Movies For Foodies: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

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It’s the last week of my look at great films for foodies. And my last pick is a documentary. It’s the 2011 Japanese film Jiro Dreams of Sushi. I found myself completely absorbed by it. That’s a testament to what a great film it is, especially considering I’m not a fan of sushi.

The focus of the documentary is Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old sushi master. He owns the restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro. The Tokyo restaurant serves only sushi, The documenatary also profiles the chef’s two sons. Both are sushi chefs themselves. Younger son Takashi leaves Sukiyabashi Jiro to open his own restaurant. Older son Yoskikazu stays at his father’s restaurant and will likely succeed Jiro as the owner.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi sounds on the surface like it should be boring. What could possibly be compelling about one chef’s quest to make the perfect piece of sushi? But we get to know Jiro through his passion for fine cuisine. Through his eyes we also learn about the people that work in his famous restaurant. They’re not just background characters in a documentary about a famous chef. Jiro tells little anecdotes about them as the film goes along. That allows us as viewers to appreciate the hard work that goes into running a restaurant.

Another thing that sets this documentary apart is that we get insight into not just Jiro Ono the chef, but Jiro Ono the man, particularly as a caring and complicated father figure. His two sons have a lot to live up to. But that part never feels added in for melodrama.

This is a thoroughly compelling documentary about making great sushi as well as an involving character study. It’s a film that was a thoroughly pleasant surprise for me. Even if sushi isn’t your favorite food, I would definitely recommend Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Movies For Foodies: Ratatouille

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My selection this week in my spotlight on movies for foodies is Ratatouille. Released back in 2007, it’s a PIXAR film that I’ve come to appreciate more upon repeat viewings. When I saw it in the theater, I found the visuals colorful and enjoyed it mostly on that level. A story about a rat that wants to become a chef? Come on! But over the years I’ve discovered that’s a much deeper film than I initially thought.

The protagonist of Ratatouille is Remy (Patton Oswalt). He’s a rat. But he has a very refined sense of taste. While other rats are content to eat the scraps from garbage cans, Remy gets his sustenance from fine restaurants. Remy longs to be like his idol, chef Auguste Gusteau (Brad Garrett). One night, Remy’s family is forced to flee their home. In the chaos, Remy gets separated from them and ends up on a skylight that happens to overlook the kitchen of Gusteau’s restaurant in Paris.

Remy witnesses kitchen garbage boy Alfredo Linguini (Lou Romano) accidentally spill a pot of soup. Linguini tries to recreate the soup with disastrous results. Remy attempts to fix the mistakes, much to Linguini’s horror. Restaurant owner Skinner (Ian Holm) chews Linguini out for tampering with the soup. While the two men argue, the soup is accidentally served. The soup turns out to be a surprising success. It’s assumed by Skinner that Linguini is the soup’s creator. So Linguini is hired on as a cook. But since Remy is the true chef, the two develop a marionette act with Remy hiding under Linguini’s chef’s hat giving him instructions.

But Remy isn’t Linguini’s only teacher. Skinner assigns chef Colette (Janeane Garofalo) to teach Linguini. An unlikely romance develops between Colette and Linguini as the film progresses. It is later discovered that Linguini is Gusteau’s illegitimate son. He is the restaurant’s rightful owner. Skinner is then forced to step down. The restaurant takes off. As Linguini and Colette grow closer, Remy feels like a third wheel. Remy then goes home. But he and his father have a falling out when Remy reveals his admiration for humans. But things grow tense between Remy and Linguini. They have a fight, and Remy leads his fellow rats to the restaurant to raid its pantry in retaliation. Linguini scares them off. Linguini and Remy make peace. But then Linguini is forced to reveal the truth to his staff. Most walk out in disgust.

But Colette comes back. She believes Gusteau’s motto. “Anyone can cook.” Remy’s father and the other rats are impressed by his determination. The other rats offer to help Remy and Linguini when renowned food critic Anton Ego (Peter O’ Toole) announces he will be visiting the restaurant. Ego is notoriously harsh. It takes a true team effort to pull off a satisfying meal for the critic. But pull it off they do. But not with a culinary creation you would expect.

Ratatouille‘s charm comes from its rich look. But we’ve come to expect that from PIXAR. The film was directed by Brad Bird, who also directed The Incredibles. He brings that same level of energy and imagination to this film. It also benefits from its voiceover actors. My favorite is actually Peter O’ Toole as the snobby food critic. O’ Toole brings the same level of skill to Ratatouille as he does to all of his great live action roles. He has fun being cruel. But then he has an unexpected revelation towards the end.

Ratatouille centers around food. But it’s about much more than that. It’s about pursuing your dreams, no matter what others may think of them. I’ll leave you with one of the film’s best lines, spoken but Gusteau.

You must be imaginative, strong-hearted. You must try things that may not work, and you must not let anyone define your limits because of where you come from. Your only limit is your soul. What I say is true – anyone can cook… but only the fearless can be great.

Movies For Foodies: Waitress

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Greetings film/food lovers! It’s week two of my spotlight on movies for foodies. This week’s selection is a small gem that was released in 2007 called Waitress. It follows the trials and tribulations of a woman in a difficult  marriage and how she uses what’s going on in her life to inspire her pie creations at the diner she works in.

The waitress of the film’s title is Jenna Hunterson (Keri Russell, who many know from her TV series Felicity). Stuck in a small town down South, Jenna struggles working a dead-end job and dealing with controlling/abusive husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto). Jenna works at Joe’s Pie Diner, making creative pies based on her life experiences. One is called Bad Baby Pie. She comes up with that one when her unwanted pregnancy is confirmed. Jenna decides reluctantly to keep the baby. But she wants to get out of the town and her abusive marriage. Her ticket out is a pie contest in a nearby town. The prize for the winner is $25,000. Husband Earl won’t let her partake in the contest.

Jenna does at least have the support of her co-workers Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Adrienne Shelly, who also directed the film). There’s also the diner’s owner Joe. He’s lovable curmudgeon played by Andy Griffith. Joe encourages Jenna to pursue her dreams and get out of her toxic marriage.

But wait. There’s more! As the pregnancy progresses, Jenna grows close to her physician Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion). The doctor is filling in for Jenna’s doctor, who she has been seeing since childhood. We also find out that Pomatter moved to the small town partially to accommodate his wife, completing her residency at a local hospital.

Later co-worker Dawn gets married at the diner. The ceremony is interrupted by an irate Early, who demands Jenna come home with him. At the house, he confronts her about the stashes of cash around the house. Jenna tells him the money is for the baby. She is then forced to spend that money for her new life away from Earl on things for the baby.

Jenna gives birth to her baby girl Lulu. The fact that it’s a girl disappoints Earl. And Earl reminds Jenna of a promise she made never to love the baby more than him. It is here where Jenna finally sticks up for herself, telling Early she won’t take his abuse anymore and wants a divorce. Earl tries to attack her, but is escorted from the hospital by security.

As Becky and Dawn help Jenna prepare to leave the hospital, we learn Joe has collapsed and slipped into a coma. Jenna then remembers an envelope Joe gave her before the baby was born. In it there’s a card with a hand drawn sketch of Jenna. Plus, Joe left her a check for $270,450 to start a new life for herself. There’s a message of friendship in the card that is one of the film’s most touching moments. Jenna then sees Dr. Pomatter one last time, breaking off their relationship.

Waitress no doubt sounds like a soap opera. And it sort of is. But it’s a very entertaining one. A major reason for that is the screen presence of Keri Russell as Jenna. She is warm, sympathetic and an easy character to root for. Jenna isn’t perfect. It’s heartbreaking watching Jenna put up with Earl so long. But it’s also very effective and true to life. Cheryl Hines and Adrienne Shelly turn in solid performances as supportive co-workers Becky and Dawn. Nathan Fillion is delightful as Dr, Pomatter. But my favorite supporting performance is Andy Griffith as Joe, the diner’s owner. He’s cantankerous but also has a big heart under all his bluster. He’s Jenna’s biggest supporter and the relationship between them is handled beautifully by the actors and the film’s screenplay.

What’s sad about Waitress is director Adrienne Shelly was killed shortly after filming was completed. Shelly also wrote the screenplay. The film showed that Shelly had so much potential as a director. But the last film she made was touching, funny and a great slice of life. While watching it, don’t be surprised if you end of coming up with pie ideas of your own.

Movies For Foodies: Chocolat

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Greetings, readers! This month’s spotlight is on films for foodies. The first selection is a gem from 2000 called Chocolat. Featuring a great cast lead by Juliette Binoche, it’s a very enjoyable dramedy. Oh, and the protagonist runs a chocolate shop. So there are some mouth-watering shots of sweets.

Choclat follows nomadic chocolatier Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche). She treks across Europe with her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), following the north wind. The pair eventually make it to a small French village during the season of Lent. Their ways clash with the community, which is deeply rooted in tradition. It is lead by Mayor Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina). To the mayor’s displeasure, Vianne opens a chocolate shop during Lent.

But it’s not just Vianne’s chocolate shop that rubs the mayor and villagers the wrong way. Vianne dresses more colorfully than the other women in the village, is an atheist and has an illegitimate child. While Vianne gets off to a rocky start, her friendly nature eventually starts to win over the villagers and her shop becomes very popular. Terrified of her, the Comte resorts to spreading false rumors about her and doing everything in his power to put Vianne out of business.

One of Vianne’s best customers is her landlady Armande, played to perfection by Judi Dench. Armande confessesto Vianne that her pious daughter Caroline (Carrie-Anne Moss) won’t let her see her grandson Luc. Why? Caroline sees Armande as a bad influence. Vianne arranges Armande to see Luc in her shop, and they begin to bond. Caroline eventually finds out, and also reveals that Armande is diabetic. But Armande still wants chocolate.

Vianne also takes in villager Josephine (Lena Olin), who is in an abusive relationship with husband Serge (Peter Stormare). Josephine stays with Vianne and works in the shop. Also coming into Vianne’s circle is Roux (Johnny Depp), a gypsy who comes to town on a boat. While most of the villagers object to the gypsies, Vianne takes a shine to them. Later Vianne and Roux throw a birthday party for Armande. The last part of the party takes place on Roux’s boat. In the night, the boat is set fire to by Serge.

Vianne’s faith in herself and the village takes a massive hit. To make things worse, the next day Armande is found dead. The north wind blows in and Vianne feels its time to move on. But daughter Anouk refuses to go. The two have a fight, during which an urn carrying the ashes of Vianne’s mother breaks. Then Vianne goes to her shop. To her surprise, the villagers (led by Josephine) are all pitching in to make the chocolate Vianne had planned to make for the Easter Sunday festival. Vianne sees the impact she has had on the villagers, and decides to stay.

Chocolat is equal parts melodrama, comedy and romance. And it all works because of the script and the conviction in the performances of its cast. Juliette Binoche is delightful as Vianne. And I particularly enjoyed the scenes Binoche and Judi Dench. Credit to Alfred Molina for his great portrayal of the village’s pompous mayor. There’s not a weak link in this cast.

Director Lasse Hallstrom, whose other credits include The Cider House Rules and What’s Eating Glbert Grape?, does a great job of Joanne Harris’ novel to the big screen. Chocolate is a treat of a movie (bad pun intended) that’s sure to make you crave some chocolate afterwards.