Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?


Robert Morley is da bombe!

Robert Morley is da bombe!

(1978) Comedy (Warner Brothers) George Segal, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Morley, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Phillippe Noiret, Jean Rochefort, Luigi Proletti, Stefano Satta Flores, Madge Ryan, Frank Windsor, Peter Sallis, Tim Barlow, John Le Mesurier, Joss Ackland, Jean Gaven, Jacques Marin, Jacques Balutin, Jean Paredes, Michael Chow, Anita Graham  Directed by Ted Kotcheff

Films For Foodies

I think all of us have soft spots for certain movies that may or may not deserve them. It’s not that the movie is particularly bad or good, it’s just that we associate a memory with them, or the movie has for some reason stuck with us for years or even decades after having seen it.

So it is for me with this light and fluffy confection, based on a much darker novel by Nan and Ivan Lyons (although there are plenty of dark moments in the movie as well). The concept is this; Max Vandeveer (Morley), the world’s pre-eminent food critic, has recently released an article for his magazine The Epicurist detailing all the elements of the ultimate meal in the world. The elements of the meal include pigeon en croute, the specialty of Louis Kohner (Cassel); Lobster Thermidor, the specialty of Fausto Zoppi (Satta Flores), pressed duck, the specialty of Moulineu (Noiret) and for desert, Le Bombe Richelieu, the specialty of Natasha O’Brien (Bisset).

Vandeveer is acerbic and sometimes rude, although he has lived the high life long enough to have acquired a certain amount of elegance. He has also acquired a goodly number of health problems from a lifetime of eating the world’s richest foods and the morbidly obese critic has been told by his doctors that if he doesn’t adjust his diet to healthier options, he won’t last long. Vandeveer chooses to ignore the advice, although his devoted assistant Beecham (Ryan) does her level best to keep him on the straight and narrow.

O’Brien is a particular favorite of Vandeveer, and he has not only been a patron for her career but holds a personal affection for her. He is less sanguine about her ex-husband, Robby Ross (Segal), an American fast food entrepreneur known with some derision as the Taco King. He is in the midst of organizing a new fast food chain specializing in omelets to be called “H. Dumpty.” Vandeveer despises him and everything he stands for.

He happens to be in London working on a deal for this new project at the same time his ex-wife is assisting in preparing a state dinner for the Queen, along with Kohner. After she has a one-night stand with him, Kohner turns up murdered – stuffed into a 450 degree oven. Not a pretty sight.

Afterwards, the other chefs on the list of Vandeveer’s world’s most fabulous meal start turning up dead, killed in gruesome fashion that recalls the preparation for their signature dish. With O’Brien on the list with a target on her back – and also under suspicion for being the perpetrator because of her romantic relationships with the first two – the Taco King and the high-end pastry chef must become detectives and figure out who is killing these great chefs before Natasha ends up as the last victim of a twisted murderer.

Kotcheff, whose pedigree includes The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, was never an innovative director but he was always a solid one; he knows how to keep the pace quick and how to balance between mystery and black comedy without having one overwhelm the other. The adaptation was written by Peter Wilson, who 15 years earlier had written the screenplay for the Aubrey Hepburn classic Charade. The dialogue is clever, urbane and full of witticisms.

Segal is here to play the ugly American and he is so successful that he actually at times is like fingernails on a chalkboard. This isn’t to say that Segal is an annoying actor – his career boasts some really fine performances – but here the character is meant to be somewhat annoying albeit with a heart of gold. However, some modern viewers might find him a little hard to stomach if you’ll forgive the awful pun.

Not so with Robert Morley. He was one of the world’s great character actors and this is the type of part that was perfect for him. Nobody ever played the pompous Brit like he did and he was so good in this role that Heinz recruited him to act as the character in a series of advertisements for their line of soups at the time. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy/Musical but not for an Oscar although Roger Ebert mused he would be in his review of the film.

The movie is definitely a product of the late 70s, and in its day was reasonably popular although box office figures for the film are unavailable; the movie was evidently popular enough to inspire the authors of the original book it was based on to write a sequel.

These days it’s fairly hard to find. It rarely plays on cable or broadcast TV although it does occasionally; it has not yet made it to Blu-Ray although it remains in print on DVD (and you can also find VHS copies of it if you look hard enough). This is the ultimate in disposable entertainment, carrying elements of Murder on the Orient Express along with 70s-era black comedy. While some of the murders are gruesome, the gore is pretty tame by modern standards, or even the standards of its own time.

It hearkens back to an era when great chefs were dignified and considered national treasures, a far cry from this era of celebrity chefs who are more like rock stars. The style of cooking here (the dishes were all provided by the legendary Paul Bocuse) is certainly much heavier than it is in this health-conscious age. They really don’t make meals like this anymore, but watching it may make you wish that they did.

WHY RENT THIS: Irreverent. Morley is delightful.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Extremely dated and cheesy. Segal can be grating.
FAMILY VALUES: Comic violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the novel the movie was based on, recipes were given for each specialty dish.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: The movie is not available for streaming at present. However, DVD copies of the movie may be purchased at Amazon or Best Buy in the United States. For readers outside the US, check your local online DVD retailers or local DVD or electronics shops.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Abominable Dr. Phibes
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Films for Foodies continues!

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Chef


Just don't call it a roach coach.

Just don’t call it a roach coach.

(2013) Dramedy (Open Road) Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Emjay Anthony, Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Amy Sedaris, Robert Downey Jr., Russell Peters, Gloria Sandoval, Jose C. Hernandez ‘Perico’, Nili Fuller, Aaron Franklin, Roy Choi, Gary Clark Jr., Benjamin Jacob, Rachel Acuna. Directed by Jon Favreau

This might well be called the age of the Chef. We are more aware of those who cook are food than ever; some develop into a kind of rock star status with television shows, restaurant chains, food products and frequent appearances on talk shows. Getting to that point though takes a lot of hard work.

Carl Casper (Favreau) had reason to believe he was on that fast track to the big time. He came out of Miami as one of the most acclaimed up-and-coming chefs in the business, but it is certainly a business of “what have you cooked for me lately?” as that was a decade or more ago. Now, he toils as the head chef in a popular Beverly Hills eatery run by the control freak Riva (Hoffman). He’s lost his edge and his passion, cooking Riva’s menu even when one of the more influential bloggers and food critics Ramsey Michel (Platt) comes to review the restaurant.

That review goes very badly for Carl as Michel trashes the food but also Carl himself, blasting him for complacency and assuming the reason he’s put on so much weight is that “he’s eating all the food returned to the kitchen.” Carl takes it very personally, leading to a heated exchange with the critic which is caught on enough cell phones to go viral. Carl finds himself without a job and too much of an Internet punch line to get a new one.

On the personal front, Carl has an amiable relationship with his ex-wife Inez (Vergara) but his 10-year-old son Percy (Anthony) wants more of a relationship than his dad is able to supply right now. Percy lives in a perpetual state of disappointment when it comes to his father. Inez thinks that Carl needs to go back to his roots in Miami and get himself a food truck. Her other ex-husband Melvin (Downey) has one that’s pretty dilapidated but has some potential.

Right at his side is his former line cook Martin (Leguizamo) who is far more loyal than Carl maybe deserves, but between the two of them they come up with the best Cuban sandwich you may ever eat. They are going to drive the truck to L.A. from Miami with stops in New Orleans and Austin; of course, Percy will come along for the ride. This is a road trip that Carl needs to discover his passion not just for food but for life.

Favreau started out as a director doing Swingers which 20 years ago redefined the whole indie film genre and while Favreau has gone on to big franchise films for the most part, his heart has always been with these sorts of movies. The trouble with being an in-demand franchise film director is that there isn’t time for him to do small movies like this one. However, after excusing himself from the Iron Man franchise he went in this direction first and to his credit it’s a wise move.

Not that the Iron Man films are without heart but they are so much less intimate than a movie like this. Chef is often described as a foodie film (and I’m as guilty of it as anyone) but it really isn’t about food so much as it is about being an artist; Carl’s medium happens to be food. Inspiration is important to any artist; ask any artist who is working for somebody else how easy it is to have their own inspiration and style curtailed by someone who doesn’t understand art, doesn’t understand the artist.

One of the problems with art is that from time to time an artist will take themselves too seriously but this isn’t about the arrogance of the artist (although Carl certainly has some of that – art requires an absolute belief in your own talent) but about the artist who has lost their way and must find it again. First though he must find his own heart.

Kids can often be cloying in roles like this one but Anthony manages to avoid that. Sometimes he comes on a bit strong with the disappointed face, but other than that he has a very natural relationship with Favreau. The two seem genuinely fond of one another and that translates well to the screen.

Favreau, who often plays smartass sorts (maybe hanging around so much with Vince Vaughn early on in his career contributed to that) but while his character can be a bit of a dick sometimes, this is a much more mature character than we’re used to seeing from him although on paper, he is pretty childish in places. By mature, I mean a character that has a lot more depth to them than just one-line zingers. This is one of Favreau’s strongest performances to date both in front of and behind the camera.

And yes, you will leave the theater hungry, longing for a good Cuban sandwich or some fine beef brisket (Aaron Franklin, whose Franklin Barbecue in Austin is considered to be the best in the country by many experts, makes a cameo appearance showing off his brisket). That’s all right. For my own purpose I left the theater not just hungry for good food but for more films like this from Favreau.

REASONS TO GO: Warm without being overly sentimental. Will make you hungry. Realistic relationships.

REASONS TO STAY: Will likely end up somewhat dated.

FAMILY VALUES: A decent amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Favreau was trained in knife-work and cooking techniques by Roy Choi, a well known fusion chef and food truck owner in the LA area who was also credited as a producer on the film (and makes a cameo appearance as himself).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Reservations 

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Immigrant

It’s Complicated


It's Complicated

It's just a little history repeating...

(Universal) Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, John Krasinski, Lake Bell, Mary Kay Place, Rita Wilson, Alexandra Wentworth, Hunter Parrish, Zoe Kazan, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Emjay Anthony, Nora Dunn, Bruce Altman. Directed by Nancy Meyers

Life after divorce can be difficult. So can life after fifty. For a fifty-year-old divorced woman, creating an identity for yourself separate from the one created as a married woman can be an ongoing process.

Jane Adler (Streep) is a successful Santa Barbara bakery owner whose twenty-year marriage to her husband Jake (Baldwin) had ended ten years previously when he cheated on her. Jake wound up marrying Agness (Bell), the younger woman he’d cheated with and inheriting her son Pedro (Anthony), quite possibly the only five-year-old boy Marlo Thomas would punch in the face.

But Jane’s okay, having finally figured out how to live as a divorced woman. She has three adult children – Gabby (Kazan) who is the last to leave the house, Luke (Parrish) who has just graduated from college and Lauren (Fitzgerald) who is engaged to her boyfriend Harley (Krasinski) who has been accepted as “one of the family” already.

Through a convoluted set of circumstances, Jake and Jane wind up in a bar alone together and wind up drinking a lot of wine, do some dancing and end up in the sack. Jane is mortified at first but the attraction between her and Jake is undeniable. For his part, he has never really fallen out of love with his ex-life, especially since the marriage to his hormone-suffused new wife hasn’t turned out the way he thought it would.

Jane is very conflicted about her relationship with her ex, having become the other woman. Further muddying the waters is her architect Adam (Martin), a very nice guy who is helping her with a new addition to her rambling mansion overlooking the Pacific and to whom she has become seriously attracted to. She’s torn between her established relationship, which she isn’t sure is completely over, and the new one, which may hold the promise of something long-term.

Director Nancy Meyers has already explored middle-aged female sexuality in films like Something’s Gotta Give but she gets into the physical sexuality a little more here. Meyers, who also wrote and produced the movie, is becoming one of the more successful women in Tinseltown where female directors are rare.

Here, she has a great cast to work with and they deliver. Streep usually doesn’t play sexual, but she does it magnificently here. She’s a woman who is comfortable in her own skin, which is where her sexiness stems from. She is also not without her self-doubts, however, particularly about the rightness of her actions. Much of the movie revolves around her inner conflict about her relationship with Jake. She is used to be the one sacrificing for her husband and her kids; here she is doing something clearly for her own benefit and its something she’s not used to and not really comfortable with. That makes her pretty much every woman.

Baldwin has shown in “30 Rock” that he is a comic actor to be reckoned with and he continues his fine work here. His Jake is narcissistic, and prone to swaying in whatever direction the breeze is blowing. Like Streep’s Jane, you find yourself not able to really despise Baldwin’s Jake despite his objectionable actions.  

While Steve Martin can play the nice guy in his sleep, he gets to let loose a little bit during a scene at a party where he and Jane get stoned. There, he reminds you that he is one of the best comic actors in the business and has been for 30 years. This is one of his best performances in recent memory.

One note about John Krasinski. Most of you have probably only seen him in “The Office” if at all, but he does exceptionally well here as the future son-in-law who always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and possessing of too much information about everything. He is likable and funny; he could well be the next breakout comedy star to emerge from television.

There is much implied nudity here (although no genitalia – female or male – are shown explicitly) and quite frankly, these aren’t the hardbodies that you usually see in intimate scenes. Still, that’s one of the things I liked about the movie – it’s not about hotties copulating but more like real people. While seeing Baldwin’s hairy, pudgy physique (or Streep’s pasty white skin) may not do anything for you, they are more like the people you would actually hook up with were you out there hooking up.

At the heart of the movie there is sweetness, enough that Da Queen took a bigger liking to this movie than I did. It also doesn’t end necessarily the way you’d think it would or even hope it does. Think of this as a romantic comedy that most of us can relate to, even if the circumstances that it depicts are far more complicated a situation than most of us will ever find ourselves in. In any case, those of you not willing to wait in line for Avatar or not inclined to see it at all might consider this an alternative for your holiday moviegoing.

REASONS TO GO: The script is deft and funny. Streep, Baldwin, Martin and Krasinski deliver the goods, acting-wise.

REASONS TO STAY: I’m not sure I needed to see Alec Baldwin nude, even with his vitals covered.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality and drug use. You may want to think twice before allowing smaller children to see this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Martin previously worked with Meyers on the Father of the Bride movies.

HOME OR THEATER: As with most romantic comedies, a big screen is not an absolute necessity.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Akeelah and the Bee