Kings of Pastry (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Sixteen pastry chefs were invited to compete in a three-day competition called “Meilleurs Ouvriers de France” (translated “Best Craftsmen in France”) in Lyon, France. The winner, or winners, of the contest would be rewarded instant recognition. When they entered a room, they would get noticed and treated as a master chef because their collars were the colors of the French flag. Directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, “Kings of Pastry” was very involving because it gave us an exclusive look inside a competition that occurred only once every four years. We followed three contenders: Philippe Rigollot, Jacquy Pfeiffer, and Regis Lazard. The competing chefs were obsessive, to say the least, in getting every detail just right so the judges would be impressed with their craft. I’m not a very talented cook (nor do I have the patience to cook) so I admired the determination and the amount of time the three put into preparing for the competition. Each of them had dreamt of becoming the best in their specialized trade. They were family men and I’m sure they wanted win for reasons other than reaching a lifelong dream. Half of the picture was dedicated to the three chef’s backgrounds. Rigollot was a chef in Maison Pic. He shared with us a cute story, involving a lollipop and his kids, about how he learned that being a pastry chef was something he would like to build a career from. Pfeiffer was a part of the French Pastry School in Chicago. His students respected him and held him in high regard. As for Lazard, this was his second time in the competition. It didn’t work out the first time because his sugar sculpture, an extremely fragile work of art, fell apart. The second half of the film focused on the intense competition. They were graded in three fronts: their work habits, the way the final product looked, and how it tasted. The chefs had to prepare a buffet of confections. I found being in that kitchen to be stressful. The manner in which the camera fixated on certain shots, I had the feeling that something would go wrong. And they did. When a sugar sculpture came crashing down like glass, my jaw dropped and my heart stopped. I think I stopped breathing for about three seconds. I wanted to look away from the disaster. It was so painful to watch a chef’s confidence go out the window when inevitable accidents happened. It was nobody’s fault. Sometimes, as we learned, the humidity had a negative effect in the way the sugars held together. The silence was deafening among whispers of consolations. It was literally watching someone’s dreams get crushed. However, we root for the chef to keep going, to make the best of the parts that weren’t ruined, because having no sculpture to present meant certain loss. Imagine submitting a three-part project and only sending two–an inch away from failure. As the picture went on, “Kings of Pastry” became packed with emotional moments because the standard was so high. Personally, the difference between “winners” and “losers” almost became negligible.
Big Night (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci) were Italian brothers who ran a struggling Italian restaurant. On the verge of foreclosure, Secondo took Pascal’s (Ian Holm) offer, a fellow restaurant owner, of inviting a celebrity who he claimed to be his friend in order for the brothers’ place to gain a bit of popularity. The big night consisted of a wild party with a mix of great food, good friends and influential people. Directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci, the film was a delectable piece of work. It successfully captured passionate people who happened to lead a struggling business without having to result to the audiences having to feel sorry for them. Instead, the movie simply showed that Primo and Secondo had a great combination of talent and excellent palate, but the one thing they needed was a good word-of-mouth. Typical Americans just couldn’t appreciate the way they served their food. Primo wanted to make genuine Italian food but most Americans were doubtful of the strange. Early in the movie, there was highly amusing scene of a woman and her husband not understanding why the pasta didn’t have any meatballs. I had to laugh at their confused looks and frustrated voices because I recognized myself in them. There’s just something comforting about the familiar and having to step away from it most often causes friction. The film was also about the women in the brothers’ lives. Phyllis (the alluring Minnie Driver) loved Secondo but maybe he just wasn’t ready to be in long-term relationship. Money was near the top of his priorities but Phyllis didn’t consider it to be all that important. On the other hand, Primo was interested in Ann (Allison Janney), who worked at a flower shop, but he was too shy to invite her to attend the party. The best way Primo could communicate was through food. Luckily, Ann liked to eat. What I admired most about the film was its fearless ability to hold long takes. My favorite scene was when Primo returned to the kitchen after he and Secondo had an altercation. Secondo was initially by the stove as he prepared a dish for the feast. As a gesture of forgiveness, the younger one slowly inched away from the fire and allowed his older brother to be at the place where was most comfortable. Not a word was uttered. There was something assured and powerful about the way the camera was held and the manner in which it framed the two characters’ movements. A similar technique was implemented in the final scene when the space between the brothers grew smaller. There was no doubt in our minds that they would keep moving forward together. “Big Night” was beautiful film but not just because of the mouth-watering Italian food. It unabashedly explored the love between brothers without the clichéd epiphanies.
Deep Blue Sea (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★
As campy as this movie was, it had genuine thrillers and horror. Director Renny Harlin tells the story of a group of researchers who breed genetically engineered sharks in order to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. The sharks’ genes had to be altered because their normal size did not produce big enough brains to store more proteins–proteins that activate inactive Alzheimer-ridden neurons. The researchers consisted of Saffron Burrows, Stellan Skarsgård and Jacqueline McKenzie. Thomas Jane was the person who wrestled with sharks in order to incapacitate them so the researchers could extract brain matter, Samuel L. Jackson was the funder of the project, Michael Rapaport as the physicist, and LL Cool J as the god-fearing chef. I liked the fact that this picture used humor in order to relieve some of the tension on screen. There were a plethora of very funny one-liners, especially from LL Cool J as he tried to fight off a shark in the kitchen. But the one character I had a big problem with was Burrows. For such an intelligent person, she made such stupid decisions, especially toward the end. It was as though the film wanted to note a sort of evolution in her morals, which really wasn’t necessary at all because, as a scientist, she must be objective and be able to weigh the pros and cons of situations. If I were in her position, I would not have felt as much guilt for creating very intelligent, giant sharks if it meant saving millions of people who suffer from Alzheimer’s. As a person who works with people who are ravaged by the disease, I can understand how serious it is and losing a few lives in the process would not have impacted me as much if I were to consider the big picture. Also, this might be a minor complaint, but the movie implied that one can “bring back” those who were in severe stages of the disease. In reality, it’s not possible because the memories have been lost. Stopping the degeneration and even prevention, on the other hand, are entirely possible. But granted, this movie was released in 1999 and we didn’t understand the disease as well back then. Overall, this is a thrilling film with several clever ideas but does suffer with a weak first few minutes and ending. “Deep Blue Sea” is simply a story of survival–a cross between “Jaws” and “Daylight.”
The Big Feast (1973)
★ / ★★★★
“La Grande Bouffe,” or “The Big Feast,” directed by Marco Ferreri, was such a huge disappointment for me because I’ve heard a lot of good things about it, especially from critics and bloggers that I look up to for recommendations. Since my expectations were a bit hyped up, while actually watching it, it was such a letdown because the characters that came from different backgrounds–a pilot (Marcello Mastroianni), a chef (Ugo Tognazzi), a judge (Philippe Noiret) and a television star (Michel Piccoli)–were so uninteresting for such an interesting premise. The four friends hired prostitutes and had orgies in a massive getaway mansion as they ate more food than they could digest in one sitting. Just when I thought that the story would evolve into something more, I felt like it actually tried to stay in one place and featured more images of sex and gluttony. Admittedly, I’m the kind of person that can endure watching pretty much all kinds of sexual acts but this film made me wince repeatedly. I’m not quite sure if that was the kind of reaction that the director had it mind or if it was supposed to be genuinely sensual or erotic. But since it’s a dark comedy, I’m guessing it’s the former so perhaps, in a way, it succeeded on that level. Morever, for having such a group of supposedly smart gentlemen, they sure acted like adolescent morons for most of the picture. I didn’t see any scenes where any of them offered some sort of insight that made me think of their situation (or any situation for that matter) any differently. I felt like writers just had this one idea of excess but never quite broken from that in order to reach the next level. (And for a picture that ran for more than two hours, there was absolutely no excuse for that.) I also did not appreciate the slapstick that involved scenes with flatulence and excrement. I’m not a big fan of slapstick in the first place because they tend to rub me the wrong way so this film became that much worse in my book. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, the final scenes that revealed the fate of the four main characters felt completely forced and I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. It was a complete waste of my time and I almost wished I never saw it.