Most romantic film #64: LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE (1992)

I had forgotten about this book and film until I wrote about LOVE’S KITCHEN last week. But like most people (I think) I like to mix up my cooking, my film watching, and my romantic interaction.

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The story is set in Mexico, around the revolution, but focuses on the forbidden love between Tita and Pedro. Tita can cook “magically,” meaning that her emotions find their way into her cooking and affect the people eating it.

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She loves Pedro but is forbidden to marry him because of a family tradition. Which sets of a chain of events that flow through and beyond the Mexican Revolution.

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The novel was in the style of magical realism, and included recipes for Mexican foods incorporated into the story of Tita. The combination of recipes, food and romance was very sensual in its execution, but the novel also embraced a feminist message not often found in popular novels coming from Latin America. LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE is a love story, a cookbook, a fantasy and a feminist fable all in one — although not all of that translates into the film. The film is rated R, and very sensual throughout. The imagery is beautiful.

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Most romantic film #63: Out of Sight (1998)

I love this film.

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Based on a story by Elmore Leonard and directed by Stephen Soderbergh, this film is interesting for a few reasons.

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Like this is the first collaboration between Soderbergh and George Clooney, followed by all three Ocean films starring the actor.It was also one of the most successful films Lopez made as an actor, unlikethe rom-coms she made following this. It was also a comeback of sorts for the director, whose film sex, lies and videotape had not been followed by real commercial success. It also brought Clooney and Soderbergh into collaboration with Don Cheadle.

The main thread of the film follows the budding romance between Jack Foley (Clooney), a convict and bank robber, and Karen Sisco (Lopez) a U.S. Marshall tasked with recapturing Foley after he breaks out of a Florida prison.

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They meet during the breakout, when Foley and Sisco end up in the trunk of a stolen car driven by Buddy. They… get to know one another.

The supporting players are Foley’s BFF Buddy, their ticket-to-riches Ripley, and various other criminals, ranging from the evil Maurice (Cheadle) to the foolish Glenn (Steve Zahn). There is also Dennis Farina as Karen’s dad and an early appearance by Viola Davis as Maurice’s wife.

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The twists and turns of the story are smart and intriguing, and the attraction/chemistry between Lopez and Clooney is H.O.T. Lopez’s Karen is a tough babe, a gorgeous woman holding her own in a world of men. Clooney’s Jack is a smart guy with impulse issues but no real badness. Their attraction is as puzzling to them as it is clear to us.

This is a stylish and scary thriller with romance as a compelling savory sauce. I highly recommend it.

Most romantic film #59: Enchanted April (1992)

This charming foreign film is based on a 1922 novel. The film won 2 Golden Globe awards, for actresses Miranda Richardson and Joan Plowright, and as the tagline says, “If you liked A Room with a View and Howard’s End, you’ll love Enchanted April.”

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Yes, you will.

The plot is a bit slower, but it starts in 1902s London — a rainy and gray London, where two women read a rental ad for an Italian villa, and decide to make it happen for themselves. Both are married, Rose (Richardson) to a cheater and Lottie (Josie Lawrence) to a self-absorbed prig. In order to afford the villa, they pick up two other women, Mrs. Fisher (Plowright) who is an older, rather controlling spinster and Lady Caroline (played by Polly Walker) who is a flapper who wants to get away from the mad chase her rich and spoiled life has become.

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Despite initial challenges, the villa provides solace and peace and beauty, and all four women are changed. Husbands arrive, the landlord (played by the ever-charming Michael Kitchen) appears, and the houseparty becomes an opportunity for happiness.

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There is not a lot of plot, but the ensemble is wonderful. And, frankly, the villa and Italy are gorgeous. It is also a lovely film about women over thirty (other than Lady Caroline), so not so much about ingenues but mature folk rediscovering love, beauty, and each other.

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Delightful.

Most romantic film #58: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

This is an old-school, studio romantic film in black-and-white starring Merle Oberon and a pre-GONE WITH THE WIND Leslie Howard.

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Based on the play and novel by Baroness Orczy (published and produced in 1903) about the adventures of an English nobleman, Percy Blakeney, who rescues French aristocrats from the guillotine and “The Terror,” under the nose of French authority.

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Howard plays Sir Percy perfectly. Sir Percy masquerades as a fashionable fool with one of the highest titles in Britain. He is married to Marguerite, his beautiful French bride (Oberon), but hides his secret mission from her because he knows she betrayed a noble French family to the guillotine… He also pretends not to care for her: they have the msot fashionable marriage in England, meaning brittle, sophisticated and loveless.

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Of course, they love each other madly but due to political and personal misunderstandings, the marriage is “in name only.

The villain is played by one of my favorite character actors, Raymond Massey. He chews up the scenery in swell fashion as Chauvelin, the French bad guy who blackmails Marguerite and pursues Percy relentlessly (without being as tiresome as the LES MIZ folks).

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Howard is wonderful here, handling his double role of fop and hero with panache. He is not only a man of action, but a man of intelligence and linguistic humor. This is the opposite of his masterful work five years later as Ashley Wilkes: similar type, but Sir Percy has substance as well as style. In real life Howard was a man of action: he was killed in WWII (1943) when he was shot down flying over the Bay of Biscay, possibly on assignment for British Intelligence.

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Oberon is glamorous and moving as Marguerite, the woman admired by everyone but the husband she desperately desires. The actress may be better known as Catherine in the original WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939). Oberon was married to the movie’s director Alexander Korda.

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This story has been re-made in several film versions, including the 1982 TV version starring Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellan (as the French villain Citizen Chauvelin) and the 1999-2000 TV version starring Richard E. Grant, Elizabeth McGovern and Martin Shaw (as Chauvelin).

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The 1934 version is considered the best (by me, too, although I love all of them and the novel). The atmosphere, the pre-WWII politics (this is a 1934 British film directed by a Hungarian, after all), the costumes and glamour — huge, wonderful old studio style.

The novel is unabashedly romantic, and while none of the movies comes close to Orczy’s prose, the Oberon-Howard couple is adult, sexy and surprisingly moving compared to the smooth TV versions that follow.

Hallowe’en romantic films: A Round-Up of Succulent Spookiness

Yeah, there are fewer romantic films related to Halloween than you might think. And no, I’m not going to include the Michael/Halloween films. Not romantic except in a really creepy, disturbing stalker/serial killer way. Which I’m not into. You?

Surprisingly, my first thought was Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), starring my featured crush Cary Grant. A truly hilarious film version of the popular play, this is indeed a Halloween film… about two old ladies in Brooklyn who live with their nephew (who thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt) and poison lonely old men who come to rent their room. But in a sweet way…

While the film features such fantastic comic/character actors as Jack Carson and the cop moonlighting as a playwright, Peter Lorre as Dr. Einstein (no, not that one), the plastic surgeon with a boozy, shaky hand and Edward Everett Horton as Mr. Witherspoon, the adminstrator of the asylum where the sisters plan to send Teddy… the film is stolen by Raymond Massey as Jonathan Brewster, the psychopathic killer who looks like Boris Karloff (but please don’t tell him that!). Brilliant: get the popcorn and candy corn and settle in for a wonderful, chilly ride.

Zombieland (2009). In keeping with the current fad of Zombie Love (I don’t get it, but you go, girl, love a man who wants to eat your brain), this quirky little indie starring Emma Stone, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson and Abigail Breslin is a charmer. Yes, teen love blossoms in a world overtaken by zombies… and some kick-ass zombie fighting action in an amusement park. Surprisingly, I loved the humor and thrills of this one, despite my general dislike of zombie flicks (could that be the week of bad dreams generated by sucking down Season 1 of The Walking Dead in one gulp, like a meal of out-of-season raw oysters?). Nice Halloween fare, given the abundance of child zombies my friends will be escorting this year.

I would also go for the traditional pairing of the 1930s Frankenstein/Bride of Frankenstein. Director James Whale’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel is masterful, in both films. His updating/technological imagery of both the creation of the monster and the Monster himself (played of course by Karloff) is absolutely the stuff of nightmares, made kitschy and campy by the passage of time. The Bride (played by Elsa Lanchester) is an iconic vision of FemmeBotCorpse beauty, with homage to her looks in both Young Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The actress is virtually forgotten now, but this image of her reads across the decades, as does her rejection of Karloff’s Monster with a cat-like hiss. Gorgeous and painful!

Let’s also remember Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks’ masterpiece. Yes, in its way a romantic film. Think of Frau Blucher and the stallion…. And how about Beetlejuice? The young married couple played by a skinny Alec Baldwin and Gina Davis are sweet… while the title character, played by a disturbingly weird Michael Keaton, is Halloween-worthy. Oh and the near-forgotten Winona Ryder.

Couple Beetlejuice with Practical Magic, a film coupling scary zombies (sort of) with super-cool witches played by Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Dianne Wiest and Stockard Channing. Both have great soundtracks as well as romance and comedy.

Lastly of course I have to pay homage to vampire films. My personal favorite of the Dracula bunch is Bram Stoker’s Dracula directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Made in 1992, this is no Twilight. Both Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves are a bit outside the box, okay, but Gary Oldman as the stylin’ Dracula is amazing. Way before the dandy trend reappeared, Oldman sizzles as the Victorian dandy who is really some weird kabuki monster… oh, yeah. But seeing Oldman act is always a treat.

And Tom Waits cast as Renfield? Genius.

Of course, with this I’d add my second favorite Dracula film, based on the 1992 German expressionist film Nosferatu (#3 vampire film), titled Shadow of the Vampire, a quirky black comedy abotu the making of the original 1922 film, where the star seems to be taking his vampire role as a method actor might… a bit too seriously. Vampire films always turn on the sex/blood/romance link, so any of these provide chills and romance… plus a leetle bit of quirkiness.

For a kind of lost 70s disco fun, you might try Love At First Bite, starring George Hamilton (of the perma-tan) as Dracula. Filled with familiar faces from 1970s TV, this spoof is a charming reminder of a lost world.

Most romantic film #46: Chocolat (2000)

Being in Paris it is only right I include some French or French-inspired films. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom, this is the movie of the novel by Joanne Harris, which I recommend you read.

No, not that.

Oops, no, not that either.

Yes.

The film stars Juliette Binoche as Vianne, a young mother, who is also a master chocolatier. She and her daughter Anouk drift from place to place, opening chocolate shops and working their magic until the wind comes, sending them someplace new. Vianne did the same with her mother.

At the start of the story, Vianne and Anouk come to a small French village, probably sometime during the 1950s although no date is specified. The village, Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, is a repressed and rule-following community. The mayor, played by Alfred Molina, keeps his citizens in check. He focuses everyone on abstinance and the denial of pleasure and allows no dallying with frivolous things like chocolate. His beautiful secretary, played by Carrie-Anne Moss, is in love with him, but he ignores her.

Vianne’s shop and sweets, however, quickly become a matter of concern because they are simply delicious and seductive, as is Vianne’s open friendliness. One of the first to visit is Armande (Dame Judi Dench), an elderly woman. Another is Josephine (Lena Olin), a woman who appears crazy but is simply a victim of her husband’s physical and verbal abuse.

These misfits and outcasts are joined by Roux (Johnny Depp), the leader of a group of gypsies, who comes to Vianne’s shop in search of work.

Vianne’s generosity and skill with chocolate brings everyone together, frees Josephine from her husband, and makes the mayor crazy. Things escalate, and the wind that pushes Vianne from place to place returns.

With four of the most beautiful and talented actresses and Johnny Depp in its cast and Hallestrom directing, how can this film not be great fun?

It is. The sets, the costumes, the music and the acting are a treat. Sensual, warm, and engaging. I suggest pairing the film with a cup of chocolat chaud or a selection of bites from white to milk to dark filled with fondant or caramel, some heavy cream, and your sweetie. For a complete night of confectionary delight, couple it with Like Water for Chocolate (1992).

Note: I find it unfair the way Binoche can dress like a matronly mother and still be one of the most beautiful women on the planet.

Most romantic film #43: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

Yet another romantic fantasy–perhaps inspired by the bad ones coming out recently.

This film is another book-turned-movie, and later TV series (but more about that, much later). The film starred Rex Harrison, then not well known to the American film audience, and Gene Tierney, the actress in Laura. Natalie Wood, then a child star, played Tierney’s daughter.

Tierney plays Lucy Muir, a young widow who moves wiht her daughter to a cottage on the seacliffs of England in the early 1900s. Harrison plays the ghost of a ship captain haunting the cottage, but in a totally benign way. No Poltergeist, here.

Lucy wants to be independent, but she has a very small income. The Captain shares his memoires with her, which she turns into a bestselling book–and they fall in love. Because this is the 1940s, the resolutions are different than on the CW.

Suffice it to say, Rex is sexy and Tierney beautiful, and there is a happy ending after all.

Oh, and George Sanders plays a cad.

The TV series was a half-hour sitcom that ran from 1968-1970, starring Hope Lange and Edward Mulhare. This version was set in Maine, and also starred Charles Nelson Reilly as the nosy neighbor-landlord.

Most romantic film #42: Portrait of Jenny

This is one of those odd, mysterious films of the 1940s that sticks in your mind. If you love films like The Time Traveler’s Wife or Serendipity, you’ll like Portrait of Jenny.

Based on a novel by Robert Nathan, the film was produced by David O. Selznick with his usual flair for micro-managing details. It stars Joseph Cotton as the film’s hero Eben Adams, an unknown painter, and Jennifer Jones as Jenny, the girl he meets who becomes his Muse and inspiration.

Selznick married Jones the year after this film opened.

Again, the film is filled with excellent secondary characters played by top-flight actors, like Ethel Barrymore and Lillian Gish, and character actors like David Wayne and Henry Hull. It is a beautiful, misty film that evokes both the feeling of romantic nostalgia and fantasy that work strongly for the film’s effect.

Most romantic film #40: Laura(1944)

This is a little film noir, no one ever pays much attention to it, but the cast and production team includes some of the best talent.

Laura is adapted from the popular best seller by Vera Caspary.

The story begins with Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigating the murder of Laura Hunt. She’d been shot in the face with a shotgun on Friday night and found by her maid Bessie.

McPherson gets Laura’s story from her mentor Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), a popular and influential newspaper columnist; her fiance Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), a no-good Louisville gigolo; her aunt Ann Treadwell (Dame Judith Anderson), and Bessie herself (Dorothy Adams). As he pokes and uncovers, he finds himself attracted to Laura’s beauty (seen in a portrait painted by a former lover hanging in Laura’s apartment) and her character, attested to by everyone.

Monday night he falls asleep in Laura’s apartment, only to wake up when she appears — not dead. Now everything is overturned, and McPherson has to start again, figuring out who the victim really is and who might have shot her. Or did they think it was Laura? Or was it Laura who pulled the trigger?

Andrews is great as the blue-collar hero falling in love with the uptown girl. This isn’t quite as good as The Best Years of Our Lives, which I think is Andrews’ best work, but it is good. Gene Tierney is beautiful and mysterious as Laura, the girl everyone loves. Tierney had great style and class, which is perfect for the ambitious young woman who rises quickly through 1940s advertising circles by her wit, charm and intelligence (think Mad Men without the liquor, infidelity and endless bad boy behavior–okay, there is liquor). Price and Webb are fantastic as the bickering wannabe boyfriends who can’t quite close the deal, while Judith Anderson again shows why she is a “Dame.”

Only about 90 minutes in length, this would be a great double feature with Double Indemnity or The Lady Eve (see next week) or The Best Years of Our Lives.