Saturday, May 22, 2010

Mildred Pierce

Wally: What’s this? (as Mildred wraps an apron around his waist)
Mildred: Wally, we’re swamped. You’ve got to help us.
Wally: Who, me? I’m an executive.
Mildred: Well, you’re now vice president in charge of the potatoes.

Opening with the depiction of a murder, this “whodunit” with a surprise ending not only ended Crawford’s career slump but earned her a Best Actress Oscar. Driven to provide the very best for her daughter Veda (Blyth), Mildred (Crawford) has spent her entire married life in the kitchen, not only putting fine meals on the table but also baking cakes and pies to order for parties and other celebrations. When she catches her husband in an affair and asks him to leave, she must find additional employment and ends up as a waitress at a diner. There she learns the restaurant business, the hard way, and despite Veda’s expensive tastes manages to save enough to invest in her own establishment: Mildred’s Fine Foods, a restaurant with an elegant dining area, a handsome bar, and a drive-in service. She has such success that she is able to open five restaurants in three years. Unfortunately, all the men in her life, as Ida (Arden), remarks, “have the instincts of a heel,” and their selfishness leads to tragedy.

Although it centers on the restaurant business, Mildred Pierce doesn’t actually show much in the way of food. The viewer has fleeting glimpses of chicken dinners and sandwiches at the diner, and of the very large, ornate birthday cake and the dozens of peach, berry, pumpkin, cherry, and apple pies that Mildred bakes. What is perhaps more interesting is the contemporary restaurant slang that would be unfamiliar to most of today’s viewers: for example, “Adam and Eve on a raft, make it hard!” is an order for two hard-boiled eggs on toast. One might speculate that the actors, screenwriters, directors, and others involved in the movie brought their own experience to bear during the restaurant scenes, given that so many film people have spent so much time as wait staff at so many eating establishments before finding their true métier.

Fun Fact:
As has many an actor before and since, Joan Crawford supported herself as a salesperson and waitress before making it in film, and her own experiences added verité to her award-winning performance as rags-to-riches restaurateur Mildred Pierce.

Released 1945
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Screenplay by Ranald MacDougall, based on the novel of the same name by James M. Cain

Starring Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce Beragon, Jack Carson as Wally Fay, Zachary Scott as Monte Beragon, Eve Arden as Ida Corwin, Ann Blyth as Veda Pierce Forrester, Bruce Bennett as Albert “Bert” Pierce, and Butterfly McQueen as Lottie

Awards: 1946 Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Crawford); 1945 National Board of Review Award for Best Actress (Crawford)

Last Holiday

A remake of the 1950 film Last Holiday starring Alec Guinness as George Bird, 2006’s Last Holiday, starring Queen Latifah in the starring role of Georgia Bird, features some amazingly beautiful and mouth-watering dishes, from simple-to-prepare dishes like shrimp cocktail to a more complicated cassoulet. Even the names are delicious: Poulet Tchoupitoulas, Creole Roasted Duck Hash en Croute, Rissotto Barolo with Truffles, Rouget Citrus Beurre Blanc with Capers, Roast Quail with Brioche Stuffing, and Braised Lamb Shank with Blood Orange Relish, not to mention an amazing Crawfish Gumbo chez Georgia’s Joint and the Hotel Papp’s Stuffed Boiled Fish and an incredible bouillabaisse.

The film also includes some of the best food lines ever written:

--“The poor baby turnips. Nobody likes them, you know? Of course, life is easy if you are a truffle or a shiitake mushroom. But the turnip is to be loved because she’s a self-made woman of vegetables. All the others you can only destroy with cooking. But the turnip, she gets better. So, you see, it’s not how you start but how you finish.”
--“No butter, no cream, no wheat, no dairy, no fat! Eh, merde! Why do they bother to eat?”
--“The secret of life is butter!”

Food, of course, is a metaphor for how to live: if you want to taste life in full, don’t ask the “chef” to make any “substitutions” in the way he or she prepares your meal. As Georgia remarks, “You wait and you wait for something big to happen…and then you find out you’re gonna die.” So, turn your “Book of Possibilities” into a “Book of Realities,” pursue your dreams now, and live without regrets. It’s a common message in Hollywood films, but Last Holiday gives it a very tasty twist.

Fun Fact:
Food Network chefs traveled with the film crew and prepared all the dishes served in the movie. From them, Queen Latifah learned a number of cooking techniques so that she would be convincing as a professional chef. On their website, the Food Network also posted recipes for some of the dishes that appeared in the movie, such as Lobster Salad in Potato Leek Nests and Bananas Foster.

Released January 13, 2006
Directed by Wayne Wang
Written by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman

Starring Queen Latifah as Georgia Byrd, LL Cool J as Sean Matthews, Timothy Hutton as Matthew Kragen, Gerard Dépardieu as Chef Didier, Giancarlo Esposito as Senator Dillings, Alicia Witt as Ms. Burns, Susan Kellermann as Gunther, Matt Ross as Adamian, and Ranjit Chowdhry as Dr. Gupta; cameo by Emeril Lagasse as himself

Lady and the Tramp

Joe: Here's your bones, Tony.
Tony: Okay, bones. Bones? What's the matter with you, Joe? I break-a your face! Tonight, Butch, he gets the best in the house!
Joe: Okay, Tony! You the boss.
Tony: [Showing Tramp the menu] Now, tell me, what's your pleasure? A la carte? Dinner? [Tramp barks something like "Spaghetti"]
Tony: A-ha, okay. Hey, Joe! Butch-a, he says he wants-a two spaghetti speciale. Heavy on the meats-a ball.
Joe: Tony, dogs don't talk.
Tony: He's a-talkin' to me!
Joe: Okay, he's a-talkin' to you! You the boss! Mamma mia.

A tale of romance between a society cocker spaniel and a street dog, Lady and the Tramp has endeared viewers for half a century. While the story's setting may seem quaint and the plot outdated, the film has an enduring charm and features a collection of songs that have become standards, including "He's a Tramp" and "Bella Notte." Indeed, Peggy Lee's rendition of "He's a Tramp" is often emulated but never equaled.

The movie also features a memorable dinner scene: For their first "date," Tramp takes Lady to Tonys Restaurant, where he is known as Butch. Because he is one of Tony's favorite "customers," Tramp is allowed to treat Lady to a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs. As Tony and Joe serenade the couple, Tramp and Lady begin eating the same strand of spaghetti, slurping it up until they both reach the middle and unexpectedly kiss. Lady turns away shyly, but Tramp nuzzles the last meatball over to her side of the plate. Once again, food serves romance.
Released June 22, 1955
Written by Ward Greene, Erdman Penner, Joe Rinaldi, Ralph Wright, Don DaGradi, and Joe Grant
Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske
Starring Peggy Lee as Darling/Si/Am/Peg, Barbara Luddy as Lady, Larry Roberts as Tramp, Bill Thompson as Jock/Dachsie/Joe, Bill Baucom as Trusty, George Givot as Tony, Lee Millar as Jim Dear, Verna Felton as Aunt Sarah, Alan Reed as Boris
Songs: "He's a Tramp" by Sonny Burke and Peggy Lee, performed by Peggy Lee; "The Siamese Cat Song" by Sonny Burke and Peggy Lee, performed by Peggy Lee; "Bella Notte (This Is the Night)" by Sonny Burke and Peggy Lee, performed by George Givot and studio chorus
Awards: 1956 David di Donatello Award for Best Foreign Production

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Julie & Julia

Julia: French people eat French food. Every single day. I can’t get over it.

Julie: …is there anything better than butter? Think it over: Every time you taste something that’s delicious beyond imagining and you say, “What is in this?”, the answer is always going to be, Butter. … Here’s my final word on the subject: You can never have too much butter.
Based on two books (Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen by Julie Powell and My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme) and Julie Powell’s blog, Julie & Julia relates two stories: that of Julia Child (Streep) and how she came to learn French cooking; and that of Julie Powell (Adams) and how she came to cook all of the recipes in the classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Child, Louisette Berthollle, and Simone Beck.

Of course, the film is filled with amazing food. One of the first enticements—appealing to the viewer’s sweet tooth—is chocolate pie; but many delectables follow: bruschetta; artichokes with hollandaise sauce; chicken with cream, mushrooms, and port; soufflés; lobster thermidor; braised cucumbers; roast chicken stuffed with chicken livers and cream cheese; the famous boeuf bourguignon; raspberry Bavarian cream; and finally, boned duck, stuffed and baked in a pastry shell.

Although novices might disagree, much of cooking has a particular certainty to it. As Julie comments, “You know what I love about cooking? … I love that after a day when nothing is sure—and when I say ‘nothing’ I mean nothing!—you can come home and absolutely know that if you add eggs yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. It’s such a comfort.” Or as Julia Child often said, “Don’t be afraid!” Excellent advice for cooks and chefs of whatever level of experience.

Released 2009
Written and directed by Nora Ephron

Starring Meryl Streep as Julia Child, Amy Adams as Julie Powell, Stanley Tucci as Paul Child, Chris Messina as Eric Powell, Linda Emond as Simone Beck, and Helen Carey as Louisette Bertholle

Awards: 2009 BSFC Award for Best Actress (Streep); 2009 NYFCC Award for Best Actress (Streep); 2009 SEFCA Award for Best Actress (Streep)

The Joy Luck Club

Waverly: He should have taken only a small spoonful of the best dish until everyone had had a helping.
Lindo: He has good appetite.

Like Raise the Red Lantern, The Joy Luck Club calls the viewer to a deeper understanding of Chinese food and table service in order to follow the interpersonal dynamics at play. For example, here is what happens when Waverly brings her fiancé, Rich, to meet her parents for the first time but fails to explain the finer points of Chinese etiquette in advance:

Waverly: But the worst was when Rich criticized my mother’s cooking, and he didn’t even know what he had done. As is the Chinese cook’s custom, my mother always insults her own cooking, but only with the dishes she serves with special pride.
Lindo: This dish not salty enough. No flavor. It’s too bad to eat. Please.
Waverly: That was our cue to eat some and proclaim it the best she’d ever made.
Rich: You know, Lindo, all this needs is a little soy sauce [which he copiously adds to the platter].
Everyone: [Gasps!]

As the stories of the four mothers and their four daughters unfold, certain dishes become iconic: the watermelon, cleaved open and torn asunder by Ying-Ying’s cruel husband; the special shrimp dish prepared by Lindo; the chocolate and peanut butter pie that Rose bakes for her estranged husband, Ted; the hot pot/soup that scalds young An-Mei; and the stuffed crabs that Suyuan makes from the “best quality.” These foods embody the fears and failures, the hopes and dreams of a group of women who, despite incredible adversities, have persevered and in their search for self-acceptance and love.

Released 1993
Directed by Wayne Wang
Screenplay by Amy Tan and Ronald Bass, based on the novel of the same name by Amy Tan

Starring Kieu Chinh as Suyuan Woo, Tsai Chin as Lindo Jong, France Nuyen as Ying-Ying St. Clair, Lisa Lu as An-Mei Hsu, Ming-Na as Jing-Mei “June” Woo, Tamlyn Tomita as Waverly Jong, Lauren Tom as Lena St. Clair, Rosalind Chao as Rose Hsu Jordan, Christopher Rich as Rich, Michael Paul Chan as Harold, Philip Moon as Ken, and Andrew McCarthy as Ted Jordan

Awards: 1994 Casting Society of America, USA Artios for Best Casting for Feature Film, Drama; 1994 Young Artist Award for Best Actress under Ten in a Motion Picture (Melanie Chang)

It's Complicated

A romantic comedy with a twist (aren’t they all?), It’s Complicated centers around Jane (Streep), who begins an affair with her ex-husband, Jake (Baldwin), during their son’s college graduation weekend. There are several complications: Jake is remarried, with a stepson and a younger wife who wants to have another baby; Jake and Jane’s children are still smarting from their parents’ divorce ten years previously; and Jane has begun to feel an attraction for Adam (Martin), the architect who is designing a new kitchen wing for her house. Are the characters able to overcome the complications and move on with their lives? No spoilers here….

Because Jane studied cooking in France and now owns and operates a bakery/restaurant, the film features a good deal of mouth-watering food: oven-roasted chicken, fresh green salad with pasta, “croque monsieur” (grilled cheese) sandwiches, homemade bread (of course), luscious berry pies, lavender ice cream, and double-chocolate layer cake. Jane even teaches Adam (and the viewer) how to make chocolate croissants. All of which makes this another movie not to be seen on an empty stomach.

Released 2009
Written and directed by Nancy Meyers
Starring Meryl Streep as Jane, Alec Baldwin as Jake, Steve Martin as Adam, John Krasinski as Harley, Lake Bell as Agness, Mary Kay Place as Joanne, Rita Wilson as Trisha, Alexandra Wentworth as Diane, Hunter Parrish as Luke, Zoe Kazan as Gabby, Caitlin Fitzgerald as Lauren, and Emjay Anthony as Pedro
Awards: 2009 NBR Award for Best Ensemble Cast

The Hours

Clarissa: Just to let you know, I am making the crab thing. Not that I imagine it makes any difference to you.
Richard: Of course, it makes a difference. I love the crab thing.
Based on the award-winning novel of the same name by Michael Cunningham, The Hours is a dense movie that interweaves three narratives: that of Virginia Woolf (Kidman) in the midst of writing Mrs. Dalloway in 1923; that of Laura Brown (Moore) in the midst of reading Mrs. Dalloway in 1951; and that of Clarissa Vaughan (Streep) in the midst of living as Mrs. Dalloway in 2001. Both the book and the film address existential questions with which many people grapple: How do we spend the hours at our disposal? Are these hours paradise or prison, joyful hours spent with loved ones or empty hours endured with loneliness? Can we even choose which they will be?
In The Hours, as opposed to many other movies, food is not capable of healing pain or filling emptiness, for the great feast that Clarissa prepares for her friend, Richard’s (Harris), celebration has to be put aside because of an unexpected death. Not even her “crab thing” can ease the passing—some pain is too deep for food. Thus, the movie shows the feast only as it is being packaged up, the crab dish as it is being tossed into the trash. The shot at the beginning of the film of the large crabs crawling over one another in Clarissa’s kitchen sink is, however, quite memorable.

Released 2002
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Screenplay by David Hare, based on the novel of the same name by Michael Cunningham

Starring Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, Julianne Moore as Laura Brown, Meryl Streep as Clarissa Vaughan, Stephen Dillane as Leonard Woolf, Miranda Richardson as Vanessa Bell, John C. Reilly as Dan Brown, Jack Rovello as Richie Brown, Toni Collette as Kitty, Ed Harris as Richard Brown, Allison Janney as Sally Lester, Claire Danes as Julia Vaughan, and Jeff Daniels as Louis Waters

Awards: 2003 Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Kidman); 2003 BAFTA Film Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (Kidman) and Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music (Philip Glass); 2003 Berlin International Film Festival Reader Jury of the “Berliner Morgenpost” (Daldry) and Silver Berlin Bear for Best Actress (Streep, Kidman, and Moore); 2002 BSFC Award for Best Supporting Actress (Collette); 2003 Casting Society of America, USA Artios for Best Casting for a Feature Film, Drama; 2003 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Film-Wide Release; 2003 German Film Award for Best Foreign Film; 2003 Golden Globes Award for Best Motion Picture-Drama and Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture-Drama (Kidman); 2003 L.A. Outfest Screen Idol Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (Streep); 2003 Las Vegas Film Critics Society Sierra Awards for Best Actress (Kidman) and Best Supporting Actor (Reilly); 2002 LAFCA Award for Best Actress (Moore); 2002 NBR Award for Best Film; 2003 WGA Award (Screen) for Best Adapted Screenplay (Hare); and many more