Category Archives: Food

Blu-ray reissue: Tampopo ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 9, 2017)

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Tampopo – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Self billed as “The first Japanese noodle western”, this 1987 entry from writer-director Juzo Itami is all that and more. Nobuko Niyamoto is superb as the eponymous character, a widow who has inherited her late husband’s noodle house. Despite her dedication and effort to please customers, Tampopo struggles to keep the business afloat, until a deux ex machina arrives-a truck driver named Goro (Tsutomo Yamazaki).

After one taste, Goro pinpoints the problem-bland noodles. No worries-like the magnanimous stranger who blows into an old western town (think Alan Ladd in Shane). Goro takes Tampopo on as a personal project, mentoring her on the Zen of creating the perfect noodle bowl.

A delight from start to finish, offering keen insight on the relationship between food, sex and love. Criterion’s edition features a nicely restored print and a generous helping of extras, including Rubber Band Pistol, Itami’s 1962 debut short film.

Eat them up, yum: Top 10 Foodie Flicks

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 22, 2008)

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I was originally going to do a post this week about my “top 10 Thanksgiving movies”, but after pondering it for a spell, all I could come up with was The House of Yes, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Ice Storm, Planes Trains and Automobiles and Alice’s Restaurant. After that, I had nuthin’ (A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving? But TV doesn’t count.)

Oh, I suppose there are many more titles out there (wasn’t there a Walton family Thanksgiving thingy?) but apparently they are not  among my favorites. One theme that I can easily relate to, however, are movies about food (or with  at least one memorable eating scene). Hey, everyone’s gotta eat, right? So, chew on these:

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Big Night-This is one film that I have repeatedly foisted on friends and relatives, because after all, it’s important to “…take a bite out of the ass of life!” (as one of the film’s characters demonstrates with rather voracious aplomb). Two brothers, enterprising businessman Secondo (Stanley Tucci, who also co-wrote and co-directed) and his older sibling Primo (Tony Shalhoub), a gifted chef, open an Italian restaurant but quickly run into financial trouble.

Possible salvation arrives via a dubious proposal from a more successful competitor (played by an endearingly hammy Ian Holm). The fate of their business hinges on Primo’s ability to conjure up the ultimate feast. And what a meal he prepares-especially the timpano (you’d better have  pasta and ragu handy-or your appestat will be writing checks your duodenum will not be able to cash, if you know what I’m saying). The wonderful cast includes Isabella Rossellini, Minnie Driver, Liev Schreiber, Allison Janney, Campbell Scott (who co-directed with Tucci), and Latin pop superstar Marc Anthony.

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Comfort and Joy– A quirky trifle from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth (Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero). An amiable Glasgow radio personality (Bill Paterson) is dumped by his girlfriend on Christmas Eve (happy holidays!), which throws him into an existential crisis, causing him to take a sudden and urgent inventory of his personal and professional life. Soon after lamenting to his GM that he wants to do something more “important” than his chirpy morning show, serendipity drops him into the middle a of a hot scoop-a “war” between two rival ice-cream dairies.

Chock full of Forsyth’s patented low-key anarchy and wry one-liners. As a former morning DJ, I can tell you that the scenes depicting “Dickie Bird” doing his show are very authentic, which is rare on the screen. It might take several days to get that ice cream van’s loopy theme music out of your head.

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The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover-A gamey, visceral and perverse fable about food, as it relates to love, sex, violence, revenge, and Thatcherism from writer-director Peter Greenaway (who I like to call “the thinking person’s Ken Russell”). Michael Gambon chews up the scenery as a vile and vituperative British underworld kingpin who holds nightly court at  a gourmet eatery.

When his bored trophy wife (Helen Mirren) becomes attracted to one of the regular diners, a quiet and unassuming bookish fellow, the wheels are set in motion for quite a twisty tale, culminating in one of the most memorable scenes of “just desserts” ever served up on film.

The opulent set design and cinematographer Sacha Vierny’s extraordinary use of color combine to lend the film a rich Jacobean texture. Look for the late great pub rocker Ian Dury as one of Gambon’s associates.

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Delicatessen-This film is so…French. A serio-comic vision of a food-scarce, dystopian future society,directed with great verve and trademark surrealist touches by co-directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (The City of Lost Children). The pair’s favorite leading man, Dominique Pinon (sort of a sawed-off Robin Williams) plays a circus performer who moves into an apartment building with a butcher shop downstairs. The shop’s proprietor seems to be appraising the new tenant with, let’s say, a “professional” eye.

In Jeunet and Caro’s bizarro world, it’s all par for the course (just wait ‘til you get a load of the vegan “troglodytes” who live underneath the city). One sequence, involving a hilarious, imaginatively staged sex scene, stands on its own as a veritable master class in the arts of film and sound editing.

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Diner-This slice-of-life dramedy marked writer-director Barry Levinson’s debut in 1982, and remains his best. A group of 20-something pals converge for Christmas week in 1959 Baltimore. One is recently married, another is about to get hitched, and the rest playing the field and deciding what to do with their lives as they slog fitfully toward adulthood.

The most entertaining scenes take place at the group’s favorite diner, where the comfort food of choice is French fries with gravy. Levinson has a knack for writing sharp dialog, and it’s the little details that make the difference; like a cranky appliance store customer who refuses to upgrade to color TV because he saw Bonanza at a friend’s house, and decided that “…the Ponderosa looked fake”.

This film was more influential than it gets credit for; Tarantino owes a debt of gratitude, as do the creators of Seinfeld. It’s hard to believe that Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Daniel Stern, Timothy Daly, Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser were all relative unknowns at the time!

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Eat Drink Man Woman– Or as I call it: “I Never Stir-Fried for My Father”. This was director Ang Lee’s follow-up to his crowd pleaser The Wedding Banquet (another good food flick). It’s a well-acted dramedy about traditional Chinese values clashing with the mores of modern society. An aging master chef (losing his sense of taste) fastidiously prepares an elaborate weekly meal which he requires his three adult, single daughters to attend. As the narrative unfolds, Lee subtly reveals something we’ve suspected all along: when it comes to family dysfunction, we are a world without borders.

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My Dinner with Andre– This one is a tough sell for the uninitiated. “An entire film that nearly all takes place at one restaurant table, with two self-absorbed New York intellectuals pontificating the whole running time of the film-this is entertaining?!” Yes, it is. Director Louis Malle took a chance that pays off in spades. Although essentially a work of fiction, the two stars, theater director Andre Gregory and actor-playwright Wallace Shawn are playing themselves (they co-wrote the screenplay). A rumination on art, life, love, the universe and everything, the film is not so much about dinner, as a love letter to the lost art of erudite dinner conversation.

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Pulp Fiction-Although the universal popularity of this Quentin Tarantino opus is owed chiefly to its hyper-stylized mayhem and the iambic pentameter of its salty dialogue, I think it is underappreciated as a foodie film. The hell you say? Think about it.

The opening and closing scenes take place in a diner, with characters having lively discussions over heaping plates of food. In Mia and Vincent’s scene at the theme restaurant, the camera zooms to fetishistic close-ups of the “Douglas Sirk steak, and a vanilla coke.”). Mia offers Jules a sip of her 5 Dollar Milkshake.

Vincent and Jules ponder why the French refer to Big Macs as “Royales with cheese” and why the Dutch insist on drowning their French fries in mayonnaise. Jules voraciously hijacks the doomed Brett’s “Big Kahuna” burger, then precedes to wash it down with a sip of his “tasty beverage”. Pouty Fabienne pines wistfully for blueberry pancakes.

Even super efficient Mr. Wolfe takes a couple seconds out of his precisely mapped schedule to reflect on the pleasures of a hot, fresh-brewed cup of coffee. And “Don’t you just love it when you come back from the bathroom and find your food waiting for you?”

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Tampopo-Self billed as “The first Japanese noodle western”, this 1987 entry from writer-director Juzo Itam is all that and more. Nobuko Niyamoto is superb as the title character, a widow who has inherited her late husband’s noodle house. Despite her dedication and effort to please customers, Tampopo struggles to keep the business afloat, until a deux ex machina arrives-a truck driver named Goro (Tsutomo Yamazaki).

After one taste, Goro pinpoints the problem-bland noodles. No worries-like the magnanimous stranger who blows into an old western town (think Shane), Goro takes Tampopo on as a personal project, mentoring her on the Zen of creating the perfect noodle bowl. A delight from start to finish, offering keen insight on the relationship between food, sex and love.

Tom Jones– Does it require an explanation?

Unhappy meal: The Dinner *1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 7, 2017)

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In my 2012 review of the French dramedy Little White Lies, I wrote:

In 1976, a Swiss ensemble piece called Jonah, Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 unwittingly kick-started a Boomer-centric “midlife crisis” movie sub-genre that I call The Group Therapy Weekend (similar to, but not to be conflated with, the venerable Dinner Party Gone Awry). The story usually centers on a coterie of long-time friends (some married with kids, others perennially single) who converge for a (reunion, wedding, funeral) at someone’s (beach house, villa, country spread) to catch up, reminisce, wine and dine, revel…and of course, re-open old wounds (always the most entertaining part).

Oren Moverman’s new drama The Dinner edges closest to the “dinner party gone awry” meme, with a generous dollop of “you only hurt the ones you love” tossed in for giggles.

Actually, there are very few (intentional) giggles in this histrionic disappointment from a director who has done better work and a tragically wasted cast (so much for burying my lede). Set in an upscale restaurant and using a framing device that divides the narratives into chapters (of a sort), delineated by the many courses of the meal, Moverman’s story (adapted from the novel by Herman Koch) centers on a (wait for it) dysfunctional family.

In this corner, we have Richard Gere (in full, insufferably over-confident alpha mode) as a Congressman in the midst of a run for governor, and his lovely wife (Rebecca Hall). And in this corner, we have the Congressman’s agoraphobic, insufferably neurotic academic brother (Steve Coogan) and his lovely wife (Laura Linney).

The brothers have not been on speaking terms for most of their adult lives, but an odious crime committed by their teenage sons (and posted on YouTube by a third party) has necessitated a truce. The boys’ identities are concealed by the fuzzy video, but the couples are struggling with how to best handle it all. As the evening progresses, the familial bloodletting commences.

It’s an intriguing setup, but something went terribly wrong with this film, which I found deadly dull and thoroughly unpleasant to sit through. The fault certainly doesn’t lie in the casting; these are all wonderful actors. That said, Steve Coogan in particular makes some truly awful choices in his performance. It pains me to say this, as he is one of my favorite comedic actors; and perhaps that’s the problem…he is trying too hard. He has successfully tackled dramatic roles in the past, but it may take time to live this one down.

It’s a major letdown from Moverman, who has directed and/or written some exemplary films in the past. In fact, his film The Messenger (my review) made my top 10 of 2009, his film Rampart (my review) made my top 10 films of 2011, and a film he scripted, Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy (my review) made my top 10 of 2013. Oh well. I guess even some of the best 4-star restaurants serve up the odd plate of overcooked ham. C’est la vie.

Masticating and gesticulating: An Italian Name ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 14, 2015)

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In my 2012 review of the French dramedy Little White Lies, I wrote:

In 1976, a Swiss ensemble piece called Jonah, Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 unwittingly kick-started a Boomer-centric “midlife crisis” movie subgenre that I call The Group Therapy Weekend (similar to, but not to be conflated with, the venerable Dinner Party Gone Awry). The story usually centers on a coterie of long-time friends (some married with kids, others perennially single) who converge for a (reunion, wedding, funeral) at someone’s (beach house, villa, country spread) to catch up, reminisce, wine and dine, revel…and of course, re-open old wounds (always the most entertaining part).

 Not unlike Little White Lies, Francesca Archibugi’s An Italian Name (Il nome del figlio) nestles betwixt The Group Therapy Weekend and Dinner Party Gone Awry. And as in many Italian films, there’s a lot of eating, drinking, lively discourse…and hand gestures.

The dinner party of note is a cozy and casual late night get-together at the home of school teacher Betta (Valeria Golino) and professor hubby Sandro (Luigi Lo Cascio). There are only three guests; Betta’s brother Paolo (Alessandro Gassman, son of the late great actor Vittorio Gassman), his wife Simona (Michaela Ramazzotti), and childhood friend Claudio (Rocco Papaleo), a bachelor, musician, and…referee (once the fur begins to fly).

If there’s one thing longtime friends know how to do best, it’s how to push each other’s buttons. It’s apparent that these five have known each other a long time; and once Betta and Sandro have sent the kids to bed and cracked open a few bottles of wine, the evening begins to take its inevitable course. Paolo, whose preternatural good looks and easy charm have undoubtedly led to his success as a high-end real estate broker, is a bit of a prankster, who enjoys winding up brother-in-law Sandro. The lovely Simona, the best-selling author of a Jackie Collins-style novel, is pregnant. Paolo announces with a straight face that the couple have come up with a name for the baby (if it’s a boy)-Benito. Sandro, a pompous, left-leaning academe, takes the bait…and so the (verbal) bloodletting begins.

There are echoes of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? throughout the evening’s proceedings, as dormant resentments resurface and new revelations come to the fore; the main difference here being that the overall tone isn’t as vitriolic. The smart, witty, rapid-fire repartee is executed with flair by the wonderful ensemble (in fact the dialog is so rapid-fire that I found it a challenge keeping up with the subtitles…and I’m a fast reader).

The breezy 94 minute film plays like a tight, one-act play; which apparently (as I learned after the fact) is what it was in its original incarnation. Director Archibugi and co-writer Francesco Piccolo adapted their script from a play by Alexandre de la Patelliere and Matthieu Delaporte. I was also blissfully unaware that de la Patelliere and Delaporte directed their own screen version of their play (released in France in 2012 as Le prenom), so I’m in no position to say whether the Italian remake is better or worse. One thing that I can say for sure…An Italian Name is one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen this year.

Death by Cocoa Puff: That Sugar Film **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 1, 2015)

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Coconut fudge really blows down those blues. On the downside, it also leads to metabolic syndrome, obesity, cardiovascular disease, a fatty liver, and type II diabetes. Well, the coconut fudge itself is not The Devil, per se, but rather a toothsome delivery system for the actual culprit. And ye may not recognize him; for his name is legion, and they are many: Agave nectar, barley malt syrup, cane juice crystals, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, lactose, molasses, sorghum or (my favorite) treacle. Yes, the correct answer is: “Sugar”.

So, if you don’t want to die from metabolic syndrome, obesity, cardiovascular disease, a fatty liver, or type II diabetes, the answer is obvious, right? As Marlene Dietrich wryly advises the corpulent Orson Welles in Touch of Evil: “You should lay off those candy bars.” While a good place to start, that’s not necessarily The Answer. That is, if you believe everything that Damon Gameau has to say in his documentary, That Sugar Film.

As Morgan Spurlock did for his 2004 fast food expose, Super Size Me, Gameau donates his (living) body to science, in the interest of public health. Also like his predecessor, Gameau is a (usually) health-conscious individual who sets out to attempt what some might consider an act of nutritional suicide, and to document his experiment for posterity.

Spoiler alert…he lives to tell his tale (but you knew that). Whereas Spurlock scarfed (and barfed) nothing but McDonald’s fare for a month, Gameau super-sizes his study, ingesting the equivalency of 40 teaspoons of sugar daily for two months. While that seems excessive (and undoubtedly is, from a health perspective), Gameau was simply only replicating the daily teenage average consumption of sugar in his native Australia.

The twist is that Gameau did lay off those candy bars. And cookies, and cake, and ice cream. So how did he get all that sugar in his system? He ate healthy…as in “healthy” foods like low-fat yogurt, granola, and Jamba Juice smoothies (he conducted part of his experiment grazing in the U.S.). These are foods laden with “hidden” sugars that many of us (much less teenagers) shovel down our gullets daily. That’s a scary enough thought to process, but by the time Gameau shares that 80% of our processed foods contain sugar, it’s downright depressing (I immediately consoled myself with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s).

The effects of these 60 days of sugary self-abuse on Gameau’s overall health prove similar to Spurlock’s physiological (and psychological) deterioration following his fast food diet: weight gain, an alarming proliferation of fatty tissue in his liver, lethargy, mood swings, and pre-diabetic symptoms (all confirmed by attendant doctors and psychologists). Perhaps the most startling revelation is that Gameau’s daily caloric intake remained nearly identical to his pre-experiment numbers; the difference being that his normal diet consists of healthy fats and proteins (it’s those empty calories that kill you!).

But is any of this really news to anybody? After all, everyone from concerned nutritionists to tyrannical Socialist first ladies have been touting the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits, nuts, veggies and lean protein to the ‘murcan public for some time now. Yet diabetes remains at epidemic levels, and heart disease is still America’s #1 killer. So I suppose most of us must have our heads too firmly implanted in the stuffed-crust pizza.

And know that I am just as guilty as the next rube. I know ice cream is “bad” for me…but it tastes so fucking good! I know I shouldn’t eat sugary cold cereal for breakfast every morning…but I’m too goddam lazy to cook. But that’s a “PP” (personal problem), so what about society at large? The problem, Gameau posits, may go deeper than behavioral issues of self-control, or kicking sugar addiction. He digs into sociopolitical factors, including a parallel study between sugar-related health crises in two economically depressed backwaters; an Aboriginal settlement in Australia and a town in Appalachia.

And then there’s the other “P” word. Profits. The sugar industry (for obvious reasons) has a keen interest in keeping consumers hooked on the sweet stuff, and Gameau delves into some of the more insidious manipulations they routinely engage in, from buying off scientists to pass off puff pieces as “official studies” to the (inevitable) lobbying tactics.

While visually “busy” and distractingly frenetic at times (the film is edited and color-timed like a Katy Perry video) I think the substantive message will be absorbed by viewers. It’s possible that Gameau infused his film with broad theatricality (e.g. hammy cameos by Hugh Jackman and Stephen Fry) to soften the blow. I mean, who really wants to be told they’re digging their grave with an ice cream scoop, or that jolly old Captain Crunch is in reality the Antichrist, in a tri-corner hat? Hey, I know…who wants Trident?

SIFF 2015: Diner **** (Archival presentation)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 23, 2015)

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This slice-of-life dramedy marked writer-director Barry Levinson’s debut in 1982, and remains his best. A group of 20-something pals converge for Christmas week in 1959 Baltimore. One is recently married, another is about to get hitched, and the rest playing the field and deciding what to do with their lives. All are slogging fitfully toward adulthood.

The most entertaining scenes take place at the group’s favorite diner, where the comfort food of choice is French fries with gravy. Levinson has a knack for writing sharp dialog, and it’s the little details that make the difference; like a cranky appliance store customer who refuses to upgrade to color TV because he saw Bonanza at a friend’s house, and decided that “…the Ponderosa looked fake”.

This film was more influential than it gets credit for; Tarantino owes a debt of gratitude, as do the creators of Seinfeld. It’s hard to believe that Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Daniel Stern, Timothy Daly, Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser were all relative unknowns at the time!

Quick take: The Trip to Italy ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 6, 2014)

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There’s a great exchange between returning leads Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip to Italy, Michael Winterbottom’s follow-up to the trio’s 2011 road comedy, The Trip, regarding “the sophomore curse” in cinema. Coogan proclaims that sequels are never as good as the original; instantly regretting his statement when Brydon quickly deadpans “…except, of course, for Godfather II…” and proceeds to rattle off a number of other superior sequels whilst Coogan furiously (and hilariously) attempts to backpedal. You can add this sequel to that list.

Using a similar setup, the pair of actor-comedian pals hit the road for another restaurant tour, making a scenic upgrade from England’s Lake District to Italy’s sunny Mediterranean coast. Once again, they play slightly elevated caricatures of themselves. The comic riffing (the main reason to watch) is as brilliant as previous; covering everything from armchair psychoanalysis of Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill album to dueling Michael Caine impressions and geriatric Roger Moore jabs (“Cubby…did you get my note about the handrails?”). There’s also a more pronounced melancholic element in this outing (middle-aged malaise comes to us all). Also as before, the film was whittled down from a six-episode BBC mini-series.

El corazon de la cocina: Spinning Plates ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 16, 2013)

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I have a porn addiction. Food porn, that it is…thanks to those pushers who run the Food Network and The Food Channel. If I’m channel-surfing and come across Graci in the Kitchen, Giada at Home, Peaches en Regalia, whatever…I’m compelled to stop and stare, like a cat fixating on a goldfish bowl. Funny thing is, I mostly dine on takeout and don’t cook (unless boiling pasta or microwaving instant oatmeal counts). While we’re on the subject, when did we become Foodie Nation (as an ever-escalating portion of the world goes hungry)? And how and why have ‘celebrity chefs’ become the new rock stars?

Not that any of these questions are addressed in Spinning Plates, the debut documentary from Joseph Levy (whose previous credits include exec-producing a season of Food Network’s Ultimate Recipe Showdown). I just wanted to explain why I approached his film with trepidation (I’ve been so inundated by foodie docs that I was afraid that if I took one more bite I’d explode like Mr. Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life). However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover here a genre entry that is not so easily pigeonholed, filled with unexpected twists and turns…but imbued with heart.

The premise is very simple, a portmanteau interlacing three restaurateur profiles. And yes, one of them is a “celebrity chef”, Grant Achatz of Chicago’s 3-star Michelin eatery Alinea. Achatz is known for being at the forefront of “molecular gastronomy” (a cutting-edge cuisine way above my head…and pay grade). As the affable and boyish Achatz demonstrates some of the improvisational techniques and Rube Goldberg gadgetry he utilizes to create new food presentations, he doesn’t vibe a world-class chef so much as Bill Nye the Science Guy. Still, his passion and dedication is genuine (although he doesn’t go into specifics, it’s intriguing to hear him allude to a falling out with early mentor Charlie Trotter, who passed away just 2 weeks ago).

Passion and dedication also figure prominently in the stories behind the two very different family-run restaurants that round off the trio of profiles. “Family-run” is almost an understatement when describing Balltown, Iowa’s Breitbach’s Country Dining, as the business is a 120 year-old heirloom. Owner Mike Breitbach and his family work morning noon and night to keep their customers happy. Their tale is straight out of a Frank Capra movie. Their regular customers are so dedicated that many of them are entrusted with front door keys; frequently pitching in on their own volition to help with opening and closing duties at the huge facility (which also doubles as an unofficial community center).

And finally, while much smaller in square footage and staff size but no less a labor of love, we follow the story of La Cocina de Gabby, a modest Mexican restaurant in Tucson run by Francisco and Gabby Martinez, a couple with a 3 year-old daughter. Everything on the menu is a family recipe handed down to Gabby by her mom (who pitches in to help with the cooking). There are occasional hiccups having the whole family involved, especially when young Ashley decides to “act out” in the kitchen, fully audible to the customers (the joys of having a 3 year-old underfoot at work). But there’s enough love and support in this family to trump any downsides.

So then what separates this film from the  plethora of docs and TV reality shows that bang away at the challenges and travails of running a restaurant? It’s the Behind the Music element of Levy’s film that ultimately grabs you by the heartstrings. Granted, while that is a bit of a hackneyed formula, I  like the way that the director slowly serves up the back story of his subjects like a multi-course meal, in carefully weighed portions. And for dessert, Levy ties it together in one of the most beautifully nuanced denouements I’ve ever seen in a documentary. Cynics might scoff, but I was left feeling pleasantly full.

SIFF 2011: The Trip ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 28, 2011)

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Pared down into feature film length from the 6-episode BBC TV series of the same name, Michael Winterbottom’s film is essentially a highlight reel of that show-which is not to denigrate it, because it is the most genuinely hilarious comedy I’ve seen in many a moon. The levity is due in no small part to Winterbottom’s two stars-Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, basically playing themselves in this mashup of Sideways and My Dinner With Andre.

Coogan is asked by a British newspaper to take a “restaurant tour” of England’s bucolic Lake District, and review the eateries. He initially plans to take his girlfriend along, but since their relationship is going through a rocky period, he asks his pal, fellow actor Brydon, to accompany him. This simple narrative setup is basically an excuse to sit back and enjoy Coogan and Brydon’s brilliant comic riffing (much of it feels improvised) on everything from relationships to the “proper” way to do Michael Caine impressions. There’s some unexpected poignancy-but for the most part, it’s pure comedy gold.

Von liebe und schnitzel: Soul Kitchen **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 18, 2010)

You know, it’s great when you can find a nice palette-cleanser to tide you over during these dog days at the multiplexes, as the last crumbs of empty-calorie summer fare are cleared from the table to make room for the heartier fall menu. Soul Kitchen is one such cinematic soufflé; it bakes up light and fluffy, stopping just this side of demanding any deeper contemplation, yet it is still substantial enough to leave you feeling pleasantly full.

Equal parts romantic comedy, foodie film, and (mildly) raunchy screwball farce, German writer-director Fatih Akin’s breezy story concerns a grubby but amiable young restaurateur named Zinos (co-scripter Adam Bousdoukos) who has converted an abandoned warehouse in Hamburg’s Wilhelmsburg quarter into a funky eatery called “The Soul Kitchen”.

Operating on the cheap, Zinos is not only the manager, but the cook as well, serving up your basic beer ‘n’ pizza, schnitzel and French fries menu to a not-so-picky neighborhood clientele. If Zinos seems a bit harried and distracted, it’s due to the impending departure of his journalist girlfriend Nadine (Pheline Roggan) to China.

Zinos’ separation anxiety comes to a head when he joins Nadine and her family for dinner at another restaurant, where the two have an embarrassing public spat. Just a few moments later, that restaurant’s head chef, Shayn (Birol Unel) quits in a huff after losing his shit when a customer demands that his gazpacho (a Spanish soup, traditionally served cold) be heated up for him. The two sulking men are soon commiserating outside, where the pragmatic Shayn asks, “So, do you have a job for me?”

Although Shayn  admires what he refers to as the “Romanesque” ambiance of the Soul Kitchen, it doesn’t take long for him to ascertain that Zinos’ pedestrian menu could use sprucing up. At first, the regulars are bewildered by the “fresh sheets” and the upscale presentations on their plates. “Where’s our fries, burgers and pizza?” they demand-to which Shayn rebuffs “Get your pizza at the supermarket! Culinary racists!” before storming back to the kitchen.

Things settle down, the word gets out, and business picks up as the eatery gains hipster cachet. Zinos is not out of the woods yet, however. His brother Illias (Moritz Bleibtrau), a convicted thief, shows up unannounced on his doorstep, fresh out of prison on work release. Things get (as Arte Johnson’s catchphrase used to go on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In) “Velly interestink…but schtoo-pid!”.

Bousdoukos (whose passing resemblance to Jim Morrison is amusing, considering the title) and Bliebtrau have good chemistry as the brothers. Keep an eye out for the great Udo Kier in a minor role. Although many elements of the narrative feel familiar, the combination of energetic performances, well-chosen music (featuring everything from Louis Armstrong and Ruth Brown to Curtis Mayfield and Burning Spear) and Akin’s fresh directing approach make up for it. Sometimes, it’s all about presentation, ja ?