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Movie Reviews

Foodie films on the menu

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip to Italy. photo: courtesy of ifc films

Contrary to what a rabid football fan might tell you, the focal point of the Thanksgiving celebration is the big dinner when family and friends gather to share in the abundance on the table and to express their appreciation for that bounty, for the year’s good fortune, and for the support and kindness of loved ones. Not that there’s any escape from the annual Turkey Day gridiron battles that now encompass three NFL games during this hallowed Thursday holiday. As it happens, I’ll do whatever it takes to watch the 49ers-Seahawks match on this Thanksgiving’s TV schedule, but allow me to suggest a premeal alternative to televised sports.

How about gathering the clan around the giant HD screen to watch a food-centric movie? In addition to occupying guests while the grub is being prepared, a good feature film that homes in on creating and consuming culinary delights could serve as the best appetite stimulant ever!

The phrase “food porn” may evoke vignettes involving naked bodies and comestibles, like that scene in 9-1/2 Weeks with Mickey Rourke, Kim Basinger, and whipped cream. But for me, it calls to mind movies that tantalize the palate through loving close-ups of kitchen craft and the resulting delectable courses. There’s something viscerally arousing about watching people delight in eating, gourmet-style. Here are a few new releases of that nature:

‘THE TRIP TO ITALY’

My stomach couldn’t stop growling as I watched the recent feature film edit of the humorous culinary travelogue/television series The Trip to Italy, featuring U.K. frenemies/comic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. The guys play slightly fictionalized versions of themselves, bickering and bantering while traveling throughout la bella Italia in search of fine dining. It’s a sort of sequel to The Trip, which was a six-episode-turned-movie romp through the cream of England’s Lake Country restaurants.

Both projects make time for intimate depictions of food prep and presentation amid beautiful landscapes and vistas, not to forget character development, hilarious one-upmanship, and a spate of wildly funny dueling impressions from the co-stars. If there’s any criticism to offer director Michael Winterbottom, he should have lingered longer on some individual courses to jack up the yum factor.

‘CHEF’

A few months back, audiences were treated to Jon Favreau’s mix of comedy, romance, and drama inspired at least in part by the food-truck triumphs of Roy Choi. Not only did Favreau study with super chef Wolfgang Puck to bring verity to the title role, but Chef also featured a seduction scene wherein the making of a simple pasta dish is almost as sexy as Favreau’s co-star Scarlett Johansson. (Chef is not to be confused with the noodle-limp French comedy Le Chef, lacking much gastronomic detail and short on laughs even though top-lined by the usually reliable Jean Reno as its lead.)

‘THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY’ AND ‘THE LUNCHBOX’

I can also recommend two other foodie films of recent vintage, both with a whiff of the exotic. The Hundred-Foot Journey stars Helen Mirren as the owner-operator of a renowned shrine to haute cuisine in the French countryside, which is suddenly in competition with an Indian restaurant and its whiz-kid chef across the road.

The Lunchbox is a poignant drama set in Mumbai, wherein a wife attempts to reawaken her disaffected husband’s ardor by sending him exquisite dishes (with sweet notes) via the town’s lunchbox delivery system, only to have them end up at the desk of a melancholy man on the brink of retirement.

MORE CHOICES

What else to watch? These older options are guided by tone or type of cooking:

Hungry for ramen and Japanese culture? There’s Tampopo (1985), all about the machinations and relationships at a small family-run noodle shop.

Chinese fare your preference? Director Ang Lee’s Taiwanese offering Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) concerns a widower and master chef dedicated to cooking something special for his three unmarried daughters every Sunday.

Want to go Mexican-style? The warm, contemporary dramedy Tortilla Soup (2001) — an American remake of Eat Drink Man Woman — should fill the bill.

Or Italian? I always opt for Big Night (1996), the tale of two brothers (Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub) who hope to save their failing restaurant on the New Jersey shore in the late 1950s through the patronage of a celebrity. They decide to welcome him at dinner with the most elaborate and sensational entrée imaginable.

Maybe a period piece with hearty fare more your speed? Try the idiosyncratic Babette’s Feast (1987), set in a remote 19th-century Danish village where a refugee Frenchwoman decides to repay two sisters for their kindness with a resplendent banquet.

Dessert? Chocoholics can succumb to Chocolat (2000) — a Franco-American romance co-starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche and as comforting as one would expect when the cocoa bean is involved. Speaking of chocolate, the Mexican magical realism of Like Water for Chocolate (1992) revels in the frequent connection between culinary pursuits, eating, and love.

A RAT’S REPAST

For all-ages whimsy, visual splendor, and the sheer glory of a harmonious and exquisitely fashioned repast, you can’t go wrong with Pixar’s animated charmer Ratatouille (2007), the tale of a rat with impeccable taste buds who longs to be a gourmet chef.

So there you have it: an informal guide to various movies that are sure to increase one’s craving for the whole roasted bird-stuffing-cranberry thing. Just make sure you don’t inadvertently run Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life before you get to the table. There’s a scene in this otherwise comedy that depicts the excesses of a gluttonous fellow named Mr. Creosote, and it will put you off your feed for days. And don’t forget the antacid.

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Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on KPFK/Pacifica Radio's David Feldman Show and Thom Hartmann Show and on Michael Snyder's Culture Blast, available online at gabroadcaster.com and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster.

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