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Feel-good films. July 17, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I were talking just last night about favorite films, and OFB pointed out that many of my favorites were films that made me feel good. I agreed; I love films that cheer me up, that make me feel good, that give me hope, that make me laugh. So OFB challenged me to come up with my “Top Ten Feel-Good Films” list. I accepted the challenge, even though I was sure that I’d forget some of my favorites, and that there were so many more than ten that the list would necessarily be incomplete. But given those limitations, here are the ones that sprang to mind:

Bride and Prejudice. The Bollywood version of “Pride and Prejudice.” I love many adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels, including Gwyneth Paltrow’s “Emma,” Ciaran Hinds’s magnificent performance in “Persuasion,” and Alicia Silverstone’s adorable “Clueless,” but the high energy, hijinks, and general color, lightheartedness, and mayhem of “Bride and Prejudice”—not to mention the gorgeous Naveen Andrews as Balraj (Mr. Bingley)—takes it over the top.

Young Sherlock Holmes. I love all things Sherlock, but for the ultimate feel-good Holmes film, I’ll take “Young Sherlock Holmes” any day. Alan Cox as Watson would be enough to make the film a classic, but the marvelous Anthony Higgins as Moriarty and the hysterical, campy Egyptian stuff really make it priceless. After seeing it, just thinking of the line “My name is Lester Cragwitch!” will make you roar with laughter.

Flashdance. This isn’t the most cheerful of films, but its ultimate message is so uplifting: Go for your dreams and never give up. The heroine, played sensitively by a very young Jennifer Beals, faces a lot of hardship and heartbreak on the way to reaching her dreams, but she succeeds (and her friends don’t) because her inherent optimism, kindness, generosity and drive attract allies that won’t let her down, no matter what. And there’s tons of energy in the music and dancing.

Blow Dry. Like “Flashdance,” “Blow Dry” takes us through the full range of emotions, especially since Natasha Richardson plays a woman dying before her time and we all know what happened to her. But this film is so full of humor as well as sorrow, so full of great actors (like Alan Rickman), so full of hysterical moments (Bill Nighy is priceless, as is his film partner, Louie, and the mayor of the small town in Yorkshire where the hair competition is held). Ultimately, it’s about the triumph of love, but it reaches its end with plenty of humor along the way. Best line: “He looks like bloody Sid Vicious!” Wait ’til you see who it is.

The Full Monty. This riotous film is also overflowing with humor, but the underlying message is uplifting, about the power that comes from sticking together. A bunch of very unlikely, unemployed men from the former booming steel town of Sheffield, England, decide to improve their fortunes—and love lives—by staging a Chippendales-style act of their own. After many misadventures, including being thrown into jail, losing their homes, losing a son through custody issues, a botched suicide attempt, grocery-store burglary, and so on, the guys get it together. And the attack of the garden gnomes during a job interview still makes me laugh so hard I cry.

Julie and Julia. Who doesn’t love Julia Child? Who doesn’t love Dan Aykroyd’s parody of Julia Child? Who wouldn’t love Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci as Julia and Paul Child? Not me. Seeing any of the above onscreen makes me feel good, especially the onion scene. Seeing Julia’s modern-day follower, Julie Powell, trying to make lobster thermidore while her totally adorable husband dances around singing “Lobsta killah, lobsta killah” is the greatest thing ever.

Smoke Signals. Based on Sherman Alexie’s novels of life on the Rez, this film brims over with laugh-out-loud humor and dry wit. The ultimate coming-of-age story and road trip rolled into one, it’s filled with great characters like Lester Fallsapart and the great Gary Farmer as Arnold Joseph, father of one of the protagonists, who ironically really does fall apart. But the true hero of the movie is Thomas Builds-the-Fire, a happy-go-lucky visionary who helps Arnold’s son Victor reconcile his relationship with his father, and with life, over the course of the road trip. As the Rez’s DJ says, “It’s a good day to be Indigenous.”

The Commitments. This movie about some kids in Dublin who form a soul band, “The Commitments,” is hilarious. Many of the best lines are provided by the Elvis-worshipping father of the protagonist, played just brilliantly by Colm Meaney, who has a portrait of Elvis hanging just under his portrait of the Pope. The adorable (and bizarrely named) Outspan Foster, played by Irish musician Glen Hansard, will win your heart, and Maria Doyle (now Maria Doyle Kennedy of “The Tudors” fame) is marvelous. Not to mention that the music is great.

Princess Caraboo. The movie that presumably introduced Phoebe Cates to her husband, Kevin Kline, is simply marvelous all-round. Catesby plays a servant girl in Regency England (the Jane Austen era) who runs away and pretends to be an exotic princess, named Caraboo. She is taken up as a novelty by high society and eventually even meets the Prince Regent himself before being unmasked by an investigative reporter, Gutch. But the film has a happy ending, as Gutch has fallen in love with the girl and arranges for her to make a fresh start in America rather than being hanged, and then joins her. Kline as Frixos, the Greek butler of the house that takes her in, is simply priceless, and a strong supporting cast, including Jim Broadbent, John Lithgow, John Sessions as the Prince Regent, and the marvelous Stephen Rea as the reporter, make this a total feel-good hit. Wait for Kevin Kline’s “Unfortunately.”

Last Holiday. Queen Latifah at her finest, playing Georgia Bird, a gifted cook who worships Emeril and longs to open a restaurant but instead is working in the cookware department of a department store run by a greedy, horrific monster who embodies every moronic, “hot” management trend, much like Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss. When Ms. Bird is misdiagnosed with a terminal illness and told she only has two weeks to live, she decides to chuck it in and spend those two weeks at a super-elite hotel and spa in Switzerland, enjoying the delicious dishes prepared by their outrageously eccentric chef, played marvelously by Gerard Depardieu. When her horrid uber-boss shows up at the same resort, hilarity follows on a grand scale, and Georgia eventually triumphs. Don’t ever forget Depardieu’s secret to happiness: butter. (But he forgot salt.)

Independence Day. What red-blooded Earthling wouldn’t love this movie, where, as star Will Smith says, we “whup ET’s ass”?! Jeff Goldblum is simply priceless as the nerdy genius who saves the day, but it’s his onscreen father, played to perfection by Judd Hirsch, who steals all the scenes. At Hawk’s Haven, we watch “Independence Day” every Fourth of July. But I could probably watch it every week.

Honorable mention:

Scrooge. The musical version of “A Christmas Carol,” starring Albert Finney, is hilarious, and the music is fantastic. David Collings as Bob Cratchit, Karen Scargill as his adorable daughter Kathy, and one of Scrooge’s debtors, Tom Jenkins (Anton Rogers), a soup seller, are so great, and we’re treated to guest appearances by Sir Alec Guinness as Marley’s Ghost, Dame Edith Evans as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Sir Kenneth More as the Ghost of Christmas Present. But it’s really David Collings who steals the show as Cratchit. My other fave is “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” which also has really memorable music. The reason these fall in the “Honorable Mention” category is simply because they’re seasonal.

Conan the Barbarian. Ah, gotta love the two Conan movies, “Conan the Barbarian” and its sequel, “Conan the Destroyer.” These films introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger to the world beyond weightlifting and made him a household name, mainly because they were filled with great Arnold one-liners that came to define his subsequent film roles, such as another favorite feel-good film, “The Running Man.” (“See you at the 25th prison reunion.”) It was “The Running Man” that first gave us Ah-nold’s deathless line, “I’ll be back.” But it was the Conan films that gave him the opening to inject humor and laughs into what could have been just another pair of tedious muscle/fantasy films that took themselves way too seriously.

Bend It Like Beckham. I suppose I’d appreciate any film that allowed an ordinary girl to triumph over the bizarre-looking, anorexic Keira Knightley. The parents of both the heroine and her best friend (played by Ms. Knightley) are marvelous. And like all Jane Austen romances—of which I think this was a modernization—there are plenty of twists and turns before the star-crossed lovers are finally united with a kiss.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. A gentle, delightful film about a bunch of British seniors who are, for a variety of reasons, forced to retire to India to spend their “golden years” in an affordable hotel. Plunged into an exotic culture and less-than-ideal accommodations, they discover who they truly are and even find late-life love and new careers. Meanwhile, the adorable proprietor of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel faces romantic and financial crises of his own, but amid considerable hilarity, all turns out for the best. Super ensemble performances, with standout turns from Dame Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Dame Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, and Dev Patel (as the proprietor). Impossible not to feel good by the end of this!

Cinema Paradiso. Some sad things happen in this Italian tale of a small town cinema’s rise and fall, but there’s such delightful interplay between a little boy, the man who operates the film equipment, and the village priest that it more than compensates. Lots of laughs and smiles along the way. And, in the end, two delightful surprises for the boy, now grown to become a famous director. Beautifully acted, great music, and totally heartwarming.

The Gods Must Be Crazy. This hysterical film pits a timeless, gentle, primitive culture against modern society, all because a pilot tossed an empty Coke bottle out of his plane. The Kalahari people on whose land the bottle falls at first believe it to be a gift from the Gods, but realize when it stirs up envy and enmity among the people for the first time ever that it is “the evil thing.” One man volunteers to take it away, and in the process has many misadventures as he meets more “advanced” cultures. At the same time, a hapless ranger has ludicrous, hilarious disaster after disaster, especially after he meets the woman of his dreams. Fortunately, all turns out well for the tribesman and the star-crossed lovers.

Sister Act. Okay, okay, I know it’s hokey, but it still cheers me up. Whoopi Goldberg may not be convincing as a casino act, but she’s simply great as a pseudo-nun in the Witness Protection Program. Dame Maggie Smith does a great job as her Mother Superior, and Whoopi’s fellow nuns are priceless, as she turns a hopeless choir into an irresistible act. I dare you not to sing along!

Okay, enough from me for now. That’s 18 movies that make me happy. Which films make you happy?

‘Til nex,t time,



The kitchen waltz. March 8, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Sometimes, it takes a different perspective to get your thoughts in order.

I love to cook, and I’m even capable of making an elaborate multi-dish Indian meal and getting it all hot to the table. But generally speaking, I find that a main dish, a couple of sides, and a salad are about all I can handle and still make sure everything’s delicious, cooked exactly right, and served at the perfect temperature. True, my dishes may be a pretty far cry from typical family fare or some family-style cafeteria’s “meat and three,” but still. For one cook, one cranky old stove, no freezer space, no convenience foods, and no microwave, that’s pretty much the limit, unless you can make a few dishes like cranberry sauce or coleslaw or squash casserole in advance.

Now, we all have our priorities, and one of mine is temperature. I’d gladly omit a few dishes I know our friend Ben and I would enjoy if it means bringing the ones we do eat to the table at the ideal temperature. (And hey, how many dishes do two adults and one hopeful dog and parrot need at a given meal, anyway?!) As long as every dish I do serve contributes to the beauty and flavor of the meal, that’s the thing that matters. I can always make those other dishes another time, and I know OFB and I will anticipate and enjoy them every bit as much then.

There are, of course, easy ways to get around these limitations. We love our Friday Night Supper Club gatherings, where everyone brings something, be it sparkling water or wine or just-picked veggies from the garden to eat as crudites or hot-from-the-oven bread or fruit pie or some yummy homemade applesauce for dessert. That gives me scope to make a main dish or two and a fantastic salad and know that the rest of the meal will take care of itself. Then there are the two-chef families, like our friends Delilah and Chaz, who have created a kitchen to accommodate both of them and coordinate their efforts to serve such flawless multicourse meals you’d think you’d inadvertently arrived at a four-star restaurant instead of their home.

Simple or elaborate, single-dish or multi-course, I’m always delighted as long as a) the food is good and b) it arrives at the table at its perfect temperature. If it’s elaborate but not good, for whatever reason, or if by the time it reaches me it’s too cold, I’d rather eat leftover pizza (heated to the right temperature, of course) and a salad. Ugh.

But coordinating the parade of dishes to the table so they reach your enthusiastic diners when the food’s all hot and perfectly done is no easy feat. (Keep this in mind if you took your mom’s dinners for granted back in the day.) I’ve seen fabulous meals that took days to prepare go down in flames because the cook simply couldn’t juggle all the dishes in such a way that they arrived at the table at the right time and at the perfect temperature. Talk about a heartache! 

So what’s the solution here? Must you be an acrobat as well as a chef? No. But you have to be a dancer.

This revelation occurred when our friend Ben and I watched one of my favorite movies, “Blow Dry,” and a new Netflix selection, “No Reservations,” back-to-back. (Poor OFB, he’s such a sweet guy.)

“Blow Dry” is a simply delicious film starring Alan Rickman and Natasha Richardson as hairdressers entering the British hairdressing championship, with a superb Bill Nighy and Rachel Griffiths in supporting roles. (The entire supporting cast was fantastic; if you watch it, check out the mayor.)

After enjoying the film, we watched the extra features on the DVD, which included interviews with the actors talking about how they’d had to attend a hairdressing crash course and watch a few real competitions so they could look authentic in the movie. Several, including one of my all-time heartthrobs, Alan Rickman (cover your ears, OFB), discussed how choreography as much as talent contributed to success in a competition where every second counted. One of them noted that he’d attended an actual hairdressing championship with the pro stylist who’d been adviser to the movie. Seeing a flashy hairdresser at work, he’d asked the pro if the guy would win. “Not a chance,” the pro replied. “What?!!” “See, he’s wearing shoes.” Turns out, barefoot hairdressing allows more precision and speed. The resulting film emphasized the importance of coordinating your routine and staying light on your feet, literally dancing around the styling chair.

The next night, our friend Ben and I watched “No Reservations,” a predictable romance involving two chefs. Since it was a chef-centric film, it had more restaurant-kitchen scenes than I’d seen since “Ratatouille.” And sitting there, bored with the plot, I guess my mind spun out and focused on the interplay between the staff in the kitchen. In its timing, its efficiency, its perfection, it was like a ballet. Nothing was wasted. Everyone knew his or her role and everyone performed it to the split second. Just like, just like… the hairdressing championships.

Thinking this over later, I saw the connection. Cooking is a dance. Even the simplest dish is a dance: a slow dance, a tango, a waltz. Seeing and overseeing every single step, orchestrating the music, assembling the dancers and making sure every one knows his or her steps perfectly, that every nuance is in place, is the role of the chef, the composer, the conductor, the ballet master. Oh, wow. It’s so true. A solo cook (OFB’s a darling about doing the dishes), I sing and dance and waltz around the kitchen and pantry preparing our meals. (And yes, I do cook barefoot except when it’s freezing.) Ella and Louis—whom I often have on as background music, there’s no way I could cook without music—have nothing on me. I sing along, waltzing from fridge to stove to pantry to mudroom to garden to cookbook shelf or recipe file and back, frantically assembling a world of disparate ingredients into a harmonious whole.

I’m not exactly coordinated, and though I love to sing, my vocals aren’t going to land me on “American Idol” anytime soon. But it’s true, it’s the rhythm and pace that makes or breaks any meal. (And the music that, in my view, makes or breaks any cook.) The kitchen waltz: Aaaaahhh, how romantic. And how ultimately delicious.

         ‘Til next time,