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.

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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.

Ireland on Film: Waking Ned Devine

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It’s the last day of March. So it’s time for my last blog entry about films set in Ireland. My last selection is one of the sharpest comedies ever made. It’s Waking Ned Devine. It’s a witty gem full of colorful characters and is a fun commentary on the underlying greed of ordinary people.

In the Irish village of Tullymore, one of the 52 residents has a winning lottery ticket. But who is the lucky one? Jackie O’ Shea (Ian Bannen) and Michael O’ Sullivan (David Kelly) attempt to discover the winner, along with Jackie’s wife Annie (Fionnula Flanagan), They manage to obtain a list of lottery customers through Mrs. Kennedy (Maura O’ Malley). The potential winners are all invited to a chicken dinner. But, at the end of the evening, they are no closer to figuring out the winner’s identity. But Annie has a revelation. Only one customer didn’t attend: Ned Devine. Jackie pays a visit to Ned’s house, discovering him dead from shock with a smile on his face in front of the TV holding the winning ticket. That night, Jackie has a dream that Ned wants to share the winnings with his friends. After all, Ned has no family to claim the winnings.

It is here where Waking Ned Devine shifts into a full-blown screwball comedy. And as far as screwball comedies go, this is one of the best. Jackie and Michael obtain Ned’s personal information so they can claim the money for themselves. When the two of them call the National Lottery to make the claim, an inspector is sent. When the inspector arrives, Jackie stalls him just long enough for Michael to break into Ned’s house so he can dress up like him and pass himself off as the recently deceased man. When it’s revealed that the winnings are more than expected, the whole village is brought into the scheme. Everyone in the village signs a pact to participate. Well, all except local curmudgeon Lizzy Quinn (Eileen Dromey). She threatens to turn them all in for fraud and claim a reward for doing so. She also attempts to blackmail Jackie. Without revealing too much, let’s just say Lizzy’s storyline has a very satisfying ending.

Waking Ned Devine has so many delightful and quirky twists and turns, I dare not list them all here. Seeing the lengths the villagers will go to in order to pull of this ruse is part of what makes it so much fun. There isn’t a dull moment in the 91 minutes of this movie.

While the whole ensemble of actors is delightful in this film, I have to give a shout out to David Kelly who plays Michael. Kelly was a wonderful character actor. Modern audiences no doubt saw him in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where he stole the show as Grandpa Joe. Kelly is warm and funny. Every second he’s onscreen is delightful. Kelly accumulated 114 screen credits before all was said and done. And he was also a prolific stage actor. It’s downright criminal he was not nominated for an Oscar for Waking Ned Devine.

The film was written and directed by Kirk JonesThe script is clever and really makes getting to know the villagers a lot of fun. By the end of the film, I wanted to live among them. While it’s primarily a comedy, Waking Ned Devine also manages to be moving in what it has to say about friendship and life itself. It’s delightful from start to finish and good on the first and 100th viewings. How many films can make that claim? Not many.

Ireland On Film: Once

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This week’s featured film in our films set in Ireland spotlight is fairly recent. But it’s destined to become a classic. It’s a whimsical little musical called Once. Released in 2007, it’s a charming romance that features a soundtrack you’re sure to buy after you see the movie. It’s not a musical in the traditional movie musical way with lavish production numbers. But it’s one of the most charming indie films to come out in a long time.

As Once opens, Guy (Glen Hansard) is playing his guitar on Grafton Street in Dublin. He goes chasing after a man who steals his money. Later a young flower selling girl (Marketa Irglova) is drawn to him when she hears his music. The two strike up a conversation where the girl learns that the street musician repairs Hoovers. The next day, the flower girl meets up with the street musician again. She brings her Hoover for him to fix and reveals that she is also a musician.

There is a music store where the girl plays piano. Guy teaches her one of his songs. The girl is later invited by Guy over to his father’s shop. On the bus ride to the shop, Guy reveals through song what his songs are about. They turn out to be about a girl who cheated on him and then left him.

Guy introduces the girl to his father and then invites her to stay the night. She is insulted and leaves. But they reconcile the next day. The duo then spend the week writing and recording songs. As they work together, they find out more and more about one another. For example, the flower selling girl lives with her mother and also has a toddler. She also has a husband in the Czech Republic. Guy also still has feelings for his ex-girlfriend. While sorting through their personal issues, they manage to secure a bank loan, hire some musicians, and get some time in a recording studio to create a demo tape.

After an all-night recording session, they part ways. The girl reveals she spoke with her husband on the phone and will be coming to Dublin to live with her. Guy ends up going to London. He calls his ex-girlfriend ahead of his arrival. She is excited to see him. As a final romantic gesture, Guy orders a piano and has it delivered to the flower selling girl’s home.

Once was shot in just 17 days on a shoestring budget, Many of the shooting locations were homes of the cast and crew. The Dublin street scenes were filmed on location. As IMDB notes,

The Dublin street scenes were recorded without permits so a long lens was used. Many passers-by didn’t even realize that they were being filmed. The long lens also helped the non-professional actors relax and forget that they were on camera.

Once didn’t have the resources of a big budget film. But it makes up for it in pure charm. The songs are touching, funny and are creatively used to tell the story of the two musicians. The two leads lacked experience. Hansard had one prior acting credit in a minor role in The Commitments. Marketa Irglova made her acting debut in the film. Hansard and Irglova’s chemistry lights up the screen. When the film is over, you’re sad to say goodbye to these delightful and complex characters.

The film went on to be a box office and critical success. It took home the Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film. One of the film’s songs, Falling Slowly, won an Oscar for Best Original Song. And the soundtrack garnered a Grammy nomination. Once became the little film that could. It won over critics and audiences. Once is a musical for people who don’t like traditional musicals as well as people who just enjoy a movie that’s a good slice of life.

Ireland On Film: The Quiet Man

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Greetings, readers! Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day. So my pick this week is my St. Patrick’s Day viewing tradition: The Quiet Man. Released in 1952 and directed by John Ford, the film is memorable for its lead performances by Maureen O’ Hara and John Wayne, as well as its gorgeous Technicolor palate.

In The Quiet Man, Sean Thorton (John Wayne) journeys from Pittsburgh to his birthplace in Ireland with intentions of buying his family’s old farm. But things don’t go quite according to plan. Along the way he falls in love with Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’ Hara). Her brother, Will (Victor McLagen) is a prosperous but stubborn landowner. Will also wants the former Thorton farm. When the farm’s current owner accepts Sean’s offer instead of his, it starts the two off on a rocky relationship. Unwilling to let it go, Will refuses to give his blessing for Sean and Mary Kate to marry. A few of the townspeople conspire to make Will think the Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick) wants to marry him, buy only if Mary Kate is out of the household. Will then gives Sean and Mary Kate his blessing.

At  Sean and Mary Kate’s wedding, Will finds out he has been deceived. Angered, he refuses to give Mary Kate her dowry, including the family fortune and furniture she’s entitled to. Sean is indifferent to Mary Kate not getting the dowry. But without it, Mary Kate sees their marriage as invalid. This sets up the battle of wills that culminates in the film’s third act, with Mary Kate setting out to hop a train to leave town since she now sees her husband as a coward, and a fistfight between Sean and Will to square the whole situation.

John Wayne may have been know for westerns. But The Quiet Man shows he can play much more than cowboys. The chemistry between Wayne and O’ Hara is fantastic. They made several films together. But The Quiet Man is the crown jewel of their pairings. It has a great mix of drama, comedy and is beautiful to behold. Cinematographer Winton Hoch does an incredible job of bringing Ireland to life in glorious Technicolor. The film ranks with The Wizard of Oz and Singin’ In The Rain as one of the best looking classics films ever made. It was filmed largely on location in County May and County Galway in Ireland.

In addition to its vibrant look and magnetic leading actors, The Quiet Man stands out because of its rich supporting cast. My two favorites are Barry Fitzgerlad as Michaleen Flynn, the local matchmaker, and Ward Bond as Father Lonegran, the colorful local clergyman. The town is full of colorful characters you would love to have a drink with. It’s part of what gives the film its charm.

The Quiet Man was a departure for both John Wayne and John Ford. But it remains one of their best collaborations. And Maureen O’ Hara, a fiery Irish woman herself, proved in it that she truly was the queen of Technicolor.

Ireland On Film: The Wind That Shakes The Barley

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It’s week two of my look at Ireland on film. This week’s selection is a work of is The Wind That Shakes The Barley. Released in 2006, it was the highest-grossing Irish independent film (until displaced recently by The Guard). Set during the Irish war of independence, it’s one of the most gripping works of historical fiction ever filmed.

At the outset of the film in 1920, Dr. Damien O’ Donovan (Cillian Murphy) is about to leave his home in County Cork, Ireland. He is ready to practice medicine at a hospital in London. Damien’s brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) has chosen a vastly different path. Teddy takes command of the local flying column of the Irish Republican Army. As Damien prepares to leave, he witnesses the execution of a friend at the hands of the British Black and Tans. Damien is shaken, but initially blows off the pleas of those around him to stay in Ireland and fight. But his mind is changed when he witnesses personnel at a railway station being intimidated by the British Army for refusing to let their troops onboard. Damien then joins the IRA with Teddy.

The two brothers fight side by side, witnessing first hand the horrors of combat. Eventually a truce is signed. But it is short-lived. One part of Ireland accepts the treaty, while another see it as unfair. Ireland is then torn apart by a Civil War.

The Wind That Shakes The Barley is more than your average war movie. Part of the reason for that is it takes its time not just showing the events of the war, but it how it fundamentally changes the two brothers. While the whole cast is phenomenal, it’s Cillian Murphy that shines the brightest. Why he isn’t acknowledged more for his acting chops I do not know. He can play villains in films like Batman Begins and Red Eye, eccentrics (Breakfast on Pluto), and even a zombie apocalypse survivor (28 Days Later). In The Wind That Shakes The Barley, the evolution of his character is spellbinding. The dynamic between Murphy and Delaney is never less than compelling. They are completely believable as two brothers who respect each other despite having very different ideologies.

The film was shot in various locations in County Cork. And while the scenery may not be the star as much as it was in last week’s film, The Secret of Roan Inish, we get a gritty feel of a country at war. Director Ken Loach’s film is riveting account of a part of history not covered much in textbooks (at least in the USA). The Wind That Shakes The Barley won the coveted Palme d’Or, the highest prize at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. Rarely do films live up to that kind of hype. But The Wind That Shakes The Barley certainly does. It’s more than just a checklist of historical events. The film is a brilliant character study that shows us how values are tested during the worst of times. It’s worth seeing for highlighting a piece of history not often put on film, but also for its stellar performances, especially the one given by Cillian Murphy.

Ireland on Film: The Secret of Roan Inish

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This month we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. So it seems as good of a time as any to spotlight set in Ireland. To kick things off, I have selected the beautiful and often overlooked The Secret of Roan Inish. Shot on location in Ireland, this is a real hidden gem that the whole family can enjoy.

The film follows Fiona (Jeni Courtney). She’s sent to live with her grandparents in a small Irish fishing village. Fiona’s grandfather regales her with tall tales of their family history, including their evacuation from their home on an island called Roan Inish. One of Fiona’s ancestor’s even cheated death at sea. Fiona explores the town and gets to know the locals. Through them, she hears personal accounts of one of her ancestors who legend has it married a Selkie (seals who can turn human). Supposedly, her baby brother washed out to sea in a cradle shaped like a boat and was raised by seals. One day, a mysterious boy appears on Roan Inish, and Fiona sets out to discover the island’d secrets.

The Secret of Roan Inish is fascinating in the way it weaves Celtic folklore into the story. It effortlessly tells stories of the past and present. Jeni Courtney is charming as Fiona, the film’s curious and plucky young heroine. The film is not only rich in its mythology, but we get a real sense of the village. There is not a wasted character or bit of dialogue to be found.

It’s impossible to write about The Secret of Roan Inish and not mention its rich visuals. Legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler photographed it. He captures the beauty of the scenery in Donegal and its seaside. The look of the seaside is enchanting and haunting with its mist and fog. It’s some of his best work, which is saying a lot.

Director John Sayles, whose credits include Lone Star and Men With Guns seems an odd fit for this material. But it’s a small masterpiece. There’s a real appreciation for Celtic mythology and the country’s beauty. The Secret of Roan Inish is an enchanting film that deserves a wider audience.