The Dressmaker’s Mixup Mystification

 

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Don’t mess with the dressmaker

So, one could describe The Dressmaker as “Chocolat meets The Count of Monte Cristo.” Sounds like the best movie ever, right? Except there’s no blending of these two elements: it is a Frankenfilm. First it’s the one movie, and then it’s the other.

The basic setup: Kate Winslet plays Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, a successful Paris fashion designer, who returns to her dusty, small-minded home town (in rural Australia), because she believes she is cursed. She wants to break the curse by finding out whether or not she committed a murder she was blamed for  when she was just a child. She can’t remember, and the townsfolk, while full to the brim with damning gossip, are closed-mouthed when it comes to facts. She has also come back to see her mother, the local loon, “Mad Molly” (Judy Davis), and quickly falls in with a boy she vaguely knew from childhood, Teddy (Liam Hemsworth), who is, as far as I can tell, part of a family of itinerant workers who have more or less settled there. (Or one might say that they’re gypsies: Hello, Chocolat.)

I wish they would have stuck to making just the one sort of film, because I liked them both: The Chocolat, Cold Comfort Farm, Hope Floats, “glamorous girl comes to rural backwater and shakes things up” plot, and the black-as-velvet comedy/ murder mystery/ revenge plot.

(Speaking of Cold Comfort Farm – there’s an almost identical scene in The Dressmaker, wherein a girl gets a makeover to win a boy above her station. I have to say, although Cold Comfort Farm is the superior film, the makeover in The Dressmaker is much more breathtaking.)

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Judy Davis and Kate Winslet are fantastic in this movie, especially in their scenes together. Davis particularly shines, as a woman gripped with dementia, slowly regaining her facilities (if not her tact), under the administrations of her long-lost daughter. If you are a fan of great acting for great acting’s sake, then see this movie. Also, if you like stunning 50’s fashion. And/or Liam Hemsworth with his shirt off. There’s plenty of that, and he holds up his end of the exchange quite nicely. Plus, there are some truly funny moments, especially anything involving Hugo Weaving as a local police officer and closet transvestite. But frustration over the thematic incertitude casts a pall over the whole enterprise.

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You’re welcome
Finally, a shout out to Those In Charge, who cast Ms. Winslet, who is 41, as someone who is supposed to be the same age as Liam Hemsworth (27) and Sarah Snook (29). They placed them all around 33 years old, which actually works – since Hemsworth has that rugged Australian complexion, and Winslet possesses a dewy beauty barely nicked by time.
Pair With: A hip flask of whiskey – but don’t let Mad Molly pinch it.
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Have You Seen This? 13 Great, Often-Overlooked Films

Part of Finding the Yummy is picking out that perfect film for that particular crowd, for that precise night. Here are some of my favorites from the 1990s that you may have missed… or may want to watch again. Why the 90s? Call it the 20 Year Rule: now that we’re in the 20-teens, the 90s are finally starting to come into focus. As a bonus, I’ve included the perfect drink to pair with each film.

Big Night, 1996, Directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci

I really love this movie. You’ve got a pre-Monk Tony Shalhub, (back when we only knew him as ‘that funny guy from Wings’)giving us an early glimpse of his prodigious drama chops as Primo, a temperamental Italian chef who co-owns a restaurant with his brother, Secondo.  Secondo, played to perfection by Tucci, is a slick character who seduces everyone he meets (especially women) – but really, it’s he who’s being seduced, and ultimately duped, by the American Dream.  Add to that mix an at-her-best Minnie Driver, Allison Janney, Isabella Rossellini, Ian Holm (in a scenery chewing role as a rival restaurateur), and Campbell Scott, and you can hardly go wrong. Then set it all in a glossy, gauzy, 1950s, add a killer jazz soundtrack, some truly funny bits, and a feast scene to rival even Babette’s. Warning – don’t watch on an empty stomach. Delicious.

“To eat good food is to be close to God.”

Pair With: Tomassi Amarone (if you’re feeling munificent), or a Valpolicella – terrific at almost any price. (You might want to have a substantial antipasto plate handy too.)

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Cold Comfort Farm, 1995, Directed by John Schlesinger

There was time, back in the 1990s it was, when the world was a kinder place, and a young actress named Kate Beckinsale was known more for her wit and talent than for the way her leather pants stretched across her patookis as she crouched atop a flying buttress, surveying her nighttime domain. Giving crappy vampire franchises their due, I still think playing Flora Poste in Cold Comfort Farm is Beckinsale’s finest hour. Flora is akin to Jane Austen’s Emma (in fact, Beckinsale went on to play Emma only a few years later), a buttinsky and a matchmaker who gets away with her interfering nature because she’s just that charming.  The main difference is that, unlike Emma’s schemes, Flora’s tend to be successful. It’s the 1920s: Flora’s parents have just passed away, and she chooses to go live with her gothickly rural relatives at the titular farm. They are a miserable, hilarious lot – including a fire-and-brimstone preacher patriarch (Ian McKellen), his wretched wife (Eileen Atkins), and their oversexed, hunky son (Rufus Sewell). Flora sweeps into their lives and refuses to allow them to wallow in their desolation. Also with AbFab’s Joanna Lumley, and one of my favorite people on the planet – Mr. Stephen Fry.

“I saw something nasty in the woodshed.”

Pair With: A Brandy Sidecar – a jazz era favorite!

Deja Vu, 1997, Directed by Henry Jaglom

Not to be confused with the Denzel Washington film of the same name (don’t worry, I’ll get to Denzel in a minute), this is a talky little art house film that managed to capture me despite some flaws. Okay, one particular flaw, in my mind. Like David Mamet, Jaglom will insist upon casting his wife (in Mamet’s case, the occasionally good, but often flat Rebecca Pidgeon, and in Jaglom’s case, Victoria Foyt). Foyt co-wrote the script, so in a way, I understand. It’s not that she’s a crappy actress, and I really like her strong, beautiful features (but what’s with that haircut from 1984?). It’s just that…well, she’s sometimes annoying. When her character, Dana, is upset, Foyt lapses into a whiny voice that I find altogether irritating. So why is this film on my list, you may well ask? Number one: Stephen Dillane. You might know him now as stern Stannis Baratheon on Game of Thrones, but here he is utterly swoon-worthy. If you like the male variety of the species, you might just fall in love with his character, Sean. The other reasons to watch Deja Vu? The writing, and the rest of the cast, including Vanessa Redgrave as a gorgeous, winning, adventurous creature, who is also shockingly self-centered. There is moral ambiguity in this film – who’s the better, more complete human, the person who follows their bliss, or the one who sticks with their commitments, no matter what happiness they may end up denying themselves? (Hint: there’s no right answer. Warning: if you believe that infidelity is universally reprehensible, you probably will not like this movie.) Mostly, I come back to the film because it gives me chills. The good kind of chills. Jaglom plants us firmly in the real world with his naturalistic dialog and documentary-style camera work  – and then suddenly, he hits us with fate-laden, wondrous, magical moments.

“To cheat oneself out of love is the most terrible deception, it is an eternal loss for which there is no reparation, neither in time or eternity.”

Pair With: A Kir Royale, or some hot chocolate.

Devil in a Blue Dress, 1995, Directed by Carl Franklin 

This movie stars Denzel Washington, so you’d think that pretty much the entire world would have seen it by now – yet, when I worked at a video store (Nicollet Village Video in Minneapolis, now Filmzilla – an actual, surviving brick-and-mortar video rental shop – What?!), I often discovered customers who had never even heard of it, let alone seen it. It’s simply a great period noir, from the book by Walter Mosley. Jennifer “The Bride” Beals is the requisite treacherous woman (guess what color her dress is?) – and though I tease with “The Bride” stuff, she is very well cast, as it turns out. Washington, at the height of his early stardom, smolders as Easy Rawlins, an amateur sleuth in way over his head. The real standout here, however, is Don Cheadle, before many of us knew who the hell Don Cheadle was, as the terrifying psychopath Mouse Alexander. Surprisingly, rather than having Mouse work for the bad guys, Mosley casts him as Easy’s tenuous friend – he’s like a rabid dog on a short leash – and Easy has to decide how much slack to give him, never knowing when he might break free on his own.

“…if you ain’t want him dead, why you leave him with me?”

Pair With: Bulleit Bourbon, neat.

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Funny Bones, 1995, Directed by Peter Chelsom

I remember the first time I saw this film, on video, with friends – and as the credits rolled, we just sat there in stupefied silence, unable to speak until the end of the reel. The opening sequence has a similar impact… a sort of “What the…Did that just happen?” vibe. Oliver Platt plays Tommy Fawkes, a comedian living in the shadow of his much more famous father (played by Jerry Lewis, pretty much as himself). After Tommy bombs at what was supposed to be his big break (a really painful scene, but I promise, it’s the only one in the movie), he travels to Blackpool, England, an old family vacation spot, to search for the next great act. What he finds are family secrets, the fine line between comedy and violence, and quite possibly, the funniest man alive… a sort of humor savant named Jack (Lee Evans). A truly unusual and very funny film.

Nicky: “Have you lived in Blackpool all your life?” 
Jack: “Not yet.” 

Pair With: A Beefeater Gin and Tonic.

The Ice Storm, 1997, Directed by Ang Lee

This is a dark one, so be prepared. It takes place in the 1970s; Allison Janney again (let’s face it, everything’s a better with a little A.J.) hosting a “key party,” Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline cheating on their spouses, Christina Ricci seducing her boyfriend’s younger brother, and both Spiderman (Tobey Maguire)  and Frodo (Elijah Wood) running around trying to figure out life while courting sex and death — all against the setting of a spectacular ice storm. If the cast isn’t enough to recommend this film, then let Ang Lee draw you in. He might just be the most diverse director working today – he has an eye for delicate detail, and the ability to sweep us away in any genre. After all, the man directed both Sense and Sensibility and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

“Ben, you’re boring me. I have a husband. I don’t have a need for another one.”

Pair With: A Bloody Mary, preferably before noon. 

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The Impostors, 1998, Directed by Stanley Tucci

The first of three films on this list that include Hope Davis in the cast, and the second directed and written by Tucci. Every person I have shown this movie to has loved it, and yet, on IMDb, it only garners a slightly above average rating. Granted, I count among my friends many actors and jazz musicians, and the film appeals greatly to these two demographics. Do you like Laurel and Hardy? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead? Farce? 1930’s jazz? Then run, don’t walk to rent this film. It makes me laugh until I tear up every time I see it. Oh, and did I mention? Oliver Platt (again), Tony Shalhoub (again), Allison Janney (again), Campbell Scott (again), IsabellaRossellini (again), Richard Jenkins, Alfred Molina, Lily Taylor, Steve Buscemi, Billy Connolly, and Woody Allen. Whew!

Perhaps we should wrestle sometime. Do you like the taut roundness that exercise brings to the buttocks?”

Pair With: A Gin Martini with Olives. (Although perhaps not as large as the one Arthur orders in the movie.)
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Joe vs. the Volcano, 1990, Directed by John Patrick Shanley

This, perhaps more so than any other film on this list, has become a cult favorite. It was seriously panned when it came out, the one time the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan formula didn’t seem to work. The writer/director is a playwright, which might explain why it didn’t go down well with everyone. Don’t get me wrong: at times, it’s goofy. It’s not grounded in reality. Meg Ryan turns up as three different characters. Abe Vigoda plays the chief of an island tribe, and one of the tribesmen is Nathan Lane. Let me say that again. One of the island tribesmen is Nathan Lane.  And all of this makes complete sense when you accept the fact that Joe Vs. The Volcano is a fairy tale.  (It even starts with the words “Once Upon A Time…”) Drenched with symbolism, really funny, incredibly sweet and highly quotable – hitch yourself onto Joe Banks’ raft made of luggage, and I promise you a fun journey.

“Very exciting….as a luggage problem.”

Pair With: A Mai Tai, served in a coconut, with plenty of fruity garnishes. 

Lone Star, 1996, Directed by John Sayles

This is the movie that made Matthew McConaughey a star, so upon re-watching it the other night, I was surprised at how little screen time he has. Now that his looks and manner are so familiar, his absence is noticeable, but back then his brand of charisma was a novelty, and his character, a sheriff’s deputy in the 1950s, so loomed over the story, that I remember him as being in at least half the film. Chris Cooper plays McConaughey’s son in the present day… and really, the whole movie is about fathers and sons (it follows multiple families) – do you accept your parents’ legacy, or write your own story? It’s also about race and power. But mostly, it’s  about a 40-year-old murder mystery that Sheriff Sam Deeds (Cooper) is trying to solve. The victim was a monster of a man, played with great menace by Kris Kristofferson  – and it’s soon clear that the world is better off without him.  Deeds’ main suspect? His deceased father, and local legend, Buddy. Add to this Sayles’ always dry, clever dialogue, and a very sexy Elizabeth Pena, and you have Texas gold.

Sheriff Sam Deeds: “Mrs. Bledsoe?”
Minnie Bledsoe: “That’s me.”
Sheriff Sam Deeds: “I’m Sheriff Deeds.”
Minnie Bledsoe: “Sheriff Deeds is dead, honey. You just Sheriff Junior.”
Sheriff Sam Deeds: “Yeah, that’s the story of my life.”

Pair With: (Need I even say it?) A Lone Star Beer, ice cold.

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Miller’s Crossing, 1990, Directed by the Coen Brothers

Okay, this one isn’t that obscure, but it, like another one of my favorite films, The Royal Tenenbaums, bears a second (or twelfth) viewing. Yes, it is extremely violent – it is a mob movie after all. And yes, like many of the films on my list it is a period piece (1930s). Gabriel Byrne is Tom, the right-hand-man of Albert Finney’s Irish mob boss, Leo. Due to, what else, a dame (or, in the parlance of the film, a ‘twist’), Tom shifts his loyalties over to the Italian side of the underworld…or does he? Is he playing the most brilliant long game ever, or is he, like he claims, just making it up as he goes along? Marcia Gay Harden is mesmerizing as the dame, and who can forget John Turturro as her weasly brother Bernie… one of his greatest performances, and that’s saying something. And as the final cherry on this scrumptious concoction, Miller’s Crossing has some of the best noir dialogue ever to grace the silver screen.

“You ain’t got a license to kill bookies and today I ain’t sellin’ any. So take your flunky and dangle.”

Pair With:  Bushmills Black Irish Whisky or a Negroni, depending where you are in the film.

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Mumford, 1999, Directed by Lawrence Kasdan

This stars Hope Davis again, and Loren Dean (why don’t we see more of him?) as the title character. Mumford is a psychologist in a town that shares his name. He’s appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and now is making great strides in helping the quirky townsters solve their problems, including a weight-obsessed teen (a young Zooey Deschanel), a shopaholic mom (the always great Mary McDonnell) with a boor of a husband (Ted Danson), a lonely software billionaire (Jason Lee), and a sickly, oppressed and beautiful woman (Davis). But who is Mumford, really? A couple of rival shrinks want to know. His story, when revealed, elevates this romantic comedy from a meet-cute with a cast of loveable oddballs, to something a little darker, a little richer.

“When I was in high school the thing I wanted most when I was stuck in class, the thing that I was desperately in pursuit of, was a hall pass. That’s all I ever wanted. I loved moving freely around the school while everybody else was trapped in there. That’s how I feel right now. Like I have some giant – all day – hall pass.”

Pair With:  A virgin Cuba Libra (Coke and lime).

Next Stop Wonderland, 1998, Directed by Brad Anderson

Another Hope Davis romantic comedy. What can I say? She brings a certain sadness to her characters that makes her more interesting that your average big-toothed, sparkly-eyed romantic lead. Her character, Erin, is indeed sad – a state of being which is nicely echoed by the film’s glorious, melancholy, bossa nova soundtrack. Erin hasn’t recovered from the death of her poet father – add to this the ignominy of being dumped by her blowhard poser hippy boyfriend (Philip Seymour Hoffman – pre-greatness, but already great), and having a mother who is way more glamorous than she is (Holland Taylor – completely unaged since Bosom Buddies). Erin prefers the gentle nudgings of fate to guide her path – her mother, a much more proactive person, takes out a personal ad for Erin without her consent. She passively agrees to these dates – and humor ensues. All the while, however – as in Sleepless in Seattle, or Serendipity, we know who she’s supposed to be with – a man named Alan (Alan Gelfant – who, in an era of sensitive leading boy-men, was a masculine breath of fresh air), whom she hasn’t yet met. We’re following his story as well – and we can’t wait for that moment that fate finally decides to bring them together. Sure, there’s a goofy bit about the mob and a stolen blowfish (no, really) – and some two-dimensional characters, but all in all, a terrific romantic comedy (and those are hard to come by).

Cricket: “Don’t you just hate men?”
Erin: “Oh God, I wish I did. That would make my life so much easier.”

Pair With: A Caipirinha – the national drink of Brazil.

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Zero Effect, 1998, Directed by Jake Kasdan

My friends and I were some of the only people in the Uptown Theater the night we saw Zero Effect. You guys. It’s so, so good – more people need to see this film. I’ve always liked Bill Pullman (Especially in While You Were Sleeping), but even I admit he can be shaky at times. As Daryl Zero, a modern-day Sherlock Holmes (although not a Sherlock derivative), Pullman is at his very best. Casting him seems like it was a bold move on Kasdan’s part, as was the casting of Ben Stiller (not yet a box office draw) as Daryl’s put-upon guy Friday. Daryl Zero is a nearly autistic, recluse private detective, who can only function in the world when he’s on the job, pretending to be someone else. He’s investigating a blackmailing on behalf of a millionaire (Ryan O’Neal), who’s clearly not telling the whole truth. The story is extremely well written, the clues all fall into place beautifully, and watching Daryl work as he illuminates his methods, we really believe that we are watching a genius – the best detective in the world. Pullman manages to capture the character’s brilliance, dysfunction, and infuriating capriciousness, all with humor and depth. Kim Dickens, intense, and yet somehow still very at ease, is great as Daryl’s only equal. 

“A few words here about following people. People know they’re being followed when they turn around and see someone following them. They can’t tell they’re being followed if you get there first.”

Pair With:  A Tab soda and tuna fish out of the can.