Thursday, November 23, 2017
Eat them up, yum: Top 10 Food Flicks
By Dennis Hartley
I was originally going to do a post this week about my “top 10 Thanksgiving movies”, but after pondering it for a spell, all I could come up with was The House of Yes, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Ice Storm , Planes, Trains and Automobilesand Alice's Restaurant. After that, I had nuthin’ (A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving ? But that’s TV.) Oh, I suppose there are many more titles out there (wasn’t there like, a Walton family Thanksgiving thingie?) but apparently they would not be among my favorites. One movie theme that I can more easily relate to, however, is movies about food (or containing at least one memorable eating scene). Hey, everyone’s gotta eat, right? So, chew on these:
Big Night-This is one DVD that I have brought along to many a social gathering and repeatedly foisted on friends and relatives, because after all, it’s important to “…take a bite out of the ass of life!” (as one of the film’s characters points out with great veracity). Two brothers, one an enterprising businessman named Secondo (Stanley Tucci, who also co-wrote and co-directed) and his older sibling Primo (Tony Shalhoub), a gifted chef, open an Italian restaurant but quickly run into financial trouble. Possible salvation arrives via a dubious proposal from a more successful competitor (played with much aplomb by Ian Holm). The fate of their business hinges on Primo’s ability to conjure up the ultimate godhead Italian feast. And oh, what a meal he prepares (you’d better have some pasta and ragu handy-or your appestat will be writing checks that your duodenum will not be able to cash, if you know what I’m sayin’). The wonderful cast includes Isabella Rossellini, Minnie Driver, Liev Schreiber, Allison Janney, and Campbell Scott (who co-directed with Tucci). A virtually unrecognizable Marc Anthony (the Latin pop superstar) lurks in the kitchen throughout as Primo’s cooking/prep assistant, with nary a line of dialogue.
Comfort and Joy-Another delightful, quirky trifle from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth (Local Hero, Gregory's Girl). An amiable Glasgow radio personality (Bill Paterson) gets unceremoniously dumped by his girlfriend on Christmas Eve, which throws him into an existential crisis, causing him to take a sudden and urgent inventory of his personal and professional life. Soon after lamenting to his GM that he wants to do something more “important” than his chirpy morning show, serendipity drops him into the middle a of a potentially hot “investigative journalism” story-an escalating “war” between two local rival ice-cream dairies. Chock full of Forsyth’s patented low-key anarchy and extremely dry one-liners. As a former morning DJ, I can tell you that the scenes depicting “Dickie Bird” doing his show are very authentic, which is rare on the screen. It will take days to get the ice cream van’s loopy theme music out of your head.
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover-A gamey, visceral and perversely piss-elegant fable about food, as it relates to love, sex, violence, revenge, and uh, Thatcherism from writer-director Peter Greenaway (who I like to refer to as “the thinking person’s Ken Russell”). Michael Gambon really chews up the scenery (figuratively and literally) as a vile and vituperative British underworld type who holds nightly court at his “front” business, a gourmet restaurant. When his bored trophy wife (Helen Mirren, in a fearless performance) becomes attracted to one of the regular diners, a quiet and unassuming bookish fellow, the wheels are set in motion for quite a twisty tale, culminating in one of the most memorable scenes of “just desserts” ever served up on film. The opulent set design and cinematographer Sacha Vierny’s extraordinary use of color combine to lend a rich Jacobean texture to the proceedings. Look for the late, great 80s pub rocker Ian Dury (“Sex & Drugs & Rock ’n’ Roll”) in a small part as one of the crime lord’s associates.
Delicatessen -This film is so…French. A seriocomic vision of a food-scarce, dystopian future society along the lines of Soylent Green, directed with great verve and trademark surrealist touches by co-directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (The City of Lost Children). The pair’s favorite leading man, Dominique Pinon (sort of a sawed-off Robin Williams) plays a circus performer who moves into an apartment building with a butcher shop downstairs. The shop’s proprietor seems to be appraising the new tenant with, shall we say, a “professional” eye? In Jeunet and Caro’s bizarro world, it’s all par for the course (just wait ‘til you get a load of the vegan “troglodytes” who live underneath the city streets). One particular sequence, involving a wildly funny, imaginatively staged sex scene, stands on its own as a veritable master class in the arts of film and sound editing
Diner-This wondrous, episodic slice-of-life dramedy marked writer-director Barry Levinson’s first feature film back in 1982, and it remains his best, IMHO. A small group of twenty-something buddies converge for Christmas week in 1959 Baltimore. One is recently married, another is about to get hitched, and the others are still playing the field and deciding what to do with the rest of their life. They are all slogging fitfully toward that last, “no turning back” portal to “adulthood”. The most entertaining scenes take place at the group’s favorite meeting place, a local diner, where the comfort food of choice is French fries with gravy (mmm…French fries with gravy). Levinson has a great gift for writing dialog, and it’s all the little details that make the difference here; like a cranky appliance store customer who refuses to upgrade to color TV because he saw Bonanza at a friend’s house, and decided that “…the Ponderosa looked fake”. This film was more influential than it gets credit for; Tarantino owes a debt of gratitude (see below) as well as the creators of TV’s Seinfeld. It also helped launch film careers for Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Daniel Stern, Timothy Daly, Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser.
Eat Drink Man Woman-Or as I once dubbed it: “I Never Stir-Fried for My Father”. This was director Ang Lee’s more substantive follow-up to his enjoyable, but relatively fluffy crowd-pleaser The Wedding Banquet (another good food flick). Lee treads on Wayne Wang territory in this beautifully acted dramedy about the clash of traditional vs. modern values within Chinese culture. An aging master chef, who is losing his sense of taste (ah, savor the irony) stringently follows a tradition of preparing an elaborate feast every Sunday, which his three grown (and single) daughters are required to attend. Dysfunctional family angst ensues around these mandatory gatherings, as you might expect. As the story unfolds, Lee reveals the bittersweet truths and universality of family dynamics, which transcends culture and geography. Only caveat: An hour after you watch it, you’ll be hungry for a second feature (I’m KIDDING). You know I’m a kidder.
My Dinner with Andre- Boy, this one is a tough sell to the uninitiated. “An entire film that nearly all takes place at one restaurant table, with two self-absorbed New York intellectuals pontificating the whole time- ‘yak, yak, yak, yak’? This is entertaining?!” Actually, um, yes-it is. Quite surprisingly so. The late great director Louis Malle took a bold artistic gamble with this movie that pays off in spades. Although ostensibly a work of “fiction”, Malle’s two stars, theatre director Andre Gregory and actor-playwright Wallace Shawn, essentially play themselves (the pair collaborated on the screenplay). A rumination on art, life, love, the universe and everything, the film is not so much about the food itself, but more of a love letter to the lost art of erudite dinner conversation.
Pulp Fiction -Although the universal popularity of this Quentin Tarantino opus is largely owed to its hyper-stylized mayhem and the ultra-hip, creatively salty iambic pentameter spouted by the characters, I have always felt it to be a closer cousin to Diner than to, say, The Asphalt Jungle(I know that sounds crazy, but hear me out). Think about it: The film’s crucial opening and closing scenes take place in a diner, with characters conducting animated, eclectic conversations over plates of food. In Mia and Vincent’s protracted sequence at the theme restaurant, the camera gives us fetishistic close-ups of their decidedly all-American eats (“Douglas Sirk steak. And a vanilla coke.”). There’s that classic exchange between Vincent and Jules regarding “Le” Big Macs in France, Jules’ voracious hijacking of poor hapless Brett’s “Big Kahuna” burger, and Fabienne pining wistfully about her longing for blueberry pancakes. Even the super efficient Mr. Wolfe takes a few seconds out of his precisely mapped schedule to reflect on the pleasures of a fresh-brewed cup of coffee. I think this definitely qualifies as a food flick!
Tampopo-Self billed as “The first Japanese noodle western”, this 1987 entry from writer-director Juzo Itami (A Taxing Woman) is all that and more. Nobuko Niyamoto is superb as the title character, a widow who has inherited her late husband’s noodle house. Despite her hard work and sincere effort to please customers, Tampopo struggles to keep the business afloat, until a deux ex machina arrives-a truck driver named Goro (Tsutomo Yamazaki). After one taste, Goro pinpoints the problem-her noodles are bland (in his personal “code of the east”, bland noodles are an aesthetic crime). No worries-like the magnanimous gunslinger of the old west, Goro decides to take Tampopo on as a personal project, and mentor her on the Zen of creating the perfect noodle bowl. A true delight from start to finish, offering keen insight on the relationship between food, sex and love.
Tom Jones (-Truly, doth I really need to explain? Good sirs and madams, I prithee, just watch this morsel…and enjoy:
Anyone for seconds? Here are 10 more personal recommendations for your delectation: Babette's Feast, Like Water for Chocolate, Henry Jaglom's Eating - A Very Serious Comedy About Women and Food, Ratatouille, The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie, Eating Raoul, Chocolat , 9 1/2 Weeks, La Grande Bouffe, GoodFellas .
--- Dennis Hartley
* This was originally posted back in 2008.
digby 11/23/2017 01:30:00 PM