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A feast of films

[Photo: Samuel Goldwyn.]
Tony Shalhoub, left, and Stanley Tucci play brothers who are co-owners of a failing Italian restaurant in Big Night.

By PHILIP BOOTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 2, 2003

Forget the chianti and fava beans. These movies serve up the real stuff of life.

If art imitates life, then, by necessity, food and the conversation that accompanies meals will be integral to pop culture accounts of our way of life. Here are a few movies centered on the fine art of eating and preparing food, and making a living in the restaurant business:

Diner (1982) -- Boys will be boys in one of Barry Levinson's terrific Baltimore-based stories, set primarily in an old-fashioned diner where true confessions are on the menu, along with french fries dipped in gravy. The memorable comedy is particularly notable for its cast of future stars: Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Ellen Barkin and Paul Reiser.

My Dinner With Andre (1981) -- Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn come off as world-class raconteurs and expert conversationalists in a Louis Malle-directed movie focused on a single two-hour dinner chat. It's all talk, but the language is so vivid that later you'll swear you've seen the scenes the men described.

Babette's Feast (1987) -- This art-house flick, adapted from a story by Danish writer Isak Dinesen, focuses on an amazing banquet served by a lowly maid. Some screenings of the movie were held in conjunction with special meals reflecting the onscreen offerings. In French and Danish, with English subtitles.

Like Water for Chocolate (1992) -- The magical properties of Hispanic cuisine figure into this tale about a widowed woman and her three daughters. This Mexican film is based on the book by Laura Esquivel. She wrote the screenplay, and her husband, Alfonso Arau, directed. In Spanish, with English subtitles.

Big Night (1996) -- Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci play brothers, co-owners of a failing restaurant, caught in the act of cooking up an Italian feast for a special banquet intended to be shared with jazz luminary Louis Prima.

Woman on Top (2000) -- A Brazilian chef (Penelope Cruz) leaves her husband (Harold Perrineau Jr.), moves to San Francisco, stars in a cooking show on local television and pines for true love. Cruz gets the full sex-symbol treatment in a fluffy comedy that's too predictable.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) -- Folks die in disturbingly creative manners in this tale of love, infidelity, cannibalism and murderous revenge. British director Peter Greenaway's comic horror movie, starring Richard Bohringer, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Alan Howard and Tim Roth, created much controversy upon its release; it was originally threatened with an X rating; it got an NC-17.

Other food movies of note: Dinner Rush (2000), with Danny Aiello; Tortilla Soup (2001), with Hector Elizondo and Elizabeth Pena; What's Cooking? (2000), with Joan Chen, Julianna Margulies, Mercedes Ruehl, Kyra Sedgwick and Alfre Woodard; Chocolat (2000), directed by Lasse Hallstrom and starring Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp and Judi Dench; Vatel (2000), with Gerard Depardieu and Uma Thurman; Soul Food (1997), with Vanessa L. Williams and Vivica A. Fox; A Chef in Love (1996); Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), directed by Ang Lee; Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), with Kathy Bates; Mystic Pizza (1988), with Julia Roberts, Annabeth Gish, Lili Taylor and Vincent D'Onofrio; Tampopo (1985); Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978), starring George Segal and Jacqueline Bisset, and Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), with Gene Wilder and Jack Albertson.

Last, but not least, are the movies of Quentin Tarantino. The young auteur has the hit man played by Samuel L. Jackson do a little obsessing over hamburgers and the French name for Quarter Pounders in Pulp Fiction (1994) and offers a miniseminar on Madonna in a key conversation scene in Reservoir Dogs (1992).

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