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Review: ‘Today’s Special’

Plus a Suggested Film Menu for the Holidays

Aasif Mandvi is a sous-chef with dreams of owning his own restaurant in

Credit: Relativity Media Works

Above: Aasif Mandvi is a sous-chef with dreams of owning his own restaurant in "Today's Special."


KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "Today's Special" and suggests a menu of films for the holidays.


With Thanksgiving just around the corner, it's the perfect time for a foodie film. You can listen to my review of "Today's Special" (opening November 19 at Landmark's La Jolla Village Theaters) plus read a few suggestions for a Thanksgiving film menu.

Samir works in a restaurant. But he's not too happy about it.

SAMIR: I'm a sous-chef right now. The sous-chef is the one who runs the kitchen, he oversees all the cooking, takes care of administration, inventory, and basically solves any problems that come up, and the chef is the one who gets all the credit.

If Samir were a dish he'd be a bitter one. What he longs for is a restaurant of his own. But that's not about to happen or at least not in the way he expects. When his father has a heart attack, Samir is left in charge of the family's Indian Restaurant, which is not just a dive but a health hazard. The problem is that he knows nothing about Indian cooking. Then he meets a mysterious cab driver…

AKBAR: So do you cook Indian food?

SAMIR: Never.

AKBAR: I make a masala that will haunt you like a lost love.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Relativity Media Works

Naseeruddin Shah is the free-spirited Akbar and Aasif Mandvi is the uptight Samir in "Today's Special."

Akbar (played with a zest for life by Naseeruddin Shah) may be driving a cab but he's also cooked for Indira Gandhi. And he assesses Samir's problem as a lack of passion. He cooks by the book rather than from the heart and soul.

AKBAR: Masala is the soul of Indian food…

Akbar makes cooking a sensual experience – it's about taste, texture, smell, memories, and passion. Just buying the ingredients is an adventure.

AKBAR: Cumin is a saucy wench…

Samir slowly learns to appreciate his own culture and to trust his own instincts. Only then does he come into his own as a chef. "Today's Special" is a feel good foodie film loaded with luscious images of food. You can almost smell the bold Indian spices. "The Daily Show's" Aasif Mandvi stars as Samir. He also wrote the play on which the film is based. He finds humor in cultural stereotypes, as in this blind date Samir's mother arranges.

WOMAN: If we get married I want to have a lot of children and my mother will live with us.

"Today's Special" is a little too neat and pat with Akbar often speaking in fortune cookie wisdom. But the cast is appealing and there's lots of fun in the kitchen. In the end it's a delightful confection rather than a substantial meal. It's not as spicy as Mira Nair interracial romance "Mississippi Masala" but it's tamer flavor may appeal to a wider audience in search of something mild and pleasing for the holiday.

If this film has whetted your appetite for more food, here's a suggested menu. Some films provide teasing appetizers, like "Tom Jones" in which a meal between Albert Finney and Joyce Redman turns into foreplay. Or take a scene in "Italian/American" where Martin Scorsese asks his mom to demonstrate her spaghetti recipe and then includes the actual instructions in the end credits. Or "The Godfather" where Clemenza tries to teach Michael how to cook spaghetti.

CLEMENZA: You put in the garlic, then the tomatoes, and then shove in all your sausage.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: MGM

From Germany, "Mostly Martha."

Then there are main course films in which food figures prominently. "Mostly Martha" mixes a by-the-book German chef and a freewheeling Italian for a tasty romance while cooks of varying skills spice up the tender Taiwanese drama "Eat Drink Man Woman" and Stephen Chow's wacky Hong Kong comedy "God of Cookery." And of course there are the sensual delights whipped up in Mexico's "Like Water for Chocolate."

For dessert there’s the delicious pairing of Juliet Binoche and Johnny Depp in "Chocolat" or the everlasting, gobstopping Gene Wilder in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory."

Then for the kiddies there's the animated "Ratatouille" in which a rat named Remy becomes a 4-star chef. The kitchen scenes— with breathtaking tracking shots of Remy cooking—are delightful. The film displays a love for food and the ability for a good meal to warm the soul. Peter O’Toole voices the snobbish critic Anton Ego who gets more than he bargained for from little Remy’s cooking. In fact the scene in which Ego samples Remy’s ratatouille-- and is whisked back to childhood memories of his mother's cooking -- is the single best moment in the film.

CRITIC: I can't remember the last time I asked a waiter to give my compliments to the chef.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: MGM

The dinner guests in the midst of transformation in "Babette's Feast."

But if I had to pick the most satisfying food film of all time, it would have to be Denmark’s "Babette’s Feast." This exquisitely simple tale focuses on a French woman, Babette, who becomes the maid, housekeeper, and cook for a frugal Danish family. When Babette comes into some money she insists on making an elaborate meal for the villagers who pride themselves on their ascetic lifestyle. The glorious way in which the food transforms the dinner guests is something to savor. This is a cinematic meal you can truly be thankful for.

So eat up!

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