Foodies fond of delectable French films

Jean d'Ormesson stars as the President and Catherine Frot stars as Hortense in Haute Cuisine, the latest movie about the bittersweet pleasures of French cooking. Via The Weinstein Company.

Jean d’Ormesson stars as the President and Catherine Frot stars as Hortense in Haute Cuisine, the latest movie about the bittersweet pleasures of French cooking. Via The Weinstein Company.

This post was originally published on the Film Forum blog at FresnoFilmworks.org. Disclaimer: I serve as President on the Filmworks board of directors.

Movie lovers have long developed a hearty appetite for films about international food.

The Danes have Babette’s Feast, the Mexicans have Like Water for Chocolate, the Italians have Big Night, and the Japanese have Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Of course, there are many others.

The status of French cuisine around the world has left its imprint on foodie movies, too. For more than a century, French cooking has symbolized intricate preparation and gourmet taste.

On Dec. 13, Filmworks presents the latest film about French food, the political comedy Haute Cuisine. The movie – loosely based on the memoir of Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch, who served for several years as private chef to French president François Mitterrand – tells the story of Hortense, a no-nonsense cook with exacting standards but deceptively simple taste and technique. She becomes the first woman to prepare food in the Elysée Palace, as she navigates the jealousy and backbiting of the all-male kitchen staff.

Haute Cuisine comes from a long line of recent movies about French food that have inspired popular international productions.

Based on a 1999 novel by British author Joanne Harris, the 2000 comic fable Chocolat stars Juliette Binoche as a chocolatier who arrives in a repressed French village and changes the lives of the townspeople with her rich chocolate concoctions.

Directed by Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallström, the movie makes the chocolate itself into a sort of sensuous character. Critic Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune calls the film “tantalizing, delectable, and randy – a movie of melting eroticism and toothsome humor.”

Produced by the renowned Pixar Animation Studios, the 2007 animated comedy Ratatouille tells the story of an ambitious young rat named Remy who befriends a bumbling garbage boy. The unlikely pair joins forces in their mutual aspiration to become the finest chef in Paris.

Directed by acclaimed American animator Brad Bird, the movie celebrates the simplicity and the necessity of learning how to create handmade, wholesome food. Critic David Denby of The New Yorker says, “Remy has his own version of the omnivore’s dilemma: He’s afflicted with a refined palate. Refusing the [rat’s] usual repast of garbage, he realizes that in order to eat well, he needs to cook.”

Based on two books – a 2005 memoir by blogger Julie Powell and the 2006 autobiography of renowned chef Julia Child – the 2009 dramatic comedy Julie & Julia stars Amy Adams and Meryl Streep. The movie, directed by American novelist and filmmaker Nora Ephron, weaves together the story of Powell, who in one year cooked her way through all 524 recipes in Child’s famous cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking, with the story of Child, the master cook and TV personality largely credited with introducing French cooking to the United States.

Streep nails the no-nonsense, never-apologize gusto of the fearless Child, while Adams embodies every home cook’s insecurities about learning (and failing) in the kitchen. Again, critic David Denby of The New Yorker calls the movie “one of the gentlest, most charming American movies of the past decade. Its subject is less food as something to cook than food as the binding and unifying element of dinner parties, friendship, and marriage.”

And with that, the only way to properly send off a blog post about French cooking would be to invite foodies and film fans alike to enjoy the delicious Haute Cuisine while channeling the voice of the great Julia Child in your ear: “Bon appétit!”

Shakespeare on film

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Vittorio and Paulo Taviani call their latest movie, Caesar Must Die, “a fiction film in which the reality of the prison is physically palpable.” (via Sony Pictures Classics)

This post was originally published on the Fresno Filmworks Film Forum blog. Disclaimer: I serve on the Filmworks board of directors.

In March, Filmworks will screen the Italian drama Caesar Must Die, a film that The Hollywood Reporter calls “a fascinating encounter between theater and reality.” The selection coincides with the Rogue Performance and Art Festival, which celebrates its twelfth year in 2013.

The Italian filmmaker brothers Vittorio and Paolo Taviani might not be a household name in the United States. But their latest award-winning movie’s unorthodox mix of fiction, documentary, and theater produces a fresh new take on the classic Shakespeare tragedy Julius Caesar.

Filmworks asked its Facebook fans and friends to tell us about their favorite all-time Shakespeare films. Here’s what they had to say:

Filmworks fan Michael Borrero says: “I enjoyed Richard III with Ian McKellan (pictured right). His character was beyond menacing.”

Fan Claire Lynette prefers Twelfth Night because “it’s a great story, and also because of Helena Bonham Carter.”

Filmworks advisory board member Paula Singer favors Sir Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet as well as his Othello. “The acting is extraordinary and they were cinematic,” she says. “When bringing Shakespeare to the screen, I think it is important to remember that the screen is not the stage. It shouldn’t look like a film of a play.”

Filmworks fan Scott Sutherland loves Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (pictured left). He says: “It does for every war since Vietnam what Olivier’s version did for World War II.”

Fan Greg Birkel likes the 1993 Branagh version of Much Ado About Nothing “just because it’s so joyous.”

Filmworks president John Moses notes Peter Brook’s King Lear from 1971, with Paul Schofield as Lear and Jack MacGowran as the Fool. “The adaptation was inspired by what I consider the best interpretation of the play in Jan Kott’s ‘Shakespeare Our Contemporary,'” he says.

Fan Aileen Imperatrice says: “The Franco Zeffirelli version of Romeo and Juliet has a definite spot in my heart. It was the first Shakespeare movie I was introduced to in junior high.”

Filmworks advisory board member Teresa Flores also likes Romeo and Juliet, but she prefers the 1996 Baz Luhrmann version (pictured right) over the many others. “The aesthetics are so weird and bright and beautiful, and my teenager self was able to connect with the words like I had never imagined,” she says. “And it sells out EVERY YEAR when it’s screened at some romantic old theater in Hollywood for Valentine’s Day.”

So now, let’s see if Caesar Must Die wins any Shakespeare lovers’ hearts when it plays at the Tower Theatre.

The worldwide revival of short films

A scene from the first Wes Anderson film Bottle Rocket, via the blog Ultimate Classic Rock.

A scene from the first Wes Anderson film Bottle Rocket, via the blog Ultimate Classic Rock.


This blog post was originally published on the Fresno Filmworks Film Forum blog. Disclaimer: I serve on the Filmworks board of directors.

Some filmmakers prefer to keep things short.

Famed auteur Wes Anderson got his start by making a short movie called Bottle Rocket, a roughly edited film about a crew of bumbling, over-analytical crooks. It debuted at Sundance in 1994.

Two years later, Anderson expanded his thirteen-minute short, starring baby-faced newcomers Owen Wilson and Luke Wilson, into a full-length feature. Bottle Rocket went down as a commercial flop at the time, but it was quirky enough to grab the attention of critics and eventually launch the careers of Anderson and his buddies.

Director Wes Anderson at work, from The Hollywood Reporter.

Director Wes Anderson at work, from The Hollywood Reporter.

While the highly polished Oscar-Nominated Short Films might not have the grubby, film-school feel of Anderson’s first movie, the do-it-yourself aesthetic of the Fresno-grown Swede Fest, or the downright oddity of Sundance spinoff Catdance, it’s no secret that short films are now enjoying a renaissance with the movie-going public.

According to The Independent, Britain has entered a “golden era” for short films, as festivals expand to meet demand and new YouTube channels pop up and compete for millions of viewers.

According to the Los Angeles Times and also the digital culture blog Gizmodo, the short film competition at Sundance grew so big this year that the festival signed an exclusive deal with YouTube to make the finalists available online.

And according to The Telegraph, the current accelerated consumption of short films has, in many ways, come full circle from the earliest days of cinema. “Solitary viewing on the Internet is not so far removed from [Thomas] Edison’s Kinetoscope,” says film critic Rebecca Davies.

The Oscar-Nominated Short Films 2013.

The Oscar-Nominated Short Films 2013.

For Fresno Filmworks, 2013 marks the eighth-straight year of showcasing the world’s best short movies at the historic Tower Theatre. Filmworks will screen the Oscar-Nominated Short Films on Feb. 8 and 9, just weeks before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces its winners Feb. 24.

The Oscar shorts programs, co-distributed by the short-movie channel ShortsHD and longtime Filmworks film source Magnolia Pictures, have enjoyed a swell of success. The movie news blog Slash Film reports that last year’s theatrical release of the Oscar shorts broke records. The 2012 programs earned more than $1.7 million in the United States and finished as one of the top-grossing independent film releases in all of North America.

ShortsHD and Magnolia will debut a new aspect to the 2013 programs: A past Oscar winner in that category will introduce each nominated film, with filmmaker details. From ShortsHD:

Hosting the Live Action program will be director Luke Matheny, who won the 2011 Academy Award for his short film God of Love. Hosting the Animation program will be Bill Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg, who won the 2012 Academy Award for their short film The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. And hosting the Documentary program will be Daniel Junge, who co-directed the 2012 Academy Award-winning short film Saving Face.

Regardless of the presentation, audiences in the central San Joaquin Valley, who made the 2012 Oscar shorts one of the most highly attended Filmworks screenings of the year, seem likely to turn out again in strong numbers to see the 2013 picks.

Maybe they’ll get a short glimpse of the next big thing.

On Christopher Walken and acting normal

Christopher Walken in "The Deer Hunter."

Christopher Walken in “The Deer Hunter.”

This blog post was originally published on the Fresno Filmworks Film Forum blog. Disclaimer: I serve on the Filmworks board of directors.

In a film, stage, and TV career that spans more than fifty years, sixty-nine-year-old Christopher Walken — the star of the Fresno Filmworks January movie, A Late Quartet — has surely now played every movie character imaginable.

A young, small-town steelworker wrecked by the Vietnam War? Check.

A schoolteacher turned psychic detective in a Stephen King cult-classic? Check.

A Sicilian mobster with a hateful grudge against Dennis Hopper? Check.

An eccentric but cruel crime lord who doubles as a ping-pong master? A sales clerk at Bed Bath & Beyond who turns out to be the Angel of Death? Check and double check.

Christopher Walken on SNL.

Christopher Walken on SNL.

On TV, Walken has hosted Saturday Night Live seven times, lampooning himself and many others. An early fan favorite is his recurring role as The Continental, a self-proclaimed ladies man who tries to seduce neighborhood women into his luxurious apartment with thinly veiled seductive schemes.

A later favorite is Walken’s one-time depiction of heavy metal icon Bruce Dickinson, the record producer and ex-lead singer of Iron Maiden. The classic More Cowbell skit parodies the recording-studio infighting of modern rock band Blue Öyster Cult. Walken struts in and out of the studio in his leather jacket and rose-colored glasses, delivering memorable one-liners — “I’ve got a FEVER and the only prescription is MORE COWBELL” — that continue to spawn T-shirts, memes, and even entire websites.

But despite all those terrific and eccentric roles, I will always love Christopher Walken most for his soft-shoeing appearance in this little gem of a music video:
Fatboy Slim – Weapon of Choice – dir. Spike Jonze

Christopher Walken in "Weapon of Choice."

Christopher Walken in “Weapon of Choice.”

Make sure to take three minutes and fifty-three seconds of your day to follow that link. It’s Walken dancing, whirling, and sometimes flying around the empty lobby of a glitzy hotel, in an intentionally schlocky routine that he helped choreograph. The video — directed in 2001 by Being John Malkovich and Adaptation mastermind Spike Jonze — won a Grammy Award for best short-form music video, took home six MTV Video Music Awards, and was named in a 2002 VH-1 list as the Best Music Video of All Time.

Not bad for an actor who is often typecast as somewhere between a murderously unstable or tongue-in-cheek villain.

The New York Times interviewed Walken this past November under the headline: “Christopher Walken Isn’t as Weird as You Think.” The venerable actor says his latest part as Peter, the cellist who is dying of Parkinson’s Disease in A Late Quartet, gives him a chance to play things straight, a chance to play himself.

I’m definitely looking forward to seeing Walken in that role. But I’ll also be looking back with more than a little nostalgia for many of his weirder performances.

Movie review: “A Face in the Crowd”

“A Face in the Crowd”
Directed by:
Elia Kazan
Format: DVD from the public library
Viewed: Thursday 8/09/2012 by myself at home

The swirl and gnash of this season’s presidential politicking has turned my thinking to an unexpected subject: Andy Griffith. More specifically, I mean the late actor’s most beloved character, TV sheriff Andy Taylor of the fictional Mayberry, North Carolina.

Griffith died this past July at age 86. Although his hit television series first aired for eight seasons in the 1960s– before I was even born– I can think of few other shows that have made such a profound impact on my life than “The Andy Griffith Show.” I can say with certainty that Griffith’s wise, plain-speaking Sheriff Taylor served as an unspoken model of behavior for my father, who grew up in the 1950s in the tiny town of Drummond, Montana. For my father, and for many rural (mostly white) Americans, Sheriff Taylor and his fictional neighbors symbolized an idyllic and very American way of life: balancing time “in town” with time fishing, facing troubles in an easygoing but straightforward manner, and taking care of your town by way of taking care of your own.

In short, the America of Griffith’s Mayberry is the America that TV does best: With hard work and a little homespun ingenuity, you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and solve any problem in 30 minutes. Watching this year’s presidential race unfold, I see a lot of overtures from both the Obama and Romney camps to this over-idealized, over-simplified America.

After Griffith passed away, I took the recommendation of my friend Kurt Hegre, who has turned me on to other terrific movies in the past, and I requested a copy of Griffith’s breakout film, “A Face in the Crowd,” from the Fresno County Public Library. The movie, directed by the great filmmaker Elia Kazan, stars Griffith in his pre- Sheriff Taylor days as Lonesome Rhodes, an Arkansas drifter and knockabout who gets discovered by a small-town radio reporter and quickly becomes a nationally known TV entertainer. As he rises in popularity and cultural influence, Lonesome Rhodes becomes increasingly obsessed with his own power. An unexpected mistake quickly costs him his audience and also his sanity.

For someone like me who teaches journalism and writing classes around the theme of media and pop culture, “A Face in the Crowd” delivers a chilling critique of the power of storytelling. In our current media-saturated country, we hungrily grope for the next big thing, and we often allow ourselves– sometimes consciously, but most times not– to be swept up in the compelling story of the charismatic underdog. Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes with a perfect swagger that evolves from an earthy and eager warmth into a cold and calculating mania. The more he’s in front of his public, the more Lonesome Rhodes travels further from himself. The more we, his public, sees him, the less we actually recognize him.

To me, this performance sounds like the Obama vs. Romney presidential race. The big difference: We are no longer (if we ever were) living in Mayberry.

Movie review: “I Wish”

“I Wish”
Directed by:
Hirokazu Kore-eda
Format: Big screen
Viewed: Friday 8/10/2012 by myself at the Tower Theatre in Fresno

Sometimes, when I least expect it, I find exactly the right movie at exactly the right moment.

“I Wish,” written and directed by Japanese filmmaking virtuoso Hirokazu Kore-eda, tells the story of two young brothers who are split apart by the separation of their parents. The oldest brother, who lives quietly in the south of Japan with his mother and grandparents, wishes for the family to be reunited. He concocts a plan over the phone with his younger brother, who lives wildly in the north of Japan with his musician father, to meet in the middle between their respective towns. Their hope: A miracle will happen when they witness the intersection of two new bullet trains passing each other at top speeds.

This little movie has such a simple premise, but Kore-eda frames every sequence with heart and art. Real-life brothers Koki and Oshiro Maeda lend an authenticity to the adventure that would have been impossible to capture otherwise. The onscreen brothers bring the magic of a kid’s naive spirit to the serious subjects of separation and loneliness. In particular, their everyday interactions with their father and grandfather– the ways that the boys so closely emulate their male role models, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously– frequently moved me to tears.

For me, the best part of “I Wish” was its sweet depictions of childhood adventure. As I near the anniversary of my Big-Kid Playtime Party in the Park event of last fall, the movie reminded me that I should spend less time working and more time making fantastical plans. Let the scheming begin!

Movie review: “Bernie”

“Bernie”
Directed by:
Richard Linklater
Format: Big screen
Viewed: Wednesday 8/08/2012 with my wife at the Regal Manchester Stadium 16 in Fresno

As a longtime fan of independent filmmaker Richard Linklater, I was beyond stoked to hear that his latest movie, “Bernie,” was scheduled for a Fresno Filmworks screening. I’ve been hooked on Linklater since I first saw his nonlinear indie classic “Slacker” back in the day.

Regular readers of this blog know all about my love and loyalty for Filmworks and the great job they do consistently bringing indie movies to a town that’s mostly devoid of indie movies. But I was disappointed when the movie’s distributors forced Filmworks to pull the screening just days before it was scheduled to play at the Tower Theatre, only to turn around a couple days later and try to restore the screening after they had already botched the deal with Filmworks in favor of a deal with Regal Cinemas. Luckily, despite the booking controversy, my wife and I had just enough time to catch “Bernie” at one of Regal’s multiplexes before it slipped out of town after a short one-week run.

Local theater politics aside, “Bernie” was a terrific film, and it showed Linklater in top directorial form. The movie, a dark comedy adapted from a real-life Texas Monthly magazine article by journalist Skip Hollandsworth, tells the story of a funeral director named Bernie Tiede and his unusual connection to a cranky, rich widow. Jack Black, who starred in Linklater’s blockbuster “School of Rock,” delivers a perfect performance as the protagonist, a guy that everybody in the small town of Carthage, TX adores to a fault. I’m not at all a big Jack Black fan, but it would be impossible to imagine anybody in the role of Bernie Tiede but him. He laughs, he cries, he dances, he prays, and most of all, Black delivers a flawless interpretation of Bernie’s remorse after shooting the widow (played wonderfully by Shirley MacLaine) in the back.

The movie also features a funny character performance by Matthew McConaughey, who got his first big break in Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” in 1993. Oversized glasses and all, McConaughey plays the blustery district attorney who prosecutes Bernie. Despite the great acting of his three main actors, Linklater’s master stroke in this film is the onscreen presence of the local townspeople, many of whom star as themselves throughout the movie. Linklater films them talking about Bernie, the widow, and the D.A. in documentary-style interviews, lending a real feel of authenticity to the grand story played out by Black, MacLaine, and McConaughey. As the townspeople show up time and time again in unusual places throughout the movie, Linklater keeps you guessing about what’s real and what’s fiction, which is a delightful feeling for a movie whose characters are often asking the same questions.