(Reviews of Ema; The Priest's Children; The Grump; Astronaut; Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy; and Circus of Books)
Cinemas may be closed during these dismal days. But there are still ways to connect with some of the films on general release over the next few weeks and months. In addition to Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation.
What is it about film-makers and arsonists at the moment? Coming hard on the blazing heels of Oliver Laxe's Fire Will Come and Camila José Donoso's Nona, If They Soak Me, I'll Burn Them, Pablo Larraín's Ema also centres on a fire-starter. But it also sees the Chilean auteur return his focus to the kind of dangerously damaged individuals he had profiled in Tony Manero (2008), No (2012) and The Club (2015) after deflecting away with the biopic duo of Jackie and Neruda (both 2016). Larraín's eighth feature also follows Post Mortem (2010) in having a dancer as a key character. But this is a much more stylistically adventurous picture, whose visual combustibility matches the anti-heroine's spiky unpredictability. Think Gaspar Noé attempting a Jacques Demy musical.
Having used a flamethrower to torch a set of traffic lights suspended over a street in the port of Valparaíso, Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) pesters social worker Marcela (Catalina Saavedra) about Polo (Cristián Suárez), the adopted Colombian son who has been taken back into care. Ema blames her 12-year older choreographer husband, Gastón (Gael García Bernal) for betraying the six year-old. But he points out that Ema was the one who taught Polo to set fires like the one that left her sister, Perla (Josefina Fiebelkorn), in hospital with serious facial burns.
With her shock of slicked down, peroxided hair, Ema is part of a dance troupe and we see them performing against a colour-shifting solar backdrop. She also teaches dance classes for young children and relishes the contact that she has been denied since Gastón sent Polo away. They face each other and exchange insults, with Ema accusing Gastón of abusing her youth and ruining her life by being `a human condom'. He counters that she is irresponsible and a bad mother. The school also consider Ema to have let Polo down and, because his classmates keep asking about him, she is pressurised into taking a permanent leave of absence.
Despite their bickering, Ema and Gastón have a co-dependency that enables them to save face when they find a frozen cat in Sonia's freezer during a party, which Polo had put there before they had handed him back. However, when Marcela lectures them on their ingratitude in giving up on Polo after she went to such lengths to convince the authorities to let them have him. Ema walks out on Gastón and moves in with her friend, Sonia (Giannina Fruttero). But, rather than wallow in self-pity, Ema sets out to track Polo down and ingratiates herself with his new mother, Raquel (Paola Giannini), whom she consults about representing her in her divorce proceedings.
Raquel is taken aback when Ema offers to pay her fees by doing household chores and jumps on her table to give her a private reggaetón dance. However, she is soon besotted with her and they interlink fingers as they take a ferry trip together. But Ema is leaving nothing to chance and she uses her flame-thrower to incinerate her friend's car in order to make the acquaintance of Raquel's bartender-cum-fireman husband, Anibal (Santiago Cabrera). With the help of her friends, Ema is able to seduce the pair without the other knowing. She also taunts Gastón with the news of her infidelities after he makes it impossible for her to remain with the troupe and she has to find work in a nail bar. Yet, during a bus journey with Sara (Mariana Loyola), Ema rests her head on her mother's shoulder in the hope of receiving her unquestioning endorsement.
Anibal takes Ema out in his fire truck and lets her try the hose. They have sex in the cab after he reveals that he had such high hopes for his marriage, but quickly came to feel smothered by the way his naked wife would roll on top of him as they slept. Ema also begins a sexual relationship with Raquel after taking her to a kinky club with Sonia and some of her dance friends. When Gastón comes to watch them rehearse their new routine, he berates them for choosing the imported Puerto Rican reggaetón style to express their empowerment because it symbolises the macho male supremacy that his work had striven so hard to expose.
A dance routine is broken up into a tour of the city, with the lights twinkling in the distance across the harbour. We also see Ema spurting flame into the night sky, as she sets light to a basketball backboard in a playground and a tumbledown outhouse. She also embarks upon a blue-lit bed-hopping odyssey that sees her use her wiles on Raquel, Anibal and Gastón, while taking pleasure from Sonia and Maria (Paula Luchsinger), whom she has gulled into keeping Gastón amused while she executes her plan.
The next stage of which sees her apply for a job as a dance teacher at Polo's new school. She flatters the principal (Amparo Noguera) when she reveals that she dislikes traditional folk dancing and would much rather that Ema taught her students to express themselves with freedom. Ema also flirts with the middle-aged man assessing her aptitude test. Consequently, she gets the post and she celebrates with a little therapeutic pyromania. Among the items she incinerates are a civic statue and the box swings at a children's playground, where she poses for a selfie with her Pied Piperish sisterhood.
She also delights in teasing Raquel about how lost she'd be if they ever broke up. But Ema confronts her with the truth when she abducts Polo from his classroom on her first day at the school and takes him home so that he can introduce her and Gastón to Raquel and Anibal. He is taken aback to discover that Ema is pregnant with his child, while Raquel is appalled to learn that she has been so heartlessly duped. As she is also in love with Ema, however, she proves happy to go along with her plan to raise Pol and the baby together. A closing scene of stilted domesticity suggests that Gastón and Anibal remain uncomfortable with the situation, but Ema and Polo seem genuinely content. Nevertheless, she still feels the need to purchase some more petrol.
Using expressive colour to contrast the fire and ice of Ema's tempestuous nature and impassive facade, this feels like Larraín's Vertigo (1958), as Mariana Di Girolamo takes the Hitchcock blonde into new punky, tracksuit-wearing territory. Indeed, it's possible to imagine the Master of Suspense (had he lived) directing Jodie Foster in a reworking of Pier Paolo Pasolini's Theorem (1968) or maybe Claude Chabrol teaming along similar lines with a Betty Blue-era Béatrice Dalle. But neither director would have translated their heroine's volatility into such pugnaciously dynamic imagery, as Larraín gives Sergio Armstrong's camera the freedom to get up close and (sometimes a touch too intrusively) personal with Ema and her paramours.
Her relationships with the dungaree-wearing Gastón and the mumsy Raquel are compelling, as both Gael García Bernal and Paola Giannini rise to the challenge of trying to hold their own against the enigmatically exhilarating Di Girolamo. However, Santiago Cabrera fails to establish Anibal as anything more than a hypocritical sperm donor who lets Ema play with his hose in every sense of the smutty pun. Ema's family and the other members of her dance troupe similarly merge into the muchness that characterises the complementary action. But few will have eyes for anyone other than Di Girolamo - a 28 year-old telenovela specialist in what is her first lead in only her third feature - as she literally plays with fire while blazing her own trail.
As is usually the case with Larraín's films, one suspects that outsiders are only getting a fraction of the full experience, as he deftly critiques various aspects of Chilean society. He and co-scenarists Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno shorthand the injustices that would obsess Ken Loach and Paul Laverty, as they cajole editor Sebastián Sepúlveda into jumbling up the footage so that we can never be sure whether we are watching Ema or seeing what's going on inside her head. Whether driving José Vidal's choreography or counterpointing the melodrama, Nicolas Jaar's thrumming electronic score reinforces the sense of uncertainty that is teasingly undercut by the knowingly mundane shots of Valparaíso's ferries and funiculars.
Pablo Neruda wrote of the city, `Valparaíso, how absurd you are…you haven't combed your hair, you've never had time to get dressed, life has always surprised you.' Ema seems to have learned the lesson, as she leaves nothing to chance in making everyone dance to her tune. This may not make her a particularly empathetic character. But Larraín and Di Girolamo ensure she is a compelling one and it would be interesting to catch up with her again a few years down the line because one thing is sure from the awkward coda, this isn't the end of the story.
THE PRIEST'S CHILDREN.
A newcomer struggles to find his niche in Croat Vinko Brešan's fifth feature, The Priest's Children. Adapted from a popular, but controversial play by Mate Matisic, this opens like a latterday version of one of Giovannino Guareschi's Don Camillo stories before venturing into Father Ted territory. The mood darkens, however, as the ramifications of a reckless scheme begin to impact upon the population of a devoutly Catholic island and the quaint comedy is replaced by a disconcerting satire that reflects badly on both the church and the national psyche. Renowned for such scurrilous romps as How the War Started on My Island (1996), Marshal Tito's Spirit (1999) and Will Not End Here (2008), as well as the drama, Witnesses (2004), Brešan is well used to finding humour in the bleakest situations. But, in this instance, he and Matisic push their luck a little too far and come perilously close to breaching standards of good taste.
As Mirko Pivcevic's camera glides along a row of cots in a Zagreb hospital, it comes to rest on Krešimir Mikic, as he lies close to death from a tumour on a single bed. He receives a visit from young priest Filip Krizan and agrees to tell him how he became both mother and father to this unlikely brood. Frequently addressing the audience directly, Mikic recalls how he was appointed by bishop Lazar Ristovski as curate to ageing parish priest Zdenko Botic on the remote Dalmatian island of Dnevnik. At first, he finds it difficult to connect with his new flock, as they were still in thrall to Botic, who has remained to run the various sporting leagues, say the odd mass and conduct the children's choir led by the angelic-voiced Lana Huzjak. But Mikic soon becomes aware that the locals are concerned that the island will be overrun by migrants from Africa and Asia, as the population is declining at such an alarming rate.
Having confided to quayside newsagent Niksa Butijer that there were eight funerals and no christenings over the past year, Mikic is surprised to learn in the confessional that Butijer sells condoms as well as newspapers and tobacco. Pointing out that artificial birth control is against Roman Catholic teaching, Mikic suggests that Butijer could save his soul if he punctured the prophylactics through their wrapper and he makes the same proposition to chemist Drazen Kuhn, a fiercely patriotic war veteran who not only agrees to pierce his stock of condoms, but also offers to replace contraceptive pills with vitamins to ensure that there will be a much-needed baby boom.
Within a couple of months, Mikic's strategy seems to be working, as the number of pregnancies increases rapidly. Indeed, a mainland TV station picks up on the story and soon childless couples are arriving from across the continent in the hope of a miraculous conception. But Butijer's cleaner wife, Mary Škaricic, is appalled to discover a condom in the presbytery and summons Bishop Ristovski to investigate. However, when a baby is left in a box on Mikic's doorstep, the childless Škaricic agrees to drop her complaint if she can keep the child and, when Mikic agrees, she starts strutting around town with padding under her dress.
Worse follows when Ana Maras falls pregnant and Mikic, Butijer and Kuhn coerce confirmed bachelor Goran Bogdan into marrying her. Then, Filip Detelic is killed by a brown bear in the forest and his father, Ivan Brkic, kidnaps his pregnant girlfriend, Tihana Lazovic, to prevent her from going to the mainland for an abortion. As the cops search for Lazovic (who plays the trumpet at funerals), Ristovski arrives on a luxury yacht and announces that the choir has been selected to go to Rome and that Botic will have a personal audience with Pope Benedict XVI. He also discovers what Mikic has been up to and, as more weddings have been arranged than at any time in living memory, he gives the scheme his blessing and jokes that the church should implement it in other countries with low birth rates.
The burden of so many contentious developments begins to weigh on Mikic and, when the imprisoned Lazovic dies trying to solve her own problems, he confesses what he has done to Botic. He urges him to find the mother of the abandoned baby and it turns out to be Jadranka Djokic, a parishioner with learning difficulties who often hangs around the church. Butijer promises Mikic that he will break the news to Škaricic in the hope that she will not wish to raise a child with potential mental health issues. But her maternal instinct is already strong and she comes searching for Butijer when he smuggles the infant out of the house. While Butijer knocks on Djokic's door, Mikic's attention is distracted when Bogdan gets drunk and climbs up the town flagpole and threatens to jump because he is not cut out to be a husband and father. However, as Maras and her neighbours try to cajole him down, the body of the pregnant Huzjak is found floating in the harbour and Bozic sheepishly asks Mikic to hear his confession.
The seal of the sacrament of penance becomes something of a running joke in this tragi-farcical saga, as no sooner has Krizan given Mikic the last rites than he dashes off to the nearest church to shrive himself. But, while recent disclosures make the Catholic clergy a legitimate target for censure, Brešan and Matisic are no more forgiving of the insularity and ignorance of the islanders, who wish to have their cake and eat it when it comes to church teaching and the consequences of independence and democracy. Thus, they wish to live the good life while using birth control and keeping foreigners at bay. But, as the incident involving the covert relationship between mayor Stojan Matavulj and married teacher Marinko Prga (who are on opposite sides of the political divide) suggests, Croatians have a lot to learn about tolerance on a range of social issues.
Led by the misguided, but not entirely unsympathetic Mikic, the admirable ensemble creates a palpable sense of community, which is reinforced by Pivcevic's charming views of this Adriatic idyll. Editor Sandra Botica Brešan (who is married to the director) paces proceedings steadily. But Matisic's narrative becomes so remorselessly bleak that, despite the evident irony of putting each new happenstance down to God's will, it gradually becomes difficult to smile at well-intended shenanigans that generate such cruel outcomes.
Coming to terms with loss is the theme of Dome Karukoski's comedy, The Grump. It has been adapted from a Finnish radio series written by Thomas Thomas Kyrö and starring Antti Litja, who reprises the title role to excellent effect. Gently lampooning the widening gaps between generational attitudes and the lingering suspicion of Finland's neighbour to the east, this may not be particularly original. But it deftly evokes the worlds of Yasujiro Ozu and Aki Kaurismäki, while passing some shrewd observations on the passage of time that will chime with anybody feeling their age.
When not visiting dementia-afflicted wife Petra Frey at a nearby care home, 80 year-old farmer Antti Litja adheres to the daily routine he has followed since he was a boy. Fighting the frost, he struggles to till the potato field. But his undoing proves to be a rotten step into the cellar and son Iikka Forss has to come from Helsinki to take him to the doctor. Referred for treatment at a hospital in the capital, Litja orders Forss to remain behind and get the crop planted while he stays with daughter-in-law Mari Perankoski and his three granddaughters.
Very much the breadwinner who is used to living on her own terms, Perankoski deeply resents being addressed as the `Young Missus' and is taken aback when the taxi driver piles several boxes in the hallway of her model home. She excuses his bad temper at being offered herbal tea instead of coffee and turns a blind eye when he replaces the bedding in the guest room with his own sheets and blankets. However, she comes close to snapping when Litja complains about her sending her daughters to stay with their grandmother and insists on changing channels because he can't stand the newsreader. She gives Forss a piece of her mind, as she makes a late-night phone call from the garden, unaware that Litja is watching from behind the curtains.
Up early the next morning, he makes a mess in the kitchen as he tries to brew some coffee (using an unopened gift from several Christmases ago). He also cancels the nurse booked to take care of him while Perankoski is at work. Moreover, he ignores the numerous calls on her mobile and greets the colleague who comes to the house to wake her with grave suspicion. He informs Perankoski that a major Russian client is flying in a day early and she dresses hurriedly in order to drive to the airport. However, she realises she can't leave Litja on his own and bundles him into the passenger seat to endure a journey of him opining that women should not be allowed to drive.
After stopping at a service station (where Litja makes a fuss about the coffee and the need to have a special card to gain admission to the toilets), Perankoski leaves Litja in a disabled parking space at the airport while she goes to meet Viktor Drevitski and his confederates, Bruno Puolakainen and Alina Tomnikov. They are amused by Litja's bear-skin hat and Devitski warms to his plain speaking, even though he can't understand a word he says. Litja shows them how to trap a rabbit in the woods with a cardboard box and he regales them at dinner with his views on Realpolitik and the fact that city folks are detached from reality. Unfortunately, his behaviour is so boorish that Perankoski receives complaints. Moreover, he interferes in her deal and costs her a lucrative sale.
As she goes in pursuit of the Russians, Litja spots homeless Mikko Neuvonen rifling through the bins. He invites him back to the house and gets him up a ladder to clear out the guttering. A furious Perankoski has ordered Forss to come and rein in his father, but he is bemused to see a stranger strolling around and feels sorry for the old man when Neuvonen disappears at dawn having emptied his wallet. Perankoski tuts at them both before pranging her wing mirror on a jutting tree branch. Litja tells Forss that a good husband would cut down the tree before she gets home. However, they squabble over the best way to approach the task and, with an angry neighbour threatening to call the police, Forss succeeds only in gashing his leg with the chainsaw before dropping a branch on the greenhouse and dangling himself from the safety harness.
After getting another earful from his frazzling spouse, Forss crashes his father's beloved red Ford Escort into the tree. Feeling he is in the way, Litja leaves for the hospital. However, he is glad to get a visit from Forss and his granddaughters, as he dotes on them and they are much better company than the man with gout in the next bed.
Litja keeps thinking back to when he was a younger man (Mikko Marttala) and how happy he was when he first met his wife (Ida Koski). But, once Forss and his brother had flown the nest, Litja and Frey barely had a word to say to each other and, after yet another bout of fiddling with the thermostat, she had walked away into the morning mist and he had not seen her for several months. This plays on his mind, as Forss lets slip that Perankoski has moved into a hotel following a row and he wishes he could do something to help. Returning to the house, he sees Forss baking with his girls and realises what a fine father he is.
Having salvaged her contract, Perankoski reaches the same conclusion and settles at the kitchen table with her family. His work done, Litja heads back to his farm. He fixes the cellar step and sets to work in the fields. He also goes to see Frey, who shows vague signs of recognition. After feeding her, he props her up in a chair to watch the news and recalls the half smile she had given him when she had returned to the farm and they had resumed their routine without recrimination.
Some may find the ending a little saccharine, but this is an admirably restrained treatise on the pace and impersonality of modern urban life and the fact that the past and the people who made it have become as disposable as the latest gadget or knick-knack. As Litja's poignantly asserts, `What's yesterday for me is history to them.' But Kyrö and Karukoski are not blind to the old man's chauvinism, frugality, xenophobia and Ludditism and Litja is every bit as sour, sneaky and manipulative as Tsilla Chelton in Étienne Chatlliez's equally bleak comedy of generational manners, Tatie Danielle (1991).
Litja is well supported by the hissably prissy (but understandably peeved) Perankoski and the redoubtable Forss, whose milquetoast restores the status quo after his hilarious moment of madness. The way in which they humanise the satire is the picture's saving grace, as there is a sitcomedic feel to some of the satirical observations and more knockabout incidents. But cinematographer Pini Hellstedt's contrasts between the town and country settings are succinct, while Betsy Ångerman pastiches the modish interiors with a mischievous eye and editor Harri Ylönen produces some telling montages of the politicians, celebrities and sporting heroes who have shaped Litja since it fought the Soviets in the Winter War of 1939-40.
Vancouver-born, Surrey-raised Shelagh McLeod has come a long way since joining her classmates as a seven year-old extra in Karel Reisz's Isadora (1968). Overcoming dyslexia and scoliosis, she began taking acting lessons as a teenager and has enjoyed a successful career on either side of the Atlantic on the big and small screen. She will be familiar to many from playing Dr Kate Preston in Peak Practice (1992-2002) and Matron Judith Marchant on Holby City (2009-10). But, as she approached her 50th birthday, McLeod began consider a switch to behind the camera. Having directed a Whiskas commercial, she studied film at Kingston University and has now followed up the shorts Run, David Rose (both 2011) and The Great Escape (2017) with her feature bow, Astronaut.
Left with debts after his recently deceased wife was suckered into investing in a donkey farm, 75 year-old Angus Stewart (Richard Dreyfuss) is reluctant to sell his home or give up his independence. However, he is now heavily reliant on his daughter, Molly (Krista Bridges), who feels her first duty now lies with husband Jim Williams (Lyriq Bent) and their son, Barney (Richie Lawrence). The tweenager adores his grandfather, however, and is desperate for him to fulfil a lifetime's ambition by becoming a passenger on the Ventura space flight that is being sponsored by billionaire Marcus Brown (Colm Feore). So, when Brown offers a seat on the maiden voyage as first prize in a competition, Barney persuades Angus to ignore his age and ill health and take a tilt.
Unfortunately, after one night of playing loud music while sitting in the snowy garden watching a passing comet through his telescope, Angus is packed off by Jim to the Sundown Valley Manor nursing home. Nurse Judy (Judy Marshak) tries to put a positive spin on things, as he gets to know such fellow residents as Joe (Art Hindle), Alice (Jennifer Phipps), Frannie (Joan Gregson) and Len (Graham Greene), who is supposedly locked in after suffering a stroke. But Angus is saddened by being put out to pasture when he still feels he has much to offer and achieve. Consequently, he decides to be economical with the truth while filling in Ventura's online questionnaire and submits his application just before the midnight deadline.
Naturally, Angus finds himself among the lucky dozen chosen for a live interview that will enable the public to vote for its favourite candidate. However, Jim disapproves of him lying on his entry form and setting a bad example to Barney. But, as he has just lost his lucrative brokering job for mismanaging funds, he's in no position to lecture anyone on morality. He agrees to go along with the deceit in return for Angus withholding the truth about his predicament from Molly.
As he is assessed by the Ventura medical team (with the doctor affording the director a back-to-camera cameo), Angus overhears a conversation about potential problems with the runway. Being a civil engineer, this plays right into his wheelhouse and he passes on his concerns to Brown, who is persuaded to listen to the old man by assistants Elisa (Karen LeBlanc) and Bill (Paulino Nunes). However, he seems to have blown his chances when he freezes during the interview and not only does Brown dismiss him as a loser, but Molly finds out about both the ruse and Jim's pending prosecution.
But she also unearths a letter from NASA rejecting her father's application to become a Shuttle astronaut and feels he should be allowed to live his dream. Thus, when Angus and Barney convince her that underground erosion has compromised the runway so that it won't be able to support the weight of the aircraft, Molly knows enough to trust that this is more than a hunch and she speeds her father to the Springfield aerodrome and helps convince a doubting security guard to let Angus inside.
Elisa has also come to recognised Angus's qualities and she convinces the macho Bill and the arrogant Marcus to listen to what he has to say on the off-chance he may be right. They leave it until after Angus has left the building and has gone to make his first visit to the donkey sanctuary. But Marcus serves up his humble pie, as Angus and the Williamses lie in the field and gaze up at the comet streaking ever so slowly across the sky. As a result, Angus gets to become an astronaut and, after some mawkish farewells at the launch site, he lifts off and sees his life flash before his eyes as the glare of the Sun reflects off his visor.
Following a shot of a memorial plaque and a photo of Angus in his space suit, the picture closes on Barney and his parents making a wish on the comet while a donkey grazes on their lawn. A piano tinkles over some swirling strings in an effort to squeeze a last unearned tear. And, try as we might, we softies oblige because we just can't help ourselves.
There are films we want to succeed because of their backstory and we keep rooting for them, in spite of the mounting evidence and our better judgement. Held together by a dignified performance by Richard Dreyfuss, Astronaut is one of those pictures. McLeod based her script on her father's ambition to go into space and the courage of a wheelchair-bound man she had met in her mother's nursing home who had gazed into the sky in the hope of having `another go'. Yet such poignant details can't atone for the convolutions of the storyline, the sketchiness of the characterisation or the lack of authenticity in the hospice and aerospace sequences.
McLeod clearly didn't have the budget to commission a convincing comet shot, but she might have instructed cinematographer Scott McClellan to be a bit more adventurous with the views of the snowy Canadian countryside. She might also have urged composer Virginia Kilbertus to have toned down the more plaintive passages of her score. But McLeod couldn't have asked much more of a willing cast, particularly stalwarts like Graham Greene and Art Hindle, who make the most of underwritten roles. She is most indebted to Dreyfuss, however, who slips between geriatric vulnerability, man-child exuberance, humanist compassion and professional authority with an Oscar-winner's proficiency.
He can't do much about the awkward tonal shifts or the odd sloppy error, such as the 1972 letter rejecting Angus's application to become an astronaut on the Space Shuttle. As testing on the prototype Enterprise only started in 1977, it's unlikely that NASA would have been recruiting civilian crew members before it knew whether the craft was even feasible, especially as it would still have been preoccupied with the later stages of the Apollo programme. But for all its narrative, stylistic and tonal shortcomings, this is an impossible film to dislike. Indeed, at a time when care homes are in the news for all the wrong reasons, it reminds us that there is no substitute for experience and that every life matters. For these noble sentiments alone, therefore, one can only hope that McLeod also gets to have `another go'.
NOTHING FANCY: DIANA KENNEDY.
Cookery has always been more at home on television than on the cinema screen. Celebrity chefs have been rustling up supposedly quick and easy recipes for viewers to try in their own homes since Marcel Boulestin hosted Cook's Night Out on the BBC on 21 January 1937. The first American kitchen queen was Julia Child, whose bestselling book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, not only prompted blogger Julie Powell to attempt to make all 525 recipes in 365 days, but also persuaded writer-director Nora Ephron to team Meryl Streep and Amy Adams in the engaging dramedy, Julie & Julia (2009).
The launch of the Food Network in 1993 confirmed the small screen's hegemony in all things culinary. But there has been the odd notable documentary feature on chefs and restaurants, including Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker's Kings of Pastry (2009), Gereon Wetzel's El Bulli: Cooking in Progress (2010), David Gelb's Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) and Cameron Yates's Chef Flynn (2018). But Elizabeth Carroll has produced one of the better entries in this rarefied field with Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy, a profile of the British-born authority on authentic Mexican cuisine that might have been even more seminal had the debuting director not stopped at 73 minutes and had she been more willing to coax her indomitable 97 year-old subject into being a little more forthcoming about certain aspects of her life and career.
In his foreword to the 1972 cookery book, The Cuisines of Mexico, Craig Claiborne wrote about Diana Kennedy: `If her enthusiasm were not beautiful, it would border on mania,' This snapshot proves this to be the case, as we see Kennedy extolling the virtues of slow cooking (`we need things that take a long time'), while mashing down some beans to make frijoles refritos on her television programme, The Art of Mexican Cooking.
Still a force of nature in her mid-90s, Kennedy resides in Quinta Diana in Michoacán in a house whose remoteness is made apparent by a drone shot taken from high above the forest canopy. The rooms are full of mementos of a long life and Kennedy declares in voiceover that she is forever having to remind young chefs that she was cooking Mexican food when their grandmothers were small. Relishing the word `comeuppance', she avers that cooking is not only highly therapeutic, but also a great leveller, as not every dish is going to turn out to be delicious.
Each morning, Kennedy does her exercises before going for a brisk walk and pottering around in her own vegetable garden. She gives a barking dog a short, sharp reprimand and is equally snappish with a driver who gets in her way on a country road during one of her many excursions. As we see archive footage, Kennedy explains that she has traversed the country many times and has always picked up recipes. But she doesn't just record them. Kennedy goes to small-town markets to learn about ingredients and their sourcing and consults street food sellers about how they prepare a particular dish. Moreover, she has always striven to discover what ordinary people are feeding their families in order to understand the Mexican palate and diet. Unlike other cookery writers, Kennedy hasn't just pilfered from the culinary culture, she has immersed herself in it in an effort to preserve and share it - all of which renders accusations of cultural appropriation against Kennedy seem more than a little unfair and unjustified.
Following a clip of Kennedy cooking authentic tamales for a swooning Martha Stewart, we follow her to Zitácuaro in Michoacán for a slow-motion stroll through a market piled high with tempting produce. Cookbook editor Frances McCullough wonders how a white British woman came to know so much about Mexican food and chef José Andrés teasingly declares that she is not to be messed with. Fellow chef and restaurateur Gabriela Camara claims that many Mexicans resent that Kennedy knows more about their national dishes than they do and Rick Bayless pronounces that she has earned the right to be considered an authority on regional cooking. Indeed, Alice Waters points out that Kennedy has always taught traditional ways and not her own interpretations and chef Nick Zukin anoints her a prophet for ensuring that the old ways have a place in the modern world. Pati Jinich, the host of Pati's Mexican Table, concludes this rather gushingly fulsome segment by acknowledging that the whole of Mexico should feel indebted to mentor.
As she picks her way through some market stalls, Kennedy chides those selling items with artificial colouring and, while munching on a wrap, tells Carroll that the only way to learn is to sample everything. Flashing back, she reveals that her refusal to salute anyone prevented her from joining a uniformed service during the Second World War. So, Diana Southwood (as she then was) signed up to the Women's Timber Corps and learned to plant trees rather than cut them down. In the process, she picked up the eco-lessons that have made her such a pioneering advocate of sustainability.
After the war, Kennedy was invited to Jamaica and was nearly kidnapped in the Dominican Republic. Nevertheless, she made it unscathed to the Hotel Olofsson in the Haitian capital of Port au Prince, where she met New York Times Foreign Correspondent, Paul P. Kennedy, and promptly fell in love at first sight. Resembling Spencer Tracy and very much a bon viveur, Kennedy was covering a revolution and Diana followed him to Mexico in 1957 and embarked upon a dual love affair with her soulmate and her adopted country.
While Kennedy shows us how to toast coffee beans in an antique warmer, she recalls how she and Paul had lived together for a couple of years before marrying. She had worked for the British Council when not cooking for her husband's journalist pals and she smiles in recalling that he was a funny drunk, who did Spanish dancing and never had hangovers. As she had never wanted children, they had been a perfect match and had shared many happy times with good friends and better food.
Back in the present, we accompany Kennedy to Teotitlán del Valle in Oaxaca to meet Abigail Mendoza, who runs the Tlamanalli Restaurant. She has known Kennedy for 35 years and considers her to be an adopted Mexican, who has dedicated her life to researching local food and understanding every social, cultural, economic and culinary facet of it. Kennedy reveals that she owes much to Josefina Velázquez de León, who had written a series of books on regional dishes, and she agreed to follow suit after New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne came to visit and urged her to write a cookbook of her own.
A fascinating passage follows, as we cut between a TV show on guacamole and Kennedy making her own in her kitchen. She echoes everything she had said decades earlier about not using garlic or jalapeño peppers and implores people to chop their onions rather than mince them. In a typically acidic throwaway, Kennedy explains that she refuses to invite anyone to dine with her who objects to the inclusion of cilantro. It's an crotchety masterclass that ends with Kennedy refusing to taste the dish because there's no point in her going `mmmm' on camera. She goads Carroll to put her mouth where her money is, but we don't see whether she accepted the challenge.
Having lost Paul to prostate cancer in 1967, Kennedy felt adrift in New York. She was grateful to Claiborne for featuring her in the New York Times and for suggesting that she gave Sunday cookery lessons to groups of six in her apartment. This led to McCullough commissioning The Cuisines of Mexico in 1972, which was based on Kennedy's travels to remote villages to see how they gathered and prepared their ingredients. During the 1970s, she toured the country giving cookery classes and appearing on chat shows, with the result that she became the face of Mexican food in the United States.
As she explains while showing off the rare chili plants in her greenhouse, Kennedy built her ecological house in order to have a base in Mexico. But friend Clayton Kirking reveals that she would go on long fact-finding missions across the country and would sleep in the truck she used to bring back samples. As McCullough notes, it took years to research titles like The Tortilla Book, Recipes From the Regional Cooks of Mexico and Nothing Fancy, in which Kennedy always credited the person who had given her a recipe.
Jinich lauds Kennedy's legacy, while McCullough suspects that, even at her advanced age, she still has more to give. Kennedy certainly retains her vigour and she guides us around her garden, as she points out the vegetables and herbs that she grows using only compost rather than chemicals. In typical fashion, she berates those chefs who fails to complain about the decline in tasty tomatoes and takes quiet pride in the way that she has brought the whole of Mexico to her little plot. In a clip from her TV show, Kennedy claims that people need to learn to cook again, as they too often slap stuff in a pan or plonk it in a microwave rather than take some trouble over it. Fixing the camera's gaze, she refuses to apologise for having strong opinions, as she doesn't believe that there's much point to life unless one does.
Carroll unearths footage from a 2015 Boot Camp video, as Kennedy conducts a class in her kitchen. She is just as firm with professional chefs as she is with novices, although one woman gets both barrels over her poor showing with a rice dish. Kennedy fulminates about Mexico importing chilies and chefs publishing cookbooks that are full of basic mistakes about ingredients and methods. The students are both awestruck and intimidated, as Kennedy harangues them and the culinary establishment. But she is spot on when she throws up her hands and wonders who is going to care and complain in quite the same way when she is gone.
We see Kennedy give a lecture about sustainability at the Mad Food Conference in Copenhagen in 2013 and she follows this up by lamenting that the more connected people are electronically, the less unified they are. She curses macho leaders like Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump and, over gorgeous shots of winging butterflies and misty mornings, she mourns the wilful destruction of the planet. Kennedy also despairs of education syllabuses that fail to teach children about the diversity of species on our wonderful home. Now in full eco flow, she also condemns the use of detergents and the landfill strategies that have been devised to deal with waste, as the chemicals will seep into water supplies and jeopardise the future of generations still to come.
A cut takes us to the James Beard Awards in New York in 2014, where Kennedy delights in being called `the Mick Jagger of Mexico'. She holds court with some young acolytes in Tepoztlán in Morelos before we see her declaring that she will know when the time comes to leave the stage. In a shocking aside, Kennedy declares that she will end it all when she can no longer cook, eat, see and walk. For the moment, she hasn't decided on a method, but she admits to being concerned about the fate of her home and its contents because every item has personal significance and relates to a journey, a place and a recipe.
What's clear, however, is that Diana Kennedy is not done yet. She heads to Oaxaca City to shrug at the gentrification of the market. Andrés calls her `the Indiana Jones of food', as she is forever looking for that precious jewel. In his opinion, Mexican food has a legacy because of her. She goes to Los Angeles to pose with Canara and loses her temper with the photographer when he uses the words `cool' and `girls'. On the same trip, she holds forth at a round table event and scolds fans at a book signing. Back home, Kennedy admits that she has done what she wanted with her life. She wishes she had wasted less time, but is grateful to have discovered that food makes like worthwhile and promises not to lose the will to live as long as she can eat delicious meals.
In many ways, Kennedy is the culinary equivalent to folk song collector Alan Lomax, who was profiled in Roger Kappers's excellent documentary, Lomax the Songhunter (2004). This isn't quite in the same category, as Carroll is far too tactful to pry into Kennedy's Essex background, her wartime experiences and her transition from grieving widow to groundbreaking author. It's tempting to suggest that the subject had more than a little say in how she was presented, while also having an input into the agenda, as certain topics appear to have been off limits. Certainly it would have been nice to have heard the odd traveller's tale, as it's highly unlikely that Kennedy would not have had the occasional scrape during her solo journeys around a country that has had its share of socio-political unrest over the last six decades.
Given her status in the States, it's perhaps surprising that Kennedy isn't better known in the land of her birth. It would be lovely to see her put Gordon Ramsay in his place or hear her views on Nigella Lawson's presenting style. But one suspects she wouldn't have much time for any of the UK's current crop of celebrity chefs and their absence from this tribute should come as no surprise. That said, the talking-head contributions aren't particularly revealing and Carroll might have been better off sticking solely with Kennedy, especially as she has only given herself 73 minutes to sum up an unprecedented career.
She could have spent a little longer on the road, too, as we don't get much of a sense of provincial Mexico or the people whose food the passionate and fiercely independent Kennedy has devoted herself to celebrating. More to the point, we hear nothing from those Mexicans who reckon that Kennedy has made her name through appropriation. However, Carroll wisely avoids serving up any food porn, as Paul Mallman and Andrei Zakows's images of the dishes that Kennedy creates are as down-to-earth as her approach. Nothing fancy, indeed.
CIRCUS OF BOOKS.
Martin Scorsese got the `mom and pop' documentary off to a memorable start with the unabashedly affectionate profile of his parents, Catherine and Charles, in Italianamerican (1974). By contrast, Nathaniel Kahn had more of an axe to grind about his absentee father, Louis, in My Architect (2003), while Canadian actress-turned-director Sarah Polley had to force herself to accept some harsh home truths about parents Michael and Diane in Stories We Tell (2012). Now, Rachel Mason opens up about the secret life of her own folks, Barry and Karen, as she takes us on a tour of the their highly unusual Los Angeles business premises in Circus of Books.
Barry Mason met Karen Heller at a Jewish meet`n'greet where the lighting was so low that he only got to see her face when they went to a nearby café for coffee. They married seven months later. She had been a star crime reporter on the Cincinnati Enquirer, while he had graduated from the UCLA Film School (where Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek of The Doors had been classmates) and gone to work with Hollywood special effects artist Linwood G. Dunn on Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Star Trek (1966-69).
A natural problem solver, Barry started manufacturing safety valves after he had invented a device to stop his father's kidney dialysis machine from malfunctioning. But, when the insurance premiums became too high to sustain the business, he bought into Karen's suggestion to support his growing family by distributing Hustler magazine for publisher Larry Flynt. When one regular client in West Hollywood defaulted on his payments, Barry took over his Book Circus store in 1982 and renamed it Circus of Books. In addition to selling gay literature, the Masons also offered pornographic videos and sex toys in a shuttered back room and did so well for themselves that they opened a second branch in Silver Lake.
As Karen was deeply religious and didn't want anyone from her synagogue to know the true nature of the business, she avoided the topic of work while socialising. Children Micah, Rachel and Josh were also kept in the dark, especially when the DVD boom prompted the Masons to join forces with directors Matt Sterling and Phil Tarley and porn sensation Jeff Stryker to produce their own films under the Video 10 label. ,
Rachel is surprised to learn that the profits from these pornos put her through college. But her parents were less interested in being hardcore moguls than they were in providing a service for a gay community that was already enduring the nightmare of the AIDS crisis. Activist Alexei Romanoff (one of the few survivors of the police raid at the Black Cat Tavern on 31 December 1966 that predated Stonewall by over two years) recalls the sadness of losing so many friends. But he also commends the contribution that Karen and Barry made to enlightening people about the nature of the virus and the need for LGBT rights.
Unfortunately, Presdent Ronald Reagan's Attorney General, Edwin Meese, failed to see the public spiritedness of the Video 10 enterprise and Circus of Books was raided following an FBI sting. The authorities demanded that Barry entered a guilty plea on a felony charge after Karen decided that he had to face the music so that she could stay with the children. However, lawyer John Weston urged him to fight his case and they stalled long enough for the climate to change under the markedly more liberal Bill Clinton.
As Flynt tells Rachel, the case demonstrated that the thing American should cherish most is `the right to be left alone'. But, while business began to boom again, the Masons found themselves facing a crisis closer to home after Josh came out and the compartmentalising Karen had a hard time accepting that her own child was gay. Aware of the irony that she had helped so many LGBTQ+ come to terms with their sexual identity, she struggled to reconcile her role as a mother with the abomination teaching of the Torah. However, she is now a key figure in the local PFLAG branch and she and Barry regularly attend counselling sessions and participate in parades.
Despite the resumption of domestic harmony, however, Circus of Books began to fall victim to the free porn boom on the Internet. Keen to remain loyal to their customers and staff members like Ben Liefke, Fernando Aguilar, Freddie Berkovitz, David Gregory and Alaska Thunderfuck, the Masons tried to soldier on following the closure of the Silver Lake branch in August 2016. But, as Rachel started making her documentary, it became clear that the end was nigh and Karen even jokes that she wishes filming would finish so that she could see how things turned out. When aggressive discounting failed to arrest the slide, the shutters at 8230 Santa Monica Boulevard came down for the final time on 9 February 2019 and an era drew to a close.
Barry and Karen rightly remain proud of the fact that they managed to stay together over three decades while raising a family and running a high-risk business. The latter jokes that her husband had to do a good deal of listening during this period, but they clearly make a formidable team and Mason's admiration and affection is readily evident, even as she wipes away tears at the side of the camera while Josh describes the pain of his mother's unsympathetic response to his coming out.
There's a deceptive ease about the way in which Mason and co-writer Kathryn Robson weave such family details into the wider picture of LGBTQ+ rights, the AIDS crisis, the evolution of the counterculture and the changing ways in which pornography is produced and consumed. For all its cosy accessibility, however, this is a film that confronts contentious issues and highlights how much still needs to be done before America comes to terms with the reality of the fragmentation of conventional concepts of binary sexual identity.
A Yale graduate who produces music, sculpture and performance art as well as films like the dialogue-free musical, The Lives of Hamilton Fish (2015), Mason is clearly a talent to watch. But it's doubtful that she will ever produce anything as personal or profound as this warm, witty thank you letter.