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Back before the days of “Iron Chef”, “Masterchef” and “Hell’s Kitchen”, television’s top food expert was a very tall, slightly ungainly, woman who soun­ded a little drunk. She was Julia Child and in the 60s she taught America how to cook. In an era where tv din­ners, pre-prepared sauces and easy cake mixes were top of a busy housewife’s shop­ping list, Child pro­duced the almighty tome Mastering the Art of French Cooking which went on to sell mil­lions of cop­ies and make her a legend.

A little later on, 2002 in fact, New Yorker Julie Powell star­ted an online pro­ject to repro­duce every recipe in the fam­ous cook­book (over 500 of them) in a single year. Nora Ephron’s new film Julie & Julia skil­fully merges the two stor­ies, freely not­ing the par­al­lels between them, and man­aging to pro­duce a warm and witty film that hon­ours the remark­able Child.

She’s aided in this endeav­our by the for­mid­able Meryl Streep: tot­ter­ing around on huge plat­form shoes, rel­ish­ing the sing-songy vow­els that were Child’s trade­mark and exhib­it­ing that glor­i­ous lust for life that pro­duced her greatest achieve­ments. Against this joi de vivre, Amy Adams as Julie could eas­ily be swamped but she holds her own, largely by not com­pet­ing and not fall­ing back on the usu­al fid­gets and bits of busi­ness that I think she uses just to annoy me.

It’s far from per­fect – the cast­ing of the smal­ler roles is occa­sion­ally sub-optimal and there’s one scene of such clunk­i­ness that Streep appears to delib­er­ately act badly to try and ensure that it is cut – but Ephron’s abil­ity to man­u­fac­ture great romantic moments is undi­min­ished and I can’t ima­gine many being disappointed.

Julie & Julia man­aged to pro­voke this review­er back into his kit­chen on Labour Day (an increas­ingly rare adven­ture) but it was the trip around the super­mar­ket after watch­ing Food, Inc. that was the real chal­lenge. The latest in a long (and with Mike Moore’s new film open­ing next week, appar­ently end­less) series of doc­u­ment­ary depress-athons, Food, Inc. take a long hard look at the indus­tri­al food pro­duc­tion sys­tem that provides cit­izens with cheap and unhealthy food in high quant­it­ies while treat­ing all of the links in the pro­duc­tion chain with stag­ger­ing disrespect.

The worst of the excesses por­trayed in the film don’t seem to apply in New Zealand (we still feed our cattle grass rather than corn for example) but our own capa­city for devel­op­ing Type 2 Diabetes is grow­ing rather than shrink­ing. The role of the fast food industry (spe­cific­ally McDonalds) in the devel­op­ment of this hor­rendous situ­ation was spe­cific­ally news to me and the quandary faced by a poor Latino fam­ily in the film sums the situ­ation up per­fectly – If you only have a dol­lar and your kids are hungry what are you going to buy? One and a half sticks of broc­coli or a burger?

The tide is turn­ing though, if the Saw movies “zeitgeist-meter” is any­thing to go by. If you are unfa­mil­i­ar with the oeuvre, the Saw films are basic­ally sick, sad­ist­ic, hor­ror flicks with an Old Testament vibe in which a deranged, masked vil­lain named Jigsaw wreaks his judge­ment upon those who trans­gress his own sense of right and wrong. In Saw VI, the poor suck­er who gets the treat­ment is a Health Insurer who delights in refus­ing people cov­er­age and treat­ment, a sure sign that reform of the USD health sys­tem is on the way. I watched the film through my fin­gers, hat­ing every minute of it, but it’s undeni­ably a fas­cin­at­ing part of the culture.

Not fas­cin­at­ing (not any­thing very much) is Surrogates, not­able only for the return of the last great mod­ern action hero, Bruce Willis. The smirk is intact but it’s the only charm to be found in this dumb sci-fi story about a future where robot­ic avatars of one­self actu­ally go out in to the world to do our jobs and live our lives while we con­trol them from our VR bedrooms.

I reviewed the doc­u­ment­ary Tyson back in July in my Festival pre­view (“an often mov­ing por­trait of a dam­aged and dam­aging soul”) but @robyngallagher nailed it on Saturday Sunday when she tweeted “The dir­ect­or (James Toback) lets him tell his own story. By the end I wanted to give him a hug.”

Another doc­u­ment­ary on very lim­ited release is Monty Python: Almost the Truth, two hours dis­tilled down from a six-part tele­vi­sion series and which suf­fers badly as a res­ult. To be hon­est, there’s noth­ing new to see here, move on.

Much bet­ter, and frankly bewitch­ing, is The Crimson Wing, a nature doc­u­ment­ary about the remark­able flamin­gos of Tanzania. It’s beau­ti­ful to look at, there’s lovely music (The Cinematic Orchestra) and lots of inter­est­ing facts about these creatures –not born pink, they eat a bright red algae in Spring which turns them crim­son and the red­dest birds get the best mates. Despite the Disney her­it­age this isn’t suit­able for the very young as, like all good nature docos, there’s a bit of pred­at­or action involved.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 28 October, 2009.

Extra thoughts on Monty Python: Almost the Truth. There was a hint of an inter­est­ing obser­va­tion near the end of the film from the thought­ful Michael Palin. He sug­ges­ted that the desire of fans to see Python reunite is sim­il­ar to the desire of Beatles fans for the same thing. Except that these fans don’t neces­sar­ily want to see what new stuff the group might pro­duce. In fact, they really just want to be young again, as they were when they were all in their hey­day. I would add that the main dif­fer­ence between Python and The Beatles is the fact that they did all of their best and most last­ing work (“Fawlty Towers”, Brazil, those travel docs) after they split. Except for Life of Brian, of course. What have the Romans ever done for us, indeed.

As an added bonus, you can hear me talk­ing to Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon yes­ter­day about Julie & Julia and Saw VI here and, while we are dis­cuss­ing sad­ist­ic tor­ture, here’s Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar play­ing “Pain Cave” from a live Wayne’s World MTV Special from 1992.

Wayne Campbell & Garth Algar – Pain Cave (1992) (right click to download)

And Julie Powell is still blog­ging.