Friday, January 6, 2012

Foodie Movies Redux

As I’ve mentioned on this blog, several months ago a friend and I had a food-themed movie night. We ambitiously culled a long list of food-related movies, of which we only managed to watch a handful. Since that night, I’ve been able to add a handful more of these movies to my already-watched list. Now checked off the list, so to speak, are Tortilla Soup, Nina’s Heavenly Delights, Eat Pray Love, Mildred Pierce, and Julie & Julia. (These are listed not alphabetically, as I am usually wont to do, but in the order in which I viewed them.) Below are some of my thoughts about these movies; feel free to join the conversation by adding to the comments section!

Tortilla Soup

Note: This is the Mexican-American version of the earlier, Ang Lee-directed movie, Eat Drink Man Woman.

Restaurant owner and chef Martin (Hector Elizondo) is a widower with three grown daughters who live with him. Leticia (Elizabeth Pena), the oldest, is an uber-religious chemistry teacher who fills almost every stereotype of the spinster schoolmarm, right down to her rigid buttoned-up attire. Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors) is a successful businesswoman who is less successful at personal relationships and who secretly (or perhaps not so secretly at times) wishes her father would let her become a chef like him - only that instead of being a purist like him, she likes to make “mutt” creations that blend the culinary tastes of several cultures. Maribel (Tamara Mello), the youngest, has a carefree spirit but the sense that she is constantly ignored by her family and sometimes even by herself. Their elaborate family dinners are sometimes attended by the girls’ love interests and by family friend Yolanda, a newly divorced single mother, and Yolanda’s family - daughter April and mother Hortensia.

I went into this movie expecting a good performance from Hector Elizondo, whose character of Dr. Bell on Monk was top-notch, and was not disappointed. Indeed, all the cast excelled at really inhabiting their roles fully and making me feel like these were real people. Raquel Welch as Hortensia was a wonderfully funny character, in line with a character you’d expect to see out of Dickens or Austen, with an over-the-top performance as a woman ridiculously bent on trying to snag Martin as a husband but unawares that she is not in the least bit subtle in doing so. And, for the Veronica Mars fans out there, look out for a small role played by Ken Marino aka “Vinnie Van Lowe.”

The movie is rife with funny moments as well as touching ones, and I’d bet money that you won’t find at least one of Martin’s (and Carmen’s) many elaborate dishes mouth-watering. There’s a little something for everyone between the comedy, the family drama, the romance, etc. Without giving away too many spoilers, I was personally happy that the ending was one of those ones where not everything is tied up neatly in a bow but you’re also not left scratching your head wondering what on earth that bizarre open-ended conclusion meant. And likewise, I was happy to see that not every woman’s happy ending saw her happily married off. Overall, I was very pleased with this movie and would recommend it.

Nina’s Heavenly Delights

After her father’s sudden death, Nina (Shelley Conn) returns to her Indian-Scottish family in their home city of Glasgow after three years spent in London where she ran to when her parents tried to arrange her marriage to Sanjay (Raji James). She has hardly any time to grieve before she learns that her father used his beloved restaurant, the New Taj, as collateral in a gambling bet and now half the restaurant belongs to Lisa (Laura Fraser), her younger brother Kary’s girlfriend. Lisa and Kary are ready to sell the restaurant to an eager buyer - Raj, the owner of a competing restaurant and father of Sanjay. But Nina also discovers that her father entered the restaurant into a prestigious televised cooking competition and made it into the final round. She manages to convince Lisa to hold off selling the restaurant until after they make a go for the trophy. As Nina teaches everything her father taught her about cooking to Lisa, she finds herself falling head over heels for Lisa.

I was a little hesitant about this movie because it was labeled a “romance;” I’m not the hugest fan of romances as a genre - either in literature or movies - although there are notable exceptions. Mostly, I think I can like a romance if there’s more to it than just the romance - for instance, a historical backdrop or witty characters. With Nina’s Heavenly Delights, there is certainly more to the story. There’s the very nature of love, death and grief, the pull of family obligations versus the need to be one’s self, and, of course, cooking itself. I felt as though the movie were more about family and the competition, with a side of meaningful glances between Nina and Lisa to remind you that, oh yeah, this is movie about these two falling in love.

Overall, I was really engaged with this movie and rooting for the New Taj to succeed in the competition. The scenes of Glasgow (and the Scottish accents) were an added bonus. For the most part, the filming of the cooking and food scenes was top-notch. There was even a vibe of sexual tension between two women via working in the kitchen in Nina’s first lesson to Lisa about mixing spices - “it’s all about the chemistry, and the chemistry has to be right.” It’s not quite the food fighting scene in Fried Green Tomatoes, but you clearly get the point - one that Lisa makes earlier “The couple that cooks together stays together.” However, there was one scene of cooking where for some reason the director decided to add an overlay of words labeling the ingredients in the dish. It was only done this one time, which I think added to the oddness of doing so. A much more elegant scene was one where the shots of food bubbling were interspersed with shots of pages turning in Nina’s cookbook of award-winning recipes, handed down from her father.

Nina’s drag friend, Bobbi, was a little too over the top for me, although I must acknowledge that he made a good foil to Nina in that he clearly wasn’t hiding his sexuality. Still, I would have been okay with fewer scenes of him and his “chutney queens.” On the other hand, Auntie Mamie was a delightful minor character who I would have liked to see more of as she added humor to every scene she was in, no matter how briefly.

As I already mentioned, I liked this movie overall, but it did feel like it could have been a little longer and more fleshed out. There was some aspects (i.e., the decisions made by Nina’s brother Kary) that could have used a little more explanation. There also needed to be more time for growth in some of the characters so that their actions seemed more realistic and less scripted. For instance, I have a hard time believing that Nina’s mother, who three years earlier was so traditional as to arrange a marriage for her daughter, is suddenly so accepting of her children’s decisions to be so modern and Scottish. I also couldn’t see Lisa putting Nina to the test at such a crucial moment. While I enjoyed the movie and would recommend it, it didn’t feel “real” like Tortilla Soup.

Eat Pray Love

Based on the best-selling memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love tells Liz’s story as she copes with her messy divorce by taking a year off to visit Italy, India, and Indonesia. I enjoyed the book when I read it several years ago but didn’t really have any interest in the movie as I didn’t feel like it was the kind of the book that would transfer well to the screen. Essentially the story is about Liz and her transformation and it isn’t exactly plot heavy, so nothing about that screams Hollywood. But I ended up receiving the DVD as a present from someone who knew I liked the book, so I gave it a shot.

Besides the feeling that this wasn’t a story to be told cinematically, this movie had one other huge handicap against its favor: Julia Roberts. I don’t care that she’s an awarding-winner actor, I can’t stand her in general and specifically in this role. For starters, she’s just wrong for the part physically - she was a tad too old for the role but, even more so, she’s too stick thin for anyone to legitimately believe a) her having a “muffin top” from eating too much in Italy and b) Felipe saying she is the perfect kind of woman who looks thin from a distance but has something to hold on to up close. But even if I could overlook that she doesn’t physically fit the part, I’ve never seen her in a movie where she convinces me for more than a minute that she’s anyone other than Julia Roberts. She doesn’t ever inhabit her roles and her characters all come across as behaving the same way. Tackling Liz is even harder because she’s not a character; she’s a real and complex person, and a person who has shared intimate details about herself to the world through her book. And Julia Roberts did not deliver. To be honest, it wasn’t just her either; despite some other big names in this movie, no one stood out as acting particularly splendidly, excepting the actor who played Balinese medicine man Ketut, who I just loved, and the actor playing Tulsi, the young Indian girl Liz befriends who is forced into an arranged marriage against her wishes. A minor pet peeve, but it was annoying to find that Richard from Texas didn’t have a Texan accent nor did Sofi from Sweden have a Swedish accent. Come on, people, at least *try* to convince me that you’re the person you’re pretending to be.

Like I said earlier, the book isn’t full of plot devices but mostly Liz’s internal struggles, so this makes it a hard movie to make. So much had to be specifically narrated (an okay technique when needed, but if half your movie needs to be narrated, maybe you should left well enough alone with the book) or conveyed through expressions and looks (which Julia Roberts always seemed to get wrong; she was smiling broadly when she shouldn’t be happy and looking apprehensive when she should be happy, she barely reacted at all throughout Richard’s long and moving history, and she’s apparently incapable of making it through a movie without pitching a screaming fit). The movie also invented a character played by Viola Davis who represented *all* of Gilbert’s family, friends, and co-workers back home and functioned as a sounding-board and “straight man” (if you parody the borrowing of terms for comedies used here for dramas) that Liz could talk about some of her emotions without constantly narrating.

However, the movie was very good for showing us the beautiful scenes of the places Gilbert visited. If there were anything missing from the book, it would be actually seeing the places Liz writes about with such passion. The movie helps you feel like you’ve actually traveled to these places and seen the ruins in Rome, driven through the crowded streets of India, and inhaled the tropical sea breezes in Bali.

A few more pet peeves arose as I watched the movie: it’s been a while since I’ve read the book, so perhaps someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall Gilbert being randomly approached by an elephant in India, Felipe and Liz meeting because he ran her off the road, Felipe’s son coming to visit them in Bali, or, most importantly because the movie makes it a huge dramatic point, Felipe and Liz breaking up right before she’s meant to leave for home.

Let’s just hope Hollywood doesn’t try to take on Eliizabeth Gilbert’s sequel, Committed.

Mildred Pierce

Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) is a mother who will do anything for daughters. But eldest daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) is a spoiled brat who always wants more. To have some extra money to buy Veda more and better items, Mildred goes from making cakes and pies for the neighbors, to becoming a waitress and working round the clock, to buying a restaurant, to expanding that to a chain of restaurants. Still, Veda is never happy and wants more money always. To add a bit of mystery to this story of mother-daughter struggle is the fact that is being told in flashbacks as Mildred is held at the police station after being suspected of murder.

This framing device used to tell the story allows the movie start with a shocking murder, but there’s plenty of twists and turns along the way so the viewer isn’t in the know all along. This is film noir/melodrama at its finest – it could easily become ridiculously at any point but does not. I think it part because the whole production holds on to the idea that, despite all its plot points, this is first and foremost a story about these people and what they are like at their cores. Therefore, it is a great character study. To say that Joan Crawford’s acting was excellent would be an understatement as she won an Oscar for this performance and is legendary for this role. Still, it’s worth saying that she is phenomenal as Mildred Pierce and her supporting cast does not disappoint either.

However, that being said, I’m not the hugest fan of Butterfly McQueen as Lottie, Mildred’s maid. While I can’t exactly place my finger on a specific why, something about her whole character feels borderline racist - perhaps it’s just because her character is so silly when everyone else is so serious. (Of course, the character of Ida also provides comic relief, albeit she does it by having sarcastic zingers, rather than just acting like an airhead.) At any rate, McQueen’s squeaky high-pitched voice irritates me in Gone with the Wind and it’s not any better here. That may sound petty, but her voice really does grate on my ears unpleasantly.

As I mentioned earlier, this movie is very much in the film noir style with flashbacks, voiceovers, a femme fatale (of a different sort), and moody black and white filming. Also, there are some fun cinematic shots with the use of mirrors. Overall, it’s visually appealing as well as providing an engaging storyline.

It’s worth noting in a post on food-related movies though that this is one of those movies only tangentially related to food. Unlike in Tortilla Soup where mouth-watering dishes are presented as feasts for the eyes (and temptations for the stomachs), we don’t see much of the food here. However, the movie does have some good lines about its preparation. For instance, in voiceovers Mildred explains, “I felt as though I had been born in a kitchen and lived there all my life, except for the few hours it took to get married.” She later continues this narrative with, “In six weeks, I felt like I'd worked in a restaurant all my life. In three months, I was one of the best waitresses there. I took tips and was glad to get them. And at home I baked pies for the restaurant.” Or there’s this exchange:

Mildred Pierce: “You look down on me because I work for a living, don't you? You always have. All right, I work. I cook food and sell it and make a profit on it, which, I might point out, you're not too proud to share with me.”
Monte Beragon: “Yes, I take money from you, Mildred. But not enough to make me like kitchens or cooks. They smell of grease.”
Mildred Pierce: “I don't notice you shrinking away from a fifty- dollar bill because it smells of grease.”

Interestingly, after watching the original, I found out that there was an HBO miniseries re-make with Kate Winslet, but from the trailer it looks like all they did was sex it up so I’m not sure that I would check it out.

Julie & Julia

This movie promotes itself as having been “based on two true stories” and thus tells dual side-by-side stories of women living in different eras and places. We start with Julia Child (Meryl Streep) in 1949, having just moved to Paris with her husband and trying to find something to do with her spare time. She finally settles on cooking, managing to enroll herself in an all-male professional class at Le Cordon Bleu. From there she moves on to teaching French cooking and writing a cookbook. Meanwhile, in 2002, Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is a tired New Yorker who is emotionally drained by the time she comes home from her job dealing with the aftermath of 9/11. Her tension release at the end of the day is cooking (one stress coping mechanism that she and I apparently share!) and over time she and her husband land upon the idea that she should write a blog in which she attempts to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s seminal cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in 365 days.

I have to note from the outset that I did not know very much about Julia Child (and nothing about Julie Powell other than that she had this quest to cook all of Child’s recipes) going into the movie, so I really can’t say if it was historically accurate or not, but it was certainly an engaging movie.

It certainly was an interesting concept to show these two stories, based on books written by each woman, side by side. The two women certainly share some similarities and some ups and downs, and somehow the movie pulls off jumping between two time periods, two continents, and two characters (and their supporting casts) without seeming choppy. An interesting thing I liked about each story was that while the stories were ultimately about the women, both had very supportive husbands who helped them to find their place and succeed at it. While this movie, like any other Nora Ephron movie, will inevitably be seen as a “chick flick” at worst or “women’s movie” at best, I feel like it hits the perfect note of gender equality by portraying stories in which neither men nor women are objectified, demonized, or cast to the sidelines.

All around, the movie is filled with excellent acting, although I have to admit I am a bit puzzled by Amy Adams’ accent (or lack thereof, to my ears at least).Iif her mother is from Texas (and heard over the phone with a drawl) and Julie lives in New York, wouldn’t she have at least one of those accents or some sort of mix of both? It’s a small thing, but Meryl Streep so completely changed her vocal patterns to become more like Julia Child that it stood out to me that I didn’t hear that as much in Amy Adams as Julie Powell. Both women, however, did change their appearances a lot to fit their roles.

While food is certainly a large part of this movie, I don’t feel that it was as much in the centerpiece of filming as in some of these other foodie movies like again, Tortilla Soup. Also noting my own preferences for more grains and vegetables than meats (especially red meat), the particular dishes that were shown did not exactly shout drool-worthiness to me, even though I’ve been a huge fan of every recipe I’ve tried from my own French cookbook (and pretty much everything I’ve eaten while in France). The scenes of Paris, however, do make me long to visit that city again....

The only downside to Julie & Julia was the ending. Without giving away any spoilers, I wasn’t 100 percent in love with the movie’s conclusion although I’m not quite sure why. I think I would have liked to see a *little* bit more of both Julia’s and Julie’s successes.

To sum up this lengthy post (if you’re still with me here), if I were a film critic apt to give grades to movies, Tortilla Soup would get an A, Nina’s Heavenly Delights a B, Eat Pray Love a C-, Mildred Pierce an A+, and Julie & Julia an A.

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