(*homocinematically inclined)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: Cooking with Pride

Nigel Slater is hardly a household name in the US. In the UK, however, the chef, food writer and host of the BBC series A Taste of My Life is the equivalent of our Wolfgang Puck or Emeril Lagasse. Unlike them, Slater is openly gay. He is also so popular that a movie has been made from his memoirs, Toast, which opens today for a limited engagement at Landmark's Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles. Fans of gay coming of age stories, British cinema and/or Helena Bonham Carter shouldn't miss it.

Nigel was only nine years old when his beloved mother died and he began to cook for his more distant, widowed father (Mum and Dad are memorably played in Toast by Victoria Hamilton and Ken Stott). Soon after, his father hired a housekeeper, Mrs. Potter (no relation to Harry though amusingly portrayed by Bonham Carter, last seen as Bellatrix LaStrange in the boy wizard's movie finale). Mrs. Potter, a seductive vision in blonde wig and red high heels, began fighting with Nigel for the elder Slater's affections. She initially won and found herself the second Mrs. Slater. But once Nigel began to hone his cooking skills in a high school Domestic Science class, the gloves came off and the war commenced.

Young actors Oscar Kennedy (making his film debut) and Freddie Highmore (best known to American audiences as Johnny Depp's young co-star in both Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Finding Neverland) give fantastic performances as Nigel's juvenile and adolescent selves. From the film's cute opening titles emblazoned on grocery store signs and products to its scenes of Nigel exploring his homosexual attractions, first to the family's hunky groundskeeper and later to a male ballet dancer, Toast serves as a wistful reminder of the battles we all fought to become who we are today. As Nigel says in the film, "When you're deprived of something, it just makes you more hungry for it." Amen to that.

Food also plays a role in the climactic drag ball documented in The Sons of Tennessee Williams (First Run Features), opening today in New York City and October 14 in LA. Director Tim Wolff uncovers the vibrant history of gay life in New Orleans via the famous "krewes" that participate in each year's Mardi Gras festivities. As a 1950's newsreel report declares at the film's start, "Gay celebrations usher in Lent!" Needless to say, "gay" meant something else to most folks back then.

One participant who has been involved all along states, "You didn't put your lifestyle on the street the way they do today." Indeed, doing so would almost immediately get one arrested. Since Mardi Gras (the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday each year) was the only day men could legally cross-dress in New Orleans, it became the city's de facto gay pride celebration at an early point in its history. Many decades later, in the wake of such devastating adversities as AIDS and Hurricane Katrina, the annual balls thrown by long-lived gay groups such as the Krewe of KY(!) and the Krewe of Armeinius are not only hot tickets but have won the respect of the local Black and White, moneyed, straight communities.

Amazing, elaborate costumes are in abundance throughout The Sons of Tennessee Williams but the film's finale -- shot during the Krewe of Armeinius's 40th anniversary ball, at which the theme was "desserts" -- is spectacular. Decoupage patterned on gingerbread, petit fours and New York cheesecake will not only make viewers hungry but are guaranteed to take one's breath away.

Reverend's Ratings:
Toast: B+
The Sons of Tennessee Williams: B

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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