Saturday, August 7, 2010

Books And Other Arts Film Review: Big Fish

Movie poster image courtesy of Wikimedia and Alientraveller

In every generation of Irish families, there is a member known as "The Keeper of the Fable". This is because Gaelic language had been outlawed, and the only way a true Celt could chronicle their family history was via an oral account. The Keeper Of The Fable is always a wonderful storyteller, someone who has a way with words, an ability to enchant and capture the imagination of his/her listeners. Those who are entrusted with this role also have been known to have a remarkable ability to "embroider" a tale. In my father's generation, he was undoubtedly The Keeper of the Fable, and it has been said that in my generation, I have assumed this mantle.

The film "Big Fish" deals with a young man's quest to know what his father has relayed to him his whole life, in terms of truth or fables. A writer for a wire service in Paris, Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) is married to a lovely Parisian photo-journalist, Josephine (Marion Cotillard, in her American screen debut). They are expecting their first child when Will receives the phone call from his mom, Sandra (Jessica Lange, poster girl for naturally graceful aging) telling him that his father, Ed (Albert Finney) is ill with a cancer that's now unresponsive to chemotherapy. Will and Josephine hop a flight to the States, where Will hopes to be finally able to discern fact from fiction in his father's life.

In flashback we see the life that Ed has "narrated" for Will and pretty much anyone else who will listen. It centers on his youth in Alabama and how he left his small town, and charmed the world. "Young Ed" in flashback is portrayed by the energetic Ewan McGregor, who embraces the role convincingly and with great enthusiasm. One of Ed's favorite tales is about how he set about to catch the biggest, most ornery and probably oldest fish in his local river and caught it on the day Will was born. Will tires of hearing this story ad nauseum over the years, and makes no secret of his disdain for such a ridiculous anecdote. Other particulars of Ed's life are also very suspicious to Will, such as how he met and married Sandra, and befriended a giant named Karl, worked at the Calloway Circus, became a decorated Korean War veteran, and so on.

As Ed wanes from his illness, Will begins to realize that the "fiction" he felt his father had concocted may not be totally fictitious after all. While organizing his father's "home office" at his mother's request, he finds a deed to a house in a town called Spectre, signed by a woman named Jenny Hill. Will sets off to find Jenny (Helena Bonham-Carter) in an effort to unravel some of the mysterious elements of his father's past.

I won't give a lot more away in terms of the plot, but suffice it to say that Will discovers there was actually a great deal of truth throughout his father's life, and that truth was in every single epic his father recounted. Jenny also tells him that his father had a lot of fables in his life, but that Will and Sandra were always present in Ed's life as the truth.

The film has so many whimsical elements in it, and very much fits a "fairy tale" theme woven into the fabric of the plot. Set designs of Spectre when Ed first visits it, of the circus, of Auburn University where Ed meets Sandra, are really fantastic, with a strong accent on "fantasy". Acting is uniformly wonderful, with Crudup convincing as an earnest but very bewildered Will, Lange as an adoring wife watching her husband slip away, Cotillard bewitched by the legends related by her father-in-law, and of course Finney himself as the ultimate Keeper of the Fable. My only complaint is that Bonham-Carter's character is supposed to be 10 years younger than Finney's character, but even with "aging" make-up, Bonham-Carter still looks (as she is in real life) considerably younger than the age she's supposed to be portraying. (And Lange looks frankly a bit too young for Finney, too, although in the flashback scenes in which they meet, Alison Lohman as the young Sandra just looks a bit younger than McGregor as the young Ed. Lohman and McGregor are actually about eight and a half years apart.)

The mistake people typically make about The Keeper of The Fable is the assumption that the Keeper merely wants to tell a good tale. What these folks most often forget is that every great fable exists to illustrate a particular point. Or a particular life. The truth is always there to be discovered and appreciated. Even if it's only at the very end of the fable.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Books And Other Arts Book Review: Now Eat This!

Cover Image Courtesy of Random House Books


Once upon a time there was a talented young chef. He was a bit of a "mama's boy", but his mama was in her own right a culinary force to be reckoned with named Nicolina. Nicolina's boy graduated from the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park in 1986 and went on to pursue a business degree, graduating from Boston University in 1990. Not only was he a smart, talented guy, but he was "pretty", too. He'd been named "Sexiest Chef Alive" by People Magazine, "Most Exciting Young Chef" by Gourmet Magazine, and "America's Best New Chef" by Food and Wine Magazine. Nicolina's son impressed the culinary world with his wizardry at Union Pacific in New York City, and eventually he began to write cookbooks and started his own restaurant, the foibles of which were chronicled on the small screen.

Legal problems ensnared the young chef in his restaurant venture with a quarrelsome partner, but he forged on with writing cookbooks and making the occasional small screen appearance. I have to admit, he was not a favorite of mine because of the entire TV "reality series" and what specifically was portrayed onscreen. He struck me as a rather spoiled boy basking in the limelight, and fully buying into the PR of "young and sexy and the latest and greatest". His latest book, however, has shown me that he's seen the light, and that alone would be enough to make me recommend it.

Rocco DiSpirito pulls no punches in his latest literary foray, entitled "Now Eat This!", and for that he has my complete respect. In the introduction, he reveals that he was, as so many are, in denial over his weight gain, until the sad truth was made apparent by his performance in a charity triathlon. DiSpirito candidly reveals that his times were bested by a group of women in their 60's, and this proved to be his wake-up call that he was overweight, out of shape and needed to gain better control of his health and eating habits. Crippling back pain had begun to affect him to the degree that he couldn't stand for hours at his beloved stove and he'd resorted to painkilling medication to help him get through the day.

In this book, DiSpirito set out to "re-make" some of America's favorite foods into healthier versions. I would say this is a mixed bag (sorry, Rocco, hon, but after 12 years of Catholic school, there's no one on the planet who could get me to eat tuna, ever), but is mostly successful. DiSpirito embraced the challenge, and states frankly that some recipes (such as Nicolina's meatballs) took multiple attempts to re-make. Throughout the book, toward the bottom of each page, there are values given for fat content and total calories per version both for the "original" version of the recipe, as well as "Rocco's re-made" version of the recipe. Most ingredients are easily obtained at your local market,and all the recipes are indeed America's favorites---mac & cheese, General Tsao's chicken, filet mignon Bernaise. Tex-Mex delights like steak fajitas, and tortilla soup appear with Italian favorites such as chicken Alfredo, eggplant manicotti and spaghetti carbonara. Also featured are salads, sauces, and pizza, not to mention sweet treats like brownies and frozen yogurt pops. Some of the ingredients Rocco advocates using are great and so readily available (Greek yogurt) others a bit more exotic (duck liver pâté for use in Beef Wellington) but at the risk of being repetitive, most are in your local grocery store. One thing I take issue with is Rocco's role as advocate of the use of sweet potatoes. He says this is a wonderful, vitamin-rich vegetable, and while that's hard to argue with, I'm not into "sweet" as a vegetable other than corn in summer and pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. Little tips on cooking are liberally sprinkled throughout the book, and seem like simple enough things to lower calories.

It's my understanding that Mr. DiSpirito's latest ventures include re-made menus geared toward kids. Well done, that's where it's at--make future generations of Americans healthy while staying healthy yourself. Between DiSpirito and Jamie Oliver, perhaps we'll be able to turn the tide of diabetes, high blood pressure and morbid obesity threatening American kids today.

I can highly recommend this cookbook as a primer for healthy, tasty eating. Really.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Books And Other Arts Book Review: Cheapskate Gourmet

Book cover image courtesy of St. Martins Press

The long days of summer have stretched out like wisps of dried dandelion floating through the air. In my neck of the woods, we're experiencing "the dog days of summer", during which a meal may be cottage cheese, a cold sandwich, fruit, potato salad or coleslaw. In short, anything that doesn't require cooking is a welcome respite to the palate.

Due to my situation as an unemployed person, though, I thought I'd think ahead a bit, and take a look at this cookbook to see what it has to offer this "cheapskate". The book, by Mary Hunt, claims it will help the reader create fabulous meals for a fraction of the cost. (A fraction of the cost of what, exactly??) The book is actually out of print now, but I acquired a copy from the Plymouth Library. (Thank you, all you nice folks at the Plymouth Library!)

Before I really review this book, I guess I should disclose some things about my cooking experiences. My mother was an excellent cook, but had a rather limited repetoire of foods she'd serve. She was somewhat predictable in her menus and presentation. For example, the New Year's Day's menu in our household was always glazed ham, au gratin potatoes, and green beans. There may or may not be minor variations in terms of a green salad or dessert, but the major components of meals were always predictable. The sibling closest to my age worked out a deal with me when pork chops were served, and we'd "swap". (Pork chops were served with mashed potatoes and pickled beets.) As a very young kid, I wasn't fond of pork chops, and Brian didn't like pickled beets. When my mother left the dining room to go back into the kitchen, Brian would shovel his pickled beets onto my plate and spear my pork chop to move onto his own. My older sister proved to be a much more inventive cook and baker, but couldn't always produce items she didn't enjoy eating herself. Having cultivated a pronounced distaste for Jell-O, for example, sometimes when she made it, the end result was rather rubbery. I learned how to cook fairly auto-didactically, as no one had time or patience to mentor me, and thanks to my reading skills and Better Homes & Gardens, I managed to become a decent cook. I managed too, to avoid the Achille's Heel that plagued my sister, in that an allergy prevents me from enjoying eggs, but I spent many a happy hour cooking them, in later adulthood, for our dad's Sunday breakfasts, as soft-boiled, scrambled, poached or in an omelet. In early adulthood, I cooked for housemates and in a cooperative living situation, I actually cooked on a small "team" that would turn out meals for a hundred people. I've had my share of failures in the kitchen, and no decent cook I've ever met has had smooth sailing on every attempt.

Having shared that, I must say that I felt The Cheapskate Gourmet was rather disappointing. I would recommend it possibly for someone setting up their first kitchen and/or the beginning cook. The first part of the book is devoted to what every kitchen should have in terms of equipment and "dry goods", such as rice, canned goods, flour, etc. Some of the recommended items are things that, frankly, I've lived without for some time now, like a food processor.

For what I thought would be a cookbook, the book is a bit short on recipes, and some of the recipes listed have "processed" ingredients like Velveeta cheese. (!!) Practical advice like making and freezing stock as well as uses for "leftover" vegetables will seem, I believe, to more experienced cooks, more like common sense. There are some excellent recipes for sauces, and maybe a few other recipes for desserts which aren't complex and look like fun, but most of the information in this book will be available in other culinary reference books like "The Joy of Cooking" or one of the "Better Homes and Gardens" cookbooks.