Forget About Jason, Forget About Freddy: Halloween Cinematic Thrills

With Halloween just around the corner I thought I would use this opportunity to discuss my favorite part of America’s true beloved holiday, scary movies. There is something exhilarating about absorbing a truly frightening film or for that matter passively watching a bad horror movie with friends. While some people seek thrills by climbing mountain faces, jumping out of airplanes, or fleeing from angry bulls (seriously, can anyone truly explain Pamplona, Spain’s Running of the Bulls gala of insanity) the majority of us turn to cinema for our adrenaline fixes. Since the dawn of the celluloid filmmakers have been dishing out films reserved for those with a taste for the macabre. 

Horror movies are some of the most consistent pieces of the film industry. Sure there have been highs and lows in the genre, resurgences have come and gone, but one thing remains true; people will always yearn for those cinematic chills. The demand, however big it may be, is always constant with horror films. The golden age of cinema through the 60s brought on big studio monster movies, sly noir thrillers, and of course, Hitchcockian suspense (a subgenre respectively). The 1970’s, arguably the paramount epoch of cinema, period, saw the expansion of the horror genre and gave filmgoers some of the best nail biters out there. The creation of VHS and movie rental houses triggered a massive wave of low-budget, schlock video nasties from across the globe during the 1980’s and helped spawn the current highly exploitative, gross-out horror phase that horror movies are stuck in now. Then there were the 90s, which began with a slump in the genre followed by a fairly lame return to teen slasher films–the Party of Five horror heyday, as I like to call it. 

Some say the new millennium has been a breath of fresh air for the genre with an overall rise in popularity of no holds barred gore fests (Saw, uh hum, IV opens this weekend I believe along with some ultra violent arctic vampire movie) and a surge of film curiosities coming from East Asia, aka. the “fear the black haired ghost chick with eerie feline larynx” genre. Personally I think horror of today is more focused on shock than on scares. Still over the years despite a saturated market of genre films there was a fair share of gems that managed to break through to stand the test of time. 

Now I could use the rest of this column to list the obvious horror film masterpieces–The ShiningThe ExorcistHalloweenAlienWait Until DarkA Nightmare on Elm St.Texas Chainsaw MassacrePsychoRosemary’s Baby etc etc–but I thought it would be better to discuss the sect of underrated, overlooked, and forgotten gems in the genre that are just waiting to be discovered

Italian Suspensia
Similar to the current, “Asian Extreme” horror subgenre as I believe it’s being referred to, there was a slew of gritty international slasher films coming out of Europe, specifically Italy, during the late 70s and 80s. While there are a number of classics from this wave there is one pinnacle film that stands proud with the best of the best as one frightening cinematic experience. Dario Argento has been called the European Hitchcock for his unique sense of visual style, use of wonderfully creepy soundtrack scoring and a diverse canon of thrillers behind him. If this statement is true then 1977’s 
Suspiria may be his Spellbound crossed with Psycho. This eerie supernatural thriller relies on stunning cinematography, intense sound effects, a brilliant use of color, unusual setting (creepy German gothic dance school in the woods) and sheer gothic atmosphere for its scares, rather than simple gore tactics (although the film is pretty brutal in its own right). While the film may seem dated thanks to horrible overdubbing (a standard norm during its filming) and some rather silly low-budget special effects during its finale, this movie lives up to its corny tagline–“The Only Thing More Terrifying Than The Last 12 Minutes Of This Film Are The First 92”–as one of the most frightening roller coaster rides you’ll ever encounter. Also check out Argento’s Tenebre and Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, and Mario Bava’s Black Sunday

Psychological Thrills 
Some of the scariest films out there aren’t necessarily categorized as horror, but rather psychological thrillers or dramas. Surrealist auteur David Lynch is a master of building scenes of sheer suspense, and has long used this tactic in just about every film he envisions. Still his freakiest film to date has to be the curiously overlooked 
Lost Highway. While the film itself is a bit of a WTF thanks to Lynch’s devotion to not spoon feeding his viewers meanings or intentions, it features some of the most intense and spine chilling moments of any film he or others have done, particularly thanks to a creepy performance by Robert Blake as the pale-faced Mystery Man who lacks eyebrows and videotapes people while they’re sleeping. 

Adrian Lynes is often labeled as an erotic thriller filmmaker thanks to films like Fatal Attraction and Unfaithful but his true masterpiece is a little sleeper circa 1990, Jacob’s Ladder. Tim Robbins (in his best performance) plays a Vietnam Vet who is forced to deal with some inner demons, literally, and some haunting discoveries about his past. The film deals with paranoia, the use of mind altering drugs, the collapse of the human psyche and even more serious issues such as government experiments on American GIs in Vietnam. Going more into the plot might spoil the movie, which is best viewed fresh. Other good psychological gems to add to your Netflix, The Wicker Man (original), Roman Polanski’s brilliant Repulsion, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, & Brad Anderson’s Session 9

Monster Mash
Today most people associate horror movies with the knife/axe/power tool wielding slashers that have flooded the market over the years; however, some of the original and best horror films are those dealing with the classic tale of monsters. Fan of the early Japanese monster movies like 
Godzilla or Rodan? If so check out the recent Korean gem, The Host, a film that not only redefines this corny genre but is a pretty suspenseful movie. Always adored the dark horror comedy, An American Werewolf in London? Check out another fun British werewolf film Dog Soldiers, which is a high-octane cat and mouse chase film set in a creepy English forest. Think vampire films are cool? Check out the cool 80s bloodsuckers in the desert road movie, Near Dark, starring a baaddasss cast of 80s actors including a memorable Bill Paxton. 

Recent Greats
Forget the countless 
Saw films, the pointless torture porn of Hostel, the recycled Japanese PG-13 ghost story movie remakes and pointless sequels/prequels to classics. Since 2000 there have been a number of quality frighteners creeping past the mainstream eye. The extremely scary, keep you on the edge of your seat 2005 spelunking nightmare film, The Descent relied on Alienesque claustrophobic suspense, creepy creature effects and fast-paced cinematography to create what is hands down the scariest movie in a long time. Before remaking a lackluster Wes Craven 80s horror cult favorite, The Hills Have Eyes, Frenchman Alexandre Aja made an extremely disturbing and chilling slasher, High Tension, which, despite a critically disparaged finale, is a pretty frightening film experience. Two Spanish speaking up and coming directors took the classic ghost story in brilliant directions with The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo Del Toro) The Others (Alejandro Amenábar). Japanese shock filmmaker Takashi Miike has made a number of cult gross-out films but none compare to his slow burning suspense masterpiece, Audition, which features one of the most F’ed up and terrifying endings imaginable. 

For anyone looking for a fix of chills this Halloween or whenever for that matter, seek out some of these titles. Sure there is a time and a place for the fun, goofy, and campy horror films of past and present, but there is no denying that wonderful feeling you get from a truly unique and frightening piece of cinema.

That Actor, From That Movie

Character Actors

For every leading A-grade actor, every tabloid luminary there are countless, equally talented character actors stealing the show from their more mainstream costars. These actors often have heavily padded resumes and work with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. While moviegoers usually recognize these actors many will often have trouble matching a name to a face. This “what’s that actor’s name?” commonality is probably amusing to the actors (Being John Malkovich shed light on this with satirical brilliance) and quite possibly embraced in the acting community, however, it is important to credit and praise these talents.

It could be said that “character acting” is kind of a redundant term since the essence of acting has always been taking on the form of different characters and personas and making it your own. Still since the dawn of celluloid this title has been reserved for a certain sect of actors and actresses who devour every role they’re handed. Classic legends such as Peter Lorre (Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon), Ernest Borgnine (The Dirty Dozen, Marty) to more contemporary greats like Steve Buscemi (quite possibly a modern day Lorre), the impeccable Gary Oldman (seriously this versatile and terribly underrated actor has played it all and brings shear brilliance to each role), Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joey Pantoliano, Harry Dean Stanton and Paul Giamatti to name a few, are versatile actors who slip from role to role with care and ease, always putting out a stellar performance even in the bleakest of films.

Many of these character actors have hit it big landing more leading roles and garnering award attention, however, the truly great ones continue to pick their roles wisely and despite their new found fame are persistent with their scene stealing ways. Widely known examples such as Kevin Spacey and Benicio del Toro in The Usual Suspects, John C. Reilly in P.T. Anderson’s Hard Eight and Magnolia, Frances McDormand in Fargo, Chris Cooper in American Beauty, Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, Danny Aiello in Do The Right Thing, Julianne Moore in Short Cuts, to name a few, may now sound cliché but are still prime examples of highly skilled actors stealing the show with small character roles.

I was reminded of the allure of great character actors this past week after I saw three great new releases, all of which featured stand out performances from a number of new and veteran character actors.

Michael Clayton, the new legal drama and George Clooney vehicle shows that yes, Clooney can act and is more than just a pretty Hollywood face, however, while his acting chops were top notch it was two of his supporting thespians that truly caught my attention. Tom Wilkinson has been making films (usually out of the spotlight) since the 70s but only recently garnered the attention and diverse roles he deserved. He’s played the devastated, vengeance filled father (In the Bedroom), the light-hearted comedic role (The Full Monty), the quirky human psyche specialist (Eternal Sunshine on a Spotless Mind) and even stole the show with a small but memorable role in Shakespeare in Love. With Clayton he masters his role as a crazed legal genius going through a bizarre mid-life crisis who comes to a startling realization and questions his morals. His performance, along with co-star Tilda Swinton, who plays a conniving corporate lackey, is so strongly executed that event he finest of details (body language, eye contact) are brought to life strengthening two fairly minor but important roles.

The newest addition to this wonderfully welcomed new-wave Western revival, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, featured a great performance by Brad Pitt (a star who is best in projects that he’s no doubt passionate about) and an even better one by Casey Affleck (a longtime superior actor to his older brother), however, it was some of the minor roles that truly caught my eye, specifically by one Garret Dillahunt. In James Dillahunt’s character is minor and merely serves to aid the plot, however, his few scenes with Pitt’s Jesse James are spellbinding to watch due to the actor’s patience with his character and brilliant attention to the finer nuances of his slow-witted character (see the movie to understand this). This actor has a short film list to credit but is quickly becoming the go to man for Western and early American History period pieces thanks to his outstanding performances (he actually plays two different roles during two different seasons) on HBOs brilliant short-lived Western drama, “Deadwood.” With an upcoming role in the highly anticipated modern Western No Country For Old Men and two more films in the works Dillahunt seems to be on the right track towards a promising acting future ahead of him, one where he will no doubt wear many different faces.

Finally I was awe struck by veteran character actor Hal Holbrook’s (All the President’s Men), moving performance in Sean Penn’s must see film, Into the Wild. Here’s a movie that features a number of fine bit roles from a number of great actors including Catherine Keener, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden and even a toned down Vince Vaughn (if you ever saw Return to Paradise you’ll know Vaughn is more versatile then people think), who all shine with small but juicy supporting roles. Still it’s Holbrook’s turn as a complicated, deeply saddened nobody whose eyes of the world are reopened by a young vagabond that truly stands out.

I could probably throw out an even longer list of great character actors working today–for those curious here are some others: Javier Bardem (his creepy role in the upcoming No Country for Old Men has people talking already), Danny Huston (Angelica’s gifted brother; see The Proposition), Danny Trejo (go-to-man for crazy Mexican desert biker roles), Alfred Molina (from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Frida, he’s done it all), Dylan Baker (go to man for square everyman, oh, and creepy pedophile), Ted Levine (chilled audiences with his flawless portrayal of Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs and still pops up in film and on TV), and Billy Bob Thornton (ok so he’s a bit mainstream but some of his early roles, specifically the indie sleeper A Simple Plan, are simply jaw dropping). People joke about the universal “What’s that actor’s name?” discussions when talking about character actors but what’s interesting about this is that these are the faces that we continue to remember from past movies. More often than not we favor the smaller roles over the obvious star performances.

What I’ve Been Up To

So it’s been a while since I last posted. Lately I’ve been keeping busy trying to write and make some money. I started writing for a Chicago website,, which serves as a trade webzine for the Chicago film industry I’ve been trying to write at least one piece a week for them and am hoping that the site will help jumpstart some future writing gigs in the same field.

Since website writing jobs don’t pay that well I have also been working a couple night a week at a French Vietnamese restaurant (yeah I wasn’t sure what that was either) on Chicago’s ritzy Gold Coast neighborhood (check it out here: ( ). The money is pretty solid which is nice cause I’ve been able to completely re-save what I spent over in Europe and continue to pay off some student loans etc. Plus we get a nice number of celebrities showing up to dine on spring rolls etc. So far I served Ben Harper’s drummer and keyboardist, and most recently Joe Montana made a presence. Remember Joe Montana?

I’ve been apartment hunting since the commute downtown is a bitch and I’m ready to get out of the suburbs. The Northside of the city seems like the best fit and is fairly cheap. Other than that I’ve been absorbing a lot of music, I’ve been getting into the new Ken Burns “War” series on PBS, I’ve been dreaming up another trip (South America seems to be beckoning me more and more), and I’ve been reading a lot–last good books, “The Places In Between,” “Learning How to Die” (a book on the band wilco), and more 33 1/3 books (currently the one on Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation).

I’ve also been trying to sort through the roughly 4000 photos I took this summer in Europe. Ugh. Below are a couple ones that stood out in my mind.

I’m back in the routine of life after college. Trying to make some money, trying to figure out my life, you know, the usual.

This is a shot inside Istanbul’s stunning Egyptian Spice market. Being in a country that is 99% Muslim is a very different experience. Turkey may be the one country I miss the most and hope to see again.

So this photo was taken in Kilkenny, Ireland. Prior to this photo these two junior street thugs had walked into a local tourist shop and walked away with these two football jerseys, without a care in the world. Thieving buggers. Anyway, they took quite an interest in Paul and I and were happy to pose for the camera. If you’ve ever seen the film “Snatch” these kids were like Irish pikeys–mangling the English language with every word out of their mouths.

This beautiful shot was taken on the small Island of Lokrum off the coast of Dubrovnik, Croatia. This pretty much sums up the natural beauty found in this part of the world.

Mostar, Bosnia (actually in Herzogovina) is another place that is dazzling to the eye, well at least half of the city that is. Mostar was devastated by the war with the famous stari Most bridge being completely destroyed (it was rebuilt in 2004). I was only here for half a day which was enough to see the city but I could have easily spent more time exploring the area. Another beautiful, often overlooked part of Europe.

This is a cool piece of the Eastside Gallery, which is the last remaining stretch of the Berlin wall. A couple years back a number of artists from around the globe painted portions of the wall. Unfortunately few remain in tact since the sands of time are unforgiving to street art.

I’ll be posting more soon. I hope to start updating the site with more music and film pieces and as I sort through more of the photos I’ll post those as well.

Musical Reinvention (Madonna Puns Aside)

Within the past month there have been a number of monumental releases kicking off the fall music season. There was that intense Kanye vs. Fitty 9/11 showdown, last week Bruce Springsteen released Magic, his newest record with the E Street Band, and this past Wednesday fans around the globe were treated to a rare musical milestone with the internet release of Radiohead’s highly anticipated seventh album, In Rainbows. Amidst all the publicity and hoorah for these monumental releases (for the record, Kanye’s Graduation and Magic are both surprisingly great records, and as I’m writing this Radiohead’s newest opus is blaring through my headphones for the fourth time) it was easy to overlook some other smaller but equally rewarding album returns from a number of talented musicians including, ether-worldly vocalist Sam Beam aka Iron and Wine, guitar sultan Mark Knopfler, and ex-Eurhythmics siren Annie Lennox, to name a few. The most startling, overlooked, and finest album to jump start the fall is by one PJ Harvey.

Polly Jean Harvey has been releasing beautifully crafted and radically unique albums since the early nineties. She made a splash with records like 1995’s To Bring You My Love, and 2000’s Stories From the City, Stories from the Sea both of which earned her well-deserved praise and a small but loyal following. What ties all of Harvey’s albums together, despite her furious and versatile voice, is the common theme of reinvention. Her recent musical contribution, White Chalk, is Harvey’s most bizarre transformation yet but it also might be her best.

Fueled by a dependence on minimalist, lullabyesque piano melodies, a surprisingly welcomed move away from the usual fiery blues electric guitar sound of latter records, and a rather haunting change in vocals, White Chalk is a puzzling album that asks a lot from its listener, but is nevertheless and instant classic. Part concept album (Harvey channels a number of different beyond the grave ghostly voices on this record), part shift into the realms of goth folk rock, if such a genre exists, Chalk is arguably the weirdest transition of Harvey’s career and raises the question, what’s next for Ms. Polly Jean?

Artists have been shedding their musical skin for years, drastically changing their sound, style and in some cases completely reinventing music, as we know it. White Chalk is by no means as prolific as when Dylan picked up an electric, or The Beatles helped coin the phrase “art rock,” but I can’t think of a more perfect recent example of how the best musicians working are the chameleons who strive to evolve through change.

While listening to White Chalk (the album has been a staple on my iPod all week and has yet to leave my car’s CD player) I started to conjure up a list of other notable radical musical reinventions from artists over the years.

Miles Ahead—It’s become a bit cliché, at least in the jazz world, to say that Miles Davis changed the face of jazz on more than one occasion–always looking forward, never looking back. Still when you look at this legend’s career and the choices that he made it’s hard not to play along with this statement. The three obvious Miles milestones were 1949’s Birth of the Cool, which took Bebop a step further living up to the album’s title; 1959’s Kind of Blue, the first true modal, atmospheric jazz experience; and 1969’s In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, fusion records that brought on the wave of free jazz and helped link rock and roll to jazz. In reality Davis continued to reinvent his sound album after album until the day he died (Davis’ final album, the critically panned Doo-Bop, is proof that had he continued making music Davis might have helped to bridge the short gap between hip-hop and jazz) despite being ignored and lambasted by so-called jazz purists.

Cha-Cha-Cha Changes—David Bowie was at one point the most capricious musician working in the industry, bending genres and sounds at every chance he could. From early Brit pop singer songwriter (Hunky Dory), to glam rock pioneer (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane), dark goth rocker (The Man Who Sold the World, Diamond Dogs), and the shamefully overlooked (1. Outside), R&B crooner (Young Americans), experimental ambient kraut rock (Station to Station, The Berlin Trilogy: Low, Heroes & Lodger), proto punk (Scary Monsters and Super Creeps) dance pop (Let’s Dance, Black Tie White Noise) and even a stint in bass and drum heavy electronica (Earthling), Bowie’s androgyny and shape shifting persona went far beyond simply his appearance.

Under African Skies
—During the 80s a number of big name artists shed the familiar sounds of their back catalogue and explored the varied rhythms and styles coming from South Africa’s afro-pop scene and the Caribbean reggae wave. In almost all cases the musicians who went the worldly route in lieu of the synth-pop heavy music of the time created some of the finest records of their career, often introducing audiences to musical sounds being created outside of the mainstream. In 1986 Paul Simon ditched his humble singer songwriter persona with the release of Graceland, a record that dabbled in a slew of bicultural sounds–African acapella, Louisiana gospel R&B, Tex-Mex guitar rock, to name a few. Talking Heads seemed to change their style on every record but it wasn’t until the out of left field, Afro-pop influenced masterpiece, Remain in Light, that they let their true artistic visions best the demands of 80s pop music norms. Add fellow contemporaries such as Peter Gabriel (Melt, So) and even Michael Jackson (1979’s Off the Wall may have helped jumpstart this intercontinental melting pot trend) and it’s hard to deny that the 1980s were more than ever a time where popular music was transforming into a global medium.

The Crooked Beat—It’s safe to say the Clash had been evolving and broadening their musical range ever since their self-titled debut, however, 1980s triple LP monster Sandinista! was the record that truly went all out thanks to an interest in damn near every style they could come up with–dub reggae, classical chamber concertos, disco, and even bizarre Eastern European folk dance (listen to “Lose this Skin” for this comparison to make sense). The release transported The Clash well beyond the simple “punk band” title they helped coin and would unfortunately be there last truly great contribution.

The Marriage of Music and Cinema

It was recently announced that veteran American filmmaker Martin Scorsese is set to direct a documentary on the life and work of George Harrison. Music and film fans know that this will not be Mr. Scorsese’s first encounter with music documentaries. He recently chronicled Bob Dylan’s controversial “gone electric” epoch in the fascinating PBS film No Direction Home and has a new documentary, Shine A Light, about the Rolling Stones recent Bigger Bang tour slated for a winter theatrical release. Of course Marty is probably best known for his perfectly crafted music film, The Last Waltz, a documentary/concert experience chronicling the final show of The Band, which is hands down one of the finest rock music films ever made. With the currently untitled Harrison project underway it’s apparent that Scorsese, who is as much of a pop music buff as he is a film buff, is embracing the current Hollywood fad that is musical biopics and docudramas.

The chronicling of music through film via “rockumentaries,” biopics, and concert films is hardly a new trend by any means. Still it’s hard to deny that thanks to recent Oscar bait hits such as Walk the Line and Ray (both satisfactory albeit fairly formulaic if you ask me) it seems that, similar to the recent wave of “remakes,” music biopics are the new hot ticket in Hollywood.

Just look at the lineup of upcoming music related icon films coming out. Later this fall Todd Hayne’s highly anticipated avant-garde Bob Dylan film I’m Not There starring seven actors (including a role by Cate Blanchett) portraying the legendary artist hits theaters. Control, a dark British biopic of the late Joy Division front man Ian Curtis has an upcoming U.S. release date, and a Janis Joplin film, The Gospel According to Janis, (which at one point had Pink in the starring role) is slated for a 2008 release. Add these to the long list of rumored music films set for production: a Miles Davis film staring Don Cheadle, a Jimi Hendrix biopic featuring Outkast’s André “3000” Benjamin, there are talks of a Marvin Gaye life story movie, a film chronicling the career of Blondie’s Debbie Harry starring Kirsten Dunst (I know, I know, I too cringe at this idea), a Freddie Mercury piece starring Sacha “Borat” Cohen (fairly dead on casting if you ask me), and even a film about the short-lived pop scam artists Milli Vanilli with two of the Wayans Brothers rumored to headline. Also let’s not forget the inevitable James Brown biopic, which already has an IMDB page slotted for a 2009 release. From this list alone (who knows how many others are in the works) it’s clear that there are a slew of possibly brilliant, possibly horrid music films ahead in the future. It also begs the question what’s next?

There is nothing wrong with honoring or exploring a musician or band’s career through film, however, like all genres in Hollywood these films are in danger of being overdone. Ray and Walk the Line proved that there is big money and endless award possibilities in films honoring recently deceased greats. This concept makes sense, however, it often leads to equally warranted legends being overlooked.

Sly Stone was once a prolific soul/funk/rock powerhouse who influenced countless musicians including jazz legend Miles Davis (the Miles biopic is definitely warranted in my opinion) and had an unprecedented career but people are quick to forget about his importance since he’s been out of the spotlight for quite some time. Besides being considered a musical genius with an impressive career behind him, Frank Zappa was also an outspoken advocate for first amendment free speech rights– the PMRC censorship trial that Zappa testified at in 1985 was a pinnacle moment in pop music history. These are just two examples from a long list of people who I believe are much more interesting and important than someone like Debbie Harry (sorry Blondie fans). Then there is the world of Jazz music, which today is often completely forgotten about save a small population.

Clint Eastwood’s overlooked biopic, Bird, about the troubled bop jazz genius Charlie Parker did justice to the sax players life but why not take on equally important cats such as avant-garde masters Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, electric bass pioneer Jaco Pastorius or even blues legend Robert Johnson, whose “sold my soul to the devil” mythology alone is worth a film of sorts. I can’t help but think that these stories are equally as important as someone like Ray Charles and long overdue for a film or documentary.

In the past there have been a number of stellar music documentaries and biopics that were worthy of their visions. Alex Cox’s daunting but fascinating film, Sid and Nancy, explored the dark side of Sex Pistols bass player Sid Vicious, one truly troubled musician, and was rocketed by a near flawless performance by Gary Oldman. Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense is probably the crème of the crop when it comes to concerts chronicled on film thanks to a minimalist yet creative vision and a band as unique as the Talking Heads working in its prime. In the overlooked indie music documentary arena there have been a number of exemplary titles in recent years. Films such as 1999s The Buena Vista Social Club, a film that introduced world audiences to a small sect of Cuban jazz musicians whose music barely made it across the ocean prior to the film’s release; American Hardcore, an exploration of the 80s underground punk scene in the United States or Scratch, a cool sleeper from a couple years back that paid homage to the “two turntables and a microphone” musical philosophy and the world of DJ artists, are just a couple examples of small, no thrills niche music documentaries that prove that big names and big budgets don’t always lead to greatness.

It’s important for filmmakers and documentarians alike to continue tapping into musical history as well as explore current trends (anyone see that street dance movie Rize a couple years ago?). These films can not only honor the subjects but also serve as windows for younger audiences/listeners to explore music they may not be familiar with. Like all cinematic endeavors however, music films should be handled with care and should not be made just for the sake of being made or because studio execs see it as a vehicle for top dollars and Oscar gold. Film, if done right, can be a tool with endless opportunities. I trust Scorsese with a Harrison project because I know his passion is in the right place and I look forward to this intriguing Dylan film, I’m Not There, because it’s appears to stray away from formulaic biopic norms. Still I can’t help but be skeptical when I hear about the next big budget biopic to hit the theaters. Then again it’s up to the filmmakers to help shed this doubt.

Dinner and a Movie

The other day while aimlessly flipping through the channels I came across the opening credits of the wonderful, childhood nostalgia filled, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. For pretty much anyone and everyone–young and old–this movie is pure eye candy (seriously have you ever met anyone who doesn’t like this movie? It seems to be one of those universal pleasures joining the ranks of popping packing bubbles and that cool sound champagne makes when it enters the party) with the opening credits wetting the audience’s taste buds. To refresh your memory the beginning shots are set inside the chocolate factory with a kaleidoscope of sweet concoctions dancing across a sea of conveyer belts. While I was unable to finish the movie (I got as far as that useless “Cheer up Charlie” sentimental song bit then switched to the equally mundane ramblings of Lou Dobbs) I started to think of all the other great films and cinematic moments that feature magical culinary creations. 

It’s no surprise that we as people are lured towards the marriage of food and images. Food tickles all our senses. There’s a reason why museum walls are lined with still life paintings of produce, wild game and massive banquets circa pretty much any part of history or why people divulge in hours of The Food Network (can anyone else truly explain the allure of that giggling psycho-minx Rachel Ray). Food and art go hand in hand. With certain films food is as much a character of the story as the actors themselves and cinematic cuisine serves as a tool for setting the atmosphere of the film. Consider this a foodies guide to film.

Big Night
This little gem of a movie was at one point as widely praised and adored as that Big Fat Greek Wedding nonsense but is often forgotten about. Written and directed with care by actor Stanley Tucci (co-directed by Campbell Scott, George C. Scott’s underappreciated son) Big Night is a film that embraces the simple love of food, in its case, Italian cuisine. This simple tale of a failing Italian restaurant run by two brothers who host a special feast of all feasts in hopes of salvaging the business and showing people how to eat is an endearing look at the patience, tradition and care given to cooking while at the same time showing that thin line between great food and a prosperous business. While Tony Shaloub’s (TVs Monk) performance as Primo the head chef is beyond noteworthy it is the many dishes, particularly the massive Timpano, served during the restaurant’s big night that are truly the stars of the film. 

Fanny and Alexander
This was a sad year for international cinema with the loss of two greats, Michelangelo Antonioni and Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman who, in 1982 directed the epic, Fanny and Alexander. While the film is not about food in general but rather a look at a wealthy Swedish family (particularly the relationship of a brother and sister) in the early 20th period it features some of the finest eye opening, stomach grumbling food visuals out there. While the film is a bit daunting in length (the theatrical version clocks in just over three hours with a six hour television mini series available as well) it showcases one of the most memorable and breathtaking culinary production design moments in cinematic history during the opening Christmas feast. Also see Robert Altman’s Gosford Park for similar bourgeois feasts. 

Dinner Rush
This indie film slipped by most movie goers a couple years back but is hands down the most authentic look at the inner workings of a restaurant. While the film dabbles in a clever mafia storyline its main focus is the complexity, the chaos, the absurdity, and the passion for food that is alive in every trendy restaurant out there. From the hot, fast-paced world of the kitchen to the starving artist servers keen on landing that one special table/ticket out of the industry and even the ridiculous politics behind a restaurant’s popularity (comedian Sandra Bernhard is especially good as a sleazy NYC food critic), Dinner Rush leaves no rock unturned when it comes to what goes into dining out. Actor John Corbett’s mysterious bar patron says it best during the film, “When did eating dinner become a Broadway show?”

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
Cinephiles aside, most people have probably never heard of this movie and quite frankly this stomach churner isn’t for everyone. That said this British cult classic is a vehicle for some beautiful cinematography of food, in the same vein as Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. That kept in mind the film also deals with barbaric violence, nightmarish surrealism, pitch black comedy and a bit of cannibalism thrown in the pot. Still thanks to great performances by a slew of English thespians (Hellen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Tim Roth, Ciarán Hinds) and one of the most bizarre, detailed and curiously fascinating kitchen sets seen on screen, this film is a worthy rental, although one might pair it with some fava beans and a nice chianti. 

European master filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has always crafted films that are distinctly Spanish. From his unique use of color, wardrobe, setting and of course food, few films scream Iberia more than ‘Un film de Almodóvar.’ Last year’s Volver may not be the director’s best piece to date but it did a wonderful job at honoring Spanish cuisine, that Mediterranean fare that is often overshadowed by Italy. Penelope Cruz’s character, Raimunda takes over a small café in her neighborhood to cater a local film’s production and the camera follows her every move behind the dishes she prepares. While food is by no means the central plot of the film the scenes in the kitchen are some of the richest in the film. Wanna learn the secrets of crafting a perfect Spanish tortilla, check this out. 

Mostly Martha
This tasty little German film was recently remade (No Reservations) starring Aaron Eckhart and Catherine Zeta Jones, however, it’s the original that should be sought out. Similar to Dinner Rush this film deals with the pressures behind the kitchen doors of a trendy restaurant. The culinary clash of German and Italian cuisine showcased in the film is also fun to watch. 

Finally, The Sopranos
Ok, ok, so it’s technically not a film but one could argue that any episode of this masterful HBO series bests most films being released today. Everything there is to be said about the show has been said, however, one thing I noticed during the show’s pinnacle season was that audiences stopped discussing one of the show’s most distinct characteristics; it’s use of food. From Dr. Melphi’s psychiatric standpoint food was always a metaphor for Tony Sopranos’ mental anguish, however, the use of food helped culturally define these horrible people and showed that despite their evil doings they were human too. From the baked ziti infused Sunday dinners, to the massive funeral spreads, Artie Bucco’s Vesuvius restaurant, “don’t disrespect the pizza parlor,” and of course the mob hangout pork store, food was as much a signature character as any of the other stars. Best Sopranos food moment, when the gang, specifically Paulie Walnuts, head across the ocean to the boot in season two and are treated to true Italian cuisine only to request pasta and Sunday gravy.