingly original piece of movie making.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


In today’s world, the escalating cost of producing a Broadway show or major motion picture has caused producers to bank on remakes, sequels and prequels rather than original material with no built-in fan base. Some fare better than others, the first remake of Love Affair becoming a classic, the second, a classic mistake.

But even the classics can fall victim to changing tastes, trends and times. Films like Sorry Wrong Number and Dial M For Murder whose plots depended upon the limitations of the day’s telephone system, no doubt ring false to an audience that has grown up with Call-Waiting, Last Number Dialed, Caller-ID, and smart phones.

Perhaps the most vulnerable of all genres is Science Fiction. Looking at some of yesterday’s films from today’s vantage point can make once futuristic sets and costumes look hokey, and special effects, anything but special.

Fahrenheit 451 is an exception. Devoid of Tinker Toy rocket ships and little green men, this 1966 sci-fi film is more a cautionary tale of what can happen when government power runs amuck.

The Ray Bradbury novel on which the film is based takes its name from the flashpoint at which paper bursts into flame. It was published in 1953, long before we had the ability to capture, download and store information in pint-sized, hand-held devices. At the time, books were available in two forms: hardcover and paperback. With that in mind, to truly enjoy this film, you need to check your Kindle at the door, along with any thoughts of post-fifties and sixties technologies.

Set some time in the distant future, Fahrenheit 451 takes place somewhere in Europe, where little boxes dot the hillside, and Big Brother is just another member of the family. In this dystopian society, books are dangerous and must be destroyed. Those who dare to hide what few books remain, are considered to be traitors, and must be stopped. Fire-alarm-like boxes make it easy for neighbors to turn in neighbors, sounding an alarm that sends the local fire department in motion.

The film begins uncharacteristically, with a voiceover announcer listing the film's credits over shots of strange-looking TV antennas menacingly hovering over the city. Then it's on to the firehouse, where firemen in German soldier-like helmets slide down the fire pole, board their truck and race to the suspect's address.

Once there, they storm the home in almost military fashion. Their mission: to seek, search, bag and burn any and all books. Systematically tearing through the house, they look behind furniture, inside television sets, potted plants and toasters – anywhere books are likely to be hidden. A half-smoked cigarette still burns in the ashtray, a sign that forewarned, the errant homeowner has left in haste.

Later, at the firehouse, fireman Guy Montag (Austria’s Oskar Werner), learns that his good and diligent work has been noted, and a promotion is in the works. Filled with anticipation as to what his new status might afford, he boards an elevated train for home. A pretty young woman named Clarisse McClellan (Julie Christie) introduces herself, as she believes they are neighbors. In the conversation that follows, we find out that she is a teacher-in-training, though she is the first to admit, that she doesn’t quite fit the mold.

Learning that Montag is a fireman, Clarisse is curious. Like most people her age, she can’t remember a time when firemen put out house fires rather than setting them. Intrigued by the idea, is asks if there really was such a time. Montag is evasive. But Clarisse pushes on; a trait that has no doubt gotten her in trouble back at the school.

Her next question throws Montag off-guard. “Why do you burn books?” His response, is, you'll excuse the expression, by the book. “Books are rubbish,” he replies. “Why do people read them? They make them unhappy, disturb people and make them anti-social. Books are dangerous.”

Then comes the question that will change everything:

“Do you ever read the books you burn?”

His answer is predictable. He has no interest in reading them, and far better things to do. Yet and still, the question lingers, piquing his curiosity and altering his path.

But not quite yet. For on this day, Montag leaves Clarisse and any thoughts of reading books behind, anxious to share the news of his impending promotion with his wife, Linda (Julie Christie in a dual role). He finds her entertaining friends in front of the living room’s ‘family wall’. The centerpiece of the wall is a large flat-screen TV, where “The Family”, a supposedly inter—active panel/discussion show, is about to begin. Chosen to join the panel from her home, Linda waits patiently for her turn. While she appears to enjoy the lifestyle and subsequent attention it affords her, it will soon become aparant that,(forgive me) you can’t judge a book by its cover. And her demeanor isn’t the only thing that is not what it appears to be.

Director Francois Truffaut’s last minute decision to cast Christie in both female leads adds a subtle layer to the tale. Early on, there appears to be little difference between the two; they obviously look alike, and their voices and mannerisms are similar. But as the story unfolds, we realize how very different they are.

In the end, they are but sidebars, the greater story being that of control: the government’s control of what information is available, Montag’s control or lack of it over his newly flamed desire to read the books he burns, and the bibliophiles’ efforts to control what's left of the ever-diminishing supply of books.

Montag’s struggle is profound. From the first line of David Copperfield, he is hooked; his thirst for reading such that he is soon squirreling away the very books he has come to burn. As someone who makes his living searching for them, he knows all the best hiding places, using the tricks of the trade to feed his obsession.

His wife doesn’t seem to notice, but his captain, who has been down this road before, calls him on it. "Trouble between you and the Pole?” he asks. Trouble indeed.

Fans of The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Illustrated Man and other Bradbury novels, will not be disappointed in Truffaut’s adaptation - his first in color, and only English-language film. With any luck, the plot’s twists and turns will catch you by surprise and reinforce your love and appreciation of books.

Back in 2007, there was word of a possible remake, and the players were intriguing. Frank Darabont, director of the superbly drawn screen versions of Stephen King's Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, was doing his best to find funding for the project; fanning the flames with talk of casting Tom Hanks as the wayward fireman. But by 2008, Hanks had dropped out, and plans for a remake were put on hold.

I like Tom Hanks – honest I do, but in my mind, he’s a bit too all-American for the role. I would rather the film retain its international flavor, casting relatively unknowns in the leading roles and taking place somewhere outside the United States. But as of now, it’s not going anywhere, and to tell you the truth, I’m not sure that it should.

There’s something to be said for creating a classic, and letting it be. I don’t want to see Angelina and Brad in an updated version of Casablanca, or Jack Black trying to fill Jack's Lemmon’s heels in Some Like it Hot. But that’s just me.

Like it or not, Hollywood will likely continue to revisit, revive and remake the industries golden oldies. The latest version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is scheduled to arrive in theaters just in time for Christmas, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. It won’t be the first time he’s played someone who appears to be something or someone he’s not. And maybe he can pull it off again. Carey Mulligan and Toby McGuire round out the cast.

While I kind of liked Robert Redford's Gatsby, the the 1974 film, with Mia Farrow as Daisy and Sam Waterston as Nick, was generally greeted with lukewarm reviews. Perhaps the 2012 version will fare a bit better. But then again, I wouldn’t make book on it.

Monday, February 20, 2012


If there was ever a film with a misleading title, this is it. Yes, the fellow at the center of the movie goes by that name, and yes, he does some slashing; but he is no Jack the Ripper, and this is not an updated version of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. That fact alone may have misled some moviegoers, disappointed others, and kept a bunch of folks from checking out this – for want of a better word - fascinating documentary.

So if it’s not about murder and mayhem, what then? Well, it’s about cars―used cars, and an over-the-top used car liquidator named Michael Bennett, a.k.a.,The Slasher.

If you’re of the opinion that all used car salesmen are bottom feeders, preying on the wants and needs of those who can least afford it, this documentary—which could have just as easily been called, Buyer Beware, is not likely to change your mind.

Prior to watching Slasher, I was of the somewhat naive opinion that such salesmen and tactics were reserved for the lowest of the low: small, generally sleazy-looking showroom-free used car lots with names like “Honest Johns”, signs that said, “Low credit – No credit – No problem”, and an inventory full of clunkers dating back to the Dark Ages. So it came as somewhat of a surprise that a well-respected Toyota dealership in the Memphis market had hired The Slasher to put on a three-day sales event. More surprising still, was the fact that the dealership gave the film crew complete behind-the-scenes access to the event.

I came to this film anxious to see how Memphis would be portrayed, and learn a little something about the used car business in the process. It had received several awards, and boasted a sound track full of Stax recordings, thanks to the director’s friendship with Steve Cropper and the music director’s father, who apparently had “connections”.

The idea for the documentary came about at a birthday bash for Chris Kobin, the man who would become the film’s executive producer. Some time during the evening, Kobin happened to mention to director John Landis that some ten years before, he had been a slasher. Intrigued, Landis wanted to know more.

Tale by tale and slash by slash Kobin reeled Landis in with outrageous accounts of super salesmen who would come into town with a suitcase full of fluff, putting on sideshows that drew people in and move cars out. By the end of the night, the director knew he wanted to make a documentary about these road warriors. He even batted around the possibility of putting Kobin in front of the camera to revisit his past, but Kobin’s wife quickly put the kibosh on the idea.

The following weekend, the producer took Landis to an over-the-top themed event in Sacramento that had drawn a crowd of some four-to-five thousand people. “They had a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, go-go girls, [and] cotton candy,” he recalled in a 2004 interview for the A.V. Club. “It was just such Americana, capitalism at its purest, [and] I thought this would be a great subject for a film.”

His first impulse was to draw parallels between these Harold Hill-like pitchmen and politicians, specifically some of our more recent presidents, comparing the things both groups had said to make a sale, get a bill passed, or justify something. All that would change once Landis saw Bennett swing into action. Only the germ of the idea remains in an early 'presidential' montage.

As you might suspect, the slashing community is a small but sturdy group of some fifty or so employees and independent contractors. Apparently two companies "own" the bulk of the business, with Caliber retaining the rights to the word “Slasher” as it applies to car liquidation. Though it is never mentioned in the film, one would assume that by referring to himself as “The Slasher,” Bennett is, or at least was attached to Caliber in some way.

By Landis’ own admission, his decision to feature Bennett had less to do with his potential star power, than the fact that he had an up-coming event in Memphis. “I thought ‘Ooh, Memphis barbecue’” said Landis, in that same 2004 interview.

If, you find this explanation to be a bit absurd, you’re not alone, especially given the fact that the Memphis event was small potatoes compared to the amusement park-like push Landis had witnessed in Sacramento. I personally believe that it was more about getting a dealership to sign on to the project than it was about the joys of a pulled pork sandwich and the chance to―you’ll excuse the expression―pig out.

Either way, the payoff was palatable. Upon seeing the frenetic pitchman swing into action, the director was so captivated that he switched gears (notice the automobile reference), making the pitchman rather than the pitch –and any political comparisons, the focus of the film.

We meet Bennett in his modest Los Angeles apartment, where he is preparing for his trip to Memphis. He is, we see, a family man, who loves his wife and adores his daughter, though he is home but a handful of days a month. We soon learn that he is being brought to the bluff city by a local Toyota dealership, where he will oversee a be all and end-all, come-and-get-it, three-day blowout event designed to move stale merchandise, boost sales and jack-up a sagging bottom line. For this he will be paid some $16,000, with the promise of a handsome bonus if he closes more than 50 sales within that 72-hour period.

He arrives in Memphis with bags full of prizes he will giveaway, and a bunch of faux Montblanc pens for the sales crew. The pens are more props than presents (Gotta look successful), although one has to wonder if their target customer will appreciate the significance of owning what appears to be the real thing.

But no matter, the pens are only a small part of a far bigger picture. As the weekend draws closer, signs, spots and slogans proclaim that The Slasher is coming to town, slashing prices and just about giving away drivable cars for eighty-eight dollars.

Fresh from a successful push in Pittsburgh, Bennett is, as they say, hot to trot. A study in boundless energy, he is a man with a plan―the Energizer Bunny on steroids. He drinks. He smokes. He paces. He roars. He is wired from head to toe, pausing only to call home, down a few brews and have some of that great Memphis barbecue Landis had been dreaming about.

We watch as on the days preceding the sale, Bennett and his crew audition almost-beauty queens to charm the male customers―explaining that, “We don’t want them too pretty, or the wives won’t like them.” The girls who make the cut will spend the holiday weekend smiling, waving, mixing and mingling as they hand out forms allowing the dealership to check a would-be buyer’s credit before he or she has even settled on a car. Later it will become apparent that most of the people who will fill out and sign these forms have no idea what they’re signing.

But in these days before the sale there is work to do, a sales staff to train, and a setting to stage. We watch as Bennett and his team cordon off the lot with yellow “Caution” tape (the kind you see in crime-scene sequences), setting chorus lines of red, white and blue balloons into the air, and creating a code within a code beneath each of the brightly colored oversized prices that have been poster-painted onto the windshield of every car, letting Bennett know just how much the dealership has in it, and therefore how much price he can slice.

It is at this point that we learn that what appears to be the dealer’s cost, is an inflated number designed to deceive even the most skeptical of buyers. In my opinion, the film is worth seeing for this bit of information alone. For while most of us know that in order to stay in business, a sales organization has to make a profit on every sale, we still like to believe that occasionally we beat the system, or at least hacked away at it. That won’t be happening on this lot―at least not while The Slasher is in town. Over time we will see him raising prices in order to cut them, baiting and switching and seemingly taking those who can least afford it, for a ride.

What is perhaps most troublesome here is that the people who brought Bennett in to run the sale appear to embrace his tactics – if only for three days, destroying (at least in my mind) any credibility they might have earned over the lifetime of the dealership. To tell you the truth, I’m amazed that all these years later, they appear to have suffered little if anything from the experience. But I still have to wonder why any sales manager would want to put his dealership up to that kind of scrutiny.

The fact that John Landis was at the helm of the project may have had something to do with it. Landis, after all, is a well-known director, having produced some of the biggest box office draws in the 1980s: films like National Lampoon’s Animal House, Beverly Hills Cop, Trading Places, An American Werewolf in London and a game-changing video called Thriller. The manager and his superiors may have also felt that, as in the world of show business, there is no such thing as bad publicity. As for future repercussions, they might have believed, as Landis did, that the people drawn to these events weren’t likely to watch a documentary, and it wouldn’t make any difference to those who did. “No matter how much we reveal here, people are still going to buy cars, and still get screwed,” says Landis on the film’s commentary track, adding, “Pretty much like going to Las Vegas. I don’t think people get it. The odds are with the house.”

So much for the adage, forewarned is forearmed. But both the film and the director’s commentary version, are still worth watching, unveiling the strategies some (certainly not all) used car dealers employ to make a sale. Some, like the bait-and-switch tack, have been exposed before. Others, like Bennett’s code-within-a-code and the role the dealer’s finance officer plays, are both fascinating and revealing.

At one hour and twenty-five minutes, Slasherr is a bit long and somewhat repetitive, and not as funny or fantastic as some of its reviewers would lead you to believe. But it is worth seeing, if, for no other reason than to get an inside look at the used car business. It also provides some insight into how a filmmaker’s perspective, concerns and editing choices can influence the way a subject is presented. Landis candidly admits that in the opening hours of the sale, “So many African-Americans showed up [that]...for a moment it was all black,” causing him to fear that it would look like the dealership was exploiting poor black people. Relief came when―in his words, “…poor white people showed up.” A sad revelation, no matter how you look at it.

I have purposely omitted the name of the dealership in this post, as it is not my intention to vilify anyone. Hopefully, in the eight years following the film’s release they have dashed the slash and taken the high road. I am also hopeful that Landis was wrong in his belief that despite any revelations garnered in the film, viewers would keep taking the bait; believing what they wanted to believe, even if it was too good to be true.

Is this the best documentary you’ll ever see? Hardly. But, it is a fascinating look at the belly of the beast, where super pitchmen, like the red white and blue balloons that announce their arrival, are often filled with nothing more than a lot of hot air.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Defending Your Life

New Year. New movie. Actually, new old movie. It’s called, Defending Your Life, and unlike most of the films you'll read about here, this one was mainstreamed in a Woody Allen kind of way.

I was reminded of this film when I read that Albert Brooks was getting some Oscar buzz for his sobering and totally against-type performance as mobster Bernie Rose in Drive.

Long known for his comedic sensibility, Brooks, whose real name is Albert Einstein, wrote directed and starred in Defending Your Life. To my mind, it’s one of the best afterlife comedies out there, and there are a bunch of them.

Over the years Brooks' body of work has been under-appreciated and overlooked at awards time; the industry passing over his and other comedies that deserved to be recognized in favor of more serious fare. This has always puzzled me, as if anyone should know how hard it is to make a truly funny film, it's a filmmaker.

Why? Because ‘Funny’ is no laughing matter. You're either born with the funny gene, or you're not, Knowing what works, and what doesn't is instinctive, as is timing and delivery. Just ask Neil Simon, who built a whole scene around the subject in 1975’s The Sunshine Boys. Who can forget ex-vaudevillian Willie Clark explaining “funny” to his agent nephew?

Words with a 'K' in it are funny.
Alka-Seltzer is funny.
Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. All with a 'K'.
L's are not funny. M’s are not funny.
Cupcake is funny.

And Brooks is funny, whether he’s writing, directing or acting in one of his or anyone else's comedies.

Defending Your Life is one of, if not his best. The dialogue, you should excuse the expression, is dead on, the casting, made in heaven, including the so-called "bit" players, and a surprise cameo by – well, if I told you, it wouldn't be a surprise.

What I can tell you is that it’s the story of an average Joe named Daniel Miller who hasn't lived up to his mother’s, ex-wife’s or own expectations, although he’s making what many would consider to be a good living. How good? Good enough to buy himself a BMW convertible for his birthday. Maybe not the top of the line model, but a BMW none-the-less.

We meet him in the conference room of the ad agency where, after thanking his co-workers for their gifts and birthday wishes, he picks up his new ride and takes it out for a spin. Popping Barbra Streisand’s Broadway album into the car’s CD player, he is soon singing along with Babs as she belts out West Side Story’s “Something’s Coming.”

That “something” turns out to be a bus, and before Daniel can say, “What the..?” our boy has kissed today good-bye and jettisoned from L.A. to Judgment City, where, dazed and confused, he is shuttled to the Continental: a no frills hotel that, were it not for a few signs here and there (i.e. “Welcome Kiwanis Dead”), could be mistaken for a down-to-earth Holiday Inn.

Is Judgment City Brooks’ idea of Heaven? Not exactly. More like a way station that, like the Continental, looks comfortably familiar. But, as someone once said, looks can be deceiving, and it doesn't take long for Daniel to figure out that he’s not in Kansas (well, L.A.), any more.

The good news? Being dead isn't half bad. Nothing hurts, everything’s free, there’s plenty to see and do and the food is fantastic. Better yet, you can eat all you want and not get fat―if you can find the time to eat it, because the bad news is, you're going to be pretty busy defending your life.

Brooks’ version of the hereafter Is devoid of any religious references or connotations. There are no cherubs relaxing on clouds, no devils or angels, no Higher Power. In his world, life-after-life is a process, and Judgment City is one of several processing centers in the universe, responsible for examining the lives of half of the United States’ newly deceased (some 2,500 souls) a day.

Its court system is a well-oiled machine, designed not to convict or punish, but to weed out the fearful and elevate the fearless. Daniel, like all new arrivals, must prove to the court that in life, he not only conquered his fears but learned from them, for, as his court-appointed attorney, Bob Diamond explains, fear is like "a giant fog that sits on your brain and blocks everything: real feelings, true happiness, and real joy." If you haven't faced your fears, you can't move on. And if you can't move on, you have to head back to earth for another go. It's the old "If at first you don't succeed" thing.

Daniel: So what do you do? Do you just keep going back until you get it right?

Diamond: Well, you don't keep going back. Eventually they throw you away.

Daniel: Have I been to earth before?

Diamond: Oh yeah.

Daniel: How many times?

Diamond: Approaching twenty.

Daniel: Is that a lot?

Diamond: I was there six.

Daniel: Oh my God. So I'm the dunce of the universe.

Diamond: Don't be silly. We have people who have been there a hundred times. I wouldn't want to hang out with any of them, but I've seen them.

And so it goes. The banter was never better.

Bob Diamond, as played with great panache by Rip Torn, is a bundle of contradictions: one moment the gregarious upbeat and jovial cheerleader, the next, a pompous and condescending elitist who seems to relish pointing out Daniel’s inadequacies. It’s easy to do, given the fact that Diamond uses between 48% of his brain, while Daniel, like all new arrivals or “little brains”,uses only 3%-to-5% of his.

After flipping through Daniel's file, Diamond realizes that he'll need every kilowatt of his brainpower to prove that his client is ready to move on. It doesn't help that he'll be facing Lena Foster in court, a hard-as-nails prosecutor hell-bent on winning. "We call her 'the dragon lady'" he tells his wary charge, as he lays out the trial's when, where, why's and wherefores of what lies ahead.

After a bunch of lunch, Diamond urges his client to forget his troubles, come on, get happy, and head into town for a little R&R. A poster in the hotel's elevator prompts Daniel to visit The Bomb Shelter, "Judgment City's oldest comedy club", where he meets and falls instantly in love with another newbee by the name of Julia.

As played by Meryl Streep, Julia is everything Daniel is not, she is confident, light hearted, warm, generous, heroic and adored by all, including her attorney, prosecutor and the judges who will be deciding her fate. That she is as crazy about Daniel as he is of her is somewhat of a puzzlement, but what the heck ―it’s a movie, and he’s kind of lovable in a sweetly neurotic kind of way.

Their courtship provides Brooks-the-writer with numerous opportunities to get Daniel out of the courtroom and into the city, for a visit to the Past Lives Pavilion ("Where you see some of the people you've been before"), dinner at Italian restaurant with the longest spaghetti in recorded history, and a look inside the Majestic,Julia’s four-star hotel.

Even a little brain like Daniel can see that the Continental bares little resemblance to the Majestic, where they serve caviar and champagne “in the blue room” and place little chocolate swans on your pillow when they turn down your covers for the night. Where are you staying?” asks Julia innocently. “The Continental”, he replies. “Come over and we'll paint it.”

As time goes on, it becomes even more apparent to Daniel that theirs is an ill-fated romance, for while Julia is all but assured of moving ahead, he will most certainly be heading back to the future. But hey, it’s a comedy, which means there’s a good chance that despite the odds, the star-crossed lovers will ‘live’ happily ever after in the everafter.

If the ending comes as no surprise, the stops along the way will. Defending Your Life is loaded with ridiculously witty and incredibly clever quips, signs, business and banter that will keep you smiling to the very end.

In the film's comedy club sequence, the resident comic― who is bombing big-time, tries to engage the audience with a little interaction. His questions ("How long were you in a coma?" and "How do you like Judgment City so far?") reminded me of pick-up lines, each being the hereafter equivelant to "What's your sign?" Spotting Daniel – who is, by far, one of the younger members in the crowd, he asks the inevitable question― "How'd you die?" Daniel's response: "On stage, like you."

In real life, Brook’s dad, comedian Harry Parke―known to radio listeners as Greek Restaurant Owner Parkyakarkus (park your carcass) on the Eddie Cantor Show, literally died on stage at a Friar’s Club roast for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in 1958. After finishing his routine, he sat back in his seat, suffered a fatal heart attack, and slumped over into Milton Berle’s lap. Realizing that something was terribly wrong, Berle asked if there was a doctor in the house. Thinking it was part of the act, the audience laughed at what they believed was the punch line. It was only after Berle made a second frantic plea that two physicians raced to the stage, but were unable to revive the fallen comedian.