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."
SAVORY BAKED GOODS
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 wolfermans.com.
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 MSUcheese.com.
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.
JAMS, BUTTERS & SPREADS
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 www.stonewallkitchen.com/ 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 www.cajunwholesale.com.
RICE & PASTA
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).
CAKES, COOKIES, PIES & OTHER SWEET BAKED GOODS
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 BonAppititehon.com, ‘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 www.bergercookie.com/. 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 www.boardwalkmacaroons.com/, 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.”
PRETZELS, CHIPS, DIPS, CANDY AND OTHER SNACKS
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, Amazon.com 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 atwww.steelsfudge.com/.
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 jamescandy.com
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 www.rhebcandy.com/, 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 (mileskimball.com/). 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 (www.cheribundi.com/), 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 www.nespresso-us.com/?cid=ig_id-48977932” .
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 www.valdoca.com/.
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
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.