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.
Pressure Cooker (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Three high school students (Tyree Dudley, Erica Gaither, Fatoumata Dembele), under the passionate culinary arts teacher Wilma Stephenson’s guidance, worked their hardest to get scholarships for culinary arts college. I loved that this documentary focused on people who happened to be from a poor neighborhood but that didn’t stop them from trying to reach for their dreams. I admired the three former high school students because they had challenges outside the culinary school–Tyree and football, Erica and her handicapped sister, and Fatoumata being an immigrant from Africa–yet, strangely enough, I found that their respective challenges was what made them stronger. Out of the three, I could relate with Fatoumata the most because, growing up in another country and moving to America, I agreed with her outlook about America and its opportunities. Every time she talked about how thankful she was about immigrating to this country, I couldn’t help but feel moved. But the element that I found most interesting about this documentary was Stephenson’s relationship with her students. Even though she constantly yelled and screamed at them in the kitchen, it was easy to tell that she did those things out of love. She knew she needed to push the kids to doing their absolute hardest so they could get a scholarship. But outside of the kitchen, it seemed like she was a different person. She was still sassy but very approachable. I don’t know any teacher who would push his or her students to go to prom because “it’s a once in a lifetime thing” and even take them shopping for clothes. She didn’t just care for her students. She loved them in a such a way where she was willing to be a parent and that earned her respect. This documentary was not only inspiring and touching, it was also suspenseful. The climax of the film was when the class had to cook as the judges looked over their shoulders and sometimes made suggestions on how they could improve their skills. It was scary because so much was at stake and a little slip-up could ruin their chances of getting a scholarship they desperately needed. I was elated after watching “Pressure Cooker,” directed by Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman, because it was exactly the kind of movie I needed to see two days before taking my MCAT. It made me feel like anything was possible just as long as you invest the time to do the work and let your passion assist you during the most challenging times.
Julie & Julia (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
I really enjoyed this movie even though I’m not much of a cook (though I do absolutely love eating) because it was able paint a portrait of two women from very different times but with significant similarities. The film was definitely full of charm and it was funny. Meryl Streep, a chameleon as usual, played Julia Child, a woman who was at first lost when it came to what she wanted to accomplish in life. However, she knew that she didn’t want to be just another housewife who lived to serve her husband. So, with the love and support from her husband (Stanley Tucci), Julia eventually decided to attend a cooking class and worked her way up to publish a book called “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Fast-forward to 2002, Amy Adams played Julie Powell, a woman who worked for the government in a cubicle who was mostly unhappy with her career. After observing how busy and accomplished her friends were, she decided to make a blog: in a span of one year, she was going to cook all of Julia’s recipes. I don’t consider this a spoiler so I’m going to say that she succeeded. She was eventually able to publish a book called “Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen” even though the journey was quite rocky due to her own self-doubt, sometimes unrealistic expectations, and rising tension between her and her very patient and supportive husband (Chris Messina). This movie made me smile from start to finish because of the two leads. Even though Adams and Streep did not interact at all, their commonalities were enough for me to be emotionally invested in the picture. I commend Nora Ephron, the director, because there was something very modern about the style of the movie yet it didn’t sacrifice its substance. I loved looking at the food and I could literally smell their delicious scent whenever they were on screen. The only major criticism I have was that its pace somewhat faltered in the middle. It lost some of its urgency, a feeling that dominated the first and the last thirty minutes. Nevertheless, I thought watching “Julie & Julia” was a very pleasant experience because it really highlighted the passion that Julie and Julia had not only for food but also accomplishing something that they could be proud of. Speaking of being proud of something, Julie reminded me of myself when I started blogging in the early 2000s. The rush she felt when she finally received her first comment on her blog made me feel very nostalgic so I couldn’t help but have this big smile on my face well beyond five minutes after the scene was over. I thought Ephron and Adams really captured, at least from my experience, how it was like to put something out there and have people read it. That theme of connection was nicely explored in this film and it made me feel warm and inspired (not to mention hungry).