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The Horror of “Get Out”

23 Feb

A week away from the Oscars means a rumination on a nominated movie is a great idea. A good friend and writing mentor, Jeff Meyers, has a take on “Get Out” I find extremely thought provoking and fascinating, so much so I asked him to let me post his ideas here. Whether you liked the movie or not (I realize as much as it invigorates many of us it befuddles others) , I think you will find his essay worthy of consideration and discussion.

It’s no secret that, historically, horror has been regarded as junk entertainment, a genre that relies on cheap thrills and lurid subject matter to draw audiences. And while critics have been willing to extoll the technical and cinematic achievements of the genre, they typically overlook the thematic, intellectual, and emotional resonance of the genre.

The well-deserved nomination of Get Out for this year’s Best Picture Academy Award is only the sixth time a horror film has been considered for such an honor. The first, 1973’s The Exorcist came 45 years after the Oscars were first introduced. Since then, only The Sixth Sense, Black Swan, Pan’s Labyrinth (Best Foreign Language Oscar) and Silence Of The Lambs (the only one to win… and regarded, by some, to be a thriller rather than horror), have been given such regard. Classics like King Kong, Bride Of Frankenstein, Psycho, Alien and The Shining were all, notably, overlooked.

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This dismissal of horror as a serious-minded expression of cinematic art and opinion has such a long and pervasive history that even some its own practitioners feel a need to distance themselves from the label, lest they be devalued as artists. 

In the introduction to The Walking Dead graphic novel, creator Robert Kirkman insisted that his goal was not to scare anyone, and that he wasn’t writing horror but rather “social commentary and character.” Writer-director Jordan Peele asserted that Get Out is not a horror film but rather a “social thriller.” 

With all due respect, Kirkman and Peele are wrong. While genre labels are often fluid and inexact, there is little doubt that a graphic novel that involves hordes of flesh-eating zombies, and a movie about a mad scientist that cuts out the brains of his victims in order to replace them with someone else’s brain qualify as horror. The rejection of the label is undoubtedly the result of those long standing dismissals of the genre. 

Nevertheless, horror’s artistic pedigree is well-established in literature. The works of Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Shirley Jackson, Mary Shelley, Henry James, and others are considered true classics that confront matters of ethics and morality, politics and philosophy with the same force and vitality as the rest of the literary canon. 

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Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”

To confront the reasons why horror films are so often dismissed it may be prudent to first consider why so many people have such a visceral aversion to the genre. Though gore and violence may occasionally be cited as a reason, what often becomes the deal-breaker for filmgoers is that they don’t like the way horror films make them feel. Ie. They don’t like to be scared. 

And this reaction is completely understandable. In fact, as far as genre labels go, only horror uses an emotion to define itself. The genre describes the very feeling it intends to evoke. But this is also part of the underlying reason why the genre should be held in higher regard. 

When an audience member goes to see a comedy or an action-adventure or even most dramas there is an unspoken social contract that no matter what happens during the film, the story will ultimately deliver a resolution, and the audience will experience catharsis. There may be hardships and dangers along the way, but ultimately justice, victory, true romance, or personal growth will be achieved. 

Of course, not all films deliver a reassuring outcome–and some of the best throw the audience a curveball–but by and large, your average film-goer expects to leave the theater feeling that all is right in the world.

Horror films offer no such guarantee of safety. They do not blanch in the face of evil. And by their very nature rely on our discomfort to generate fear or anxiety. The underlying supposition of the horror film is that all is not right in the world. 

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the finale of “Rosemary’s Baby”

So, is it any wonder that so many filmgoers are reluctant to embrace the genre? 

But horror also has the ability to provoke feelings of anger, empathy, disappointment or injustice that resonate more deeply than simple startles or scares. In fact, those darker more uncomfortable emotions become a vital part of genre’s thematic power. 

Horror, through its tropes, instills in us a sense of humility, the recognition that we are flawed, fragile, sinful and vulnerable beings in an infinitely dangerous universe. It ruthlessly reminds us that we are not the indomitable species we think we are, that despite all our achievements we are, to something somewhere, just another meal, womb, or body to possess. Because horror relies on the inherent uncertainty of life and the dark projections of both the conscious and unconscious mind, it is ripe to examine humanity’s deepest fears and doubts. Horror is not expected to be respectable, and so it can confront matters of social justice and ethical responsibility in ways other genres of film would fail to be convincing. And it can attract audiences that might otherwise avoid those topics. 

Jordan Peele’s Get Out is proof positive of horror’s unique and vital power to address serious thematic issues… and is, in my estimation, the nominated film most deserving to win. 

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A devious critique of liberal racism disguised as a horror-thriller, it is, essentially, a dark mash-up of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and The Stepford Wives. Much has been written of the film’s savvy mix of social messaging, creepy genre thrills and racial satire, but what is equally impressive is the number of meaty issues it manages to reference: Mixed race relationships, suburban racism, police brutality, eugenics, the slave trade, and even Hollywood’s treatment of minority characters all come under review. 

What is truly remarkable about Get Out is that it is less about race than it is about racism. Peele rejects the role Hollywood often bestows upon black filmmakers—as artistic ambassadors of the black-American experience—and instead looks at what scares black Americans today. He has both inverted and subverted normal horror film conventions in ways that are wickedly smart. For instance, notice how his plot flips the script on the all-too familiar white woman in inner-city peril fantasy. Instead, he strands a black man in an affluent (and politely hostile) white community. And do we need to spell out the symbolic underpinnings of the silver spoon Rose’s mom uses to subdue her victims? Or the ‘cotton’ that Chris literally picks to save his life? 

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While several articles could be dedicated to Get Out’s confrontation of liberal racism and social microagressions, the genius of Peele’s horror film is best summed up by the choices he makes for his protagonist and how enriched with metaphor they are. In particular, it’s interesting to look at Peele’s decision to cast his protagonist as a respected photographer and how that single, seemingly simple choice allowed him to masterfully exploit his thematic conceits.

Consider the way we first meet Chris, the film’s protagonist. The photographs on his apartment walls are raw and spontaneous—candid moments of urban street life—the kind of work show that Chris is an artist attuned to his surroundings, as he looks for that perfect shot. In other words, he is a trained observer, not only as a black man in a white man’s world but also by profession. This skill will prove vital to the plot. 

 

A creature of habit, Chris brings his camera to Rose’s house, and it’s through his camera lens that he first spots the another young black man, a party guest who seems both familiar and oddly out of place. At first, Chris is excited to find someone he can bond with. But when he snaps a picture, the flash causes the man’s nose to bleed. He charges at Chris, screaming, “Get out!” and as we will later learn, it is a warning rather than a threat. 

Now consider the symbolic power of Chris’s camera— which quite literally exposes the truth of Rose’s family’s victims —and how cellphone cameras have become the proof of longstanding complaints (often dismissed by white America) that African-Americans are being racially profiled, unjustly brutalized and even killed by law enforcement. Chris’ camera, just like the cellphones that filmed, say, the murder of Oscar Grant at Fruitvale Station in San Francisco, has the ability to r eveal the truth. Peele is a smart enough writer to realize both the plot utility and thematic depth of such a character choice and exploits it to its fullest potential. 

Get Out Camera

It is ironic, then, that Jim Hudson, the blind white man who has bid to own Chris’ body (in a creepy slave-style auction that’s disguised as a game of bingo) cares nothing of Chris’ black skin. He only wants his eyes– not just the ability to see, but to ‘see’ life as Chris-the-artist does. This is the very definition—and a gross perversion—of cultural appropriation. Hudson assumes that he can step into Chris’ body and, absent all the things Chris has experienced as a black man, see the world with new eyes. Hudson’s desire also lays bare the sins of white American history. Whether it be the slave trade, the Tuskegee experiments, or our current for-profit prison system, whites continue to exert ownership over black bodies with little consideration for the people they belong to. 

By choosing the horror genre, Peele has selected a vehicle that gives him the freedom to present his ideas without accusations of being pedantic or on-the-nose. While a dramatic treatment of the same material could work, the odds are against it successfully reaching a wide and diverse audience. The calculated chills of horror offer us the promise of entertainment first, messaging second. 

One final point about Get Out … and its ending. After escaping the Armitages’ nefarious plans and killing each member of Rose’s family, Chris flees from his murderous girlfriend only to be intercepted by a car with flashing lights. It is here that the mainly white audience at Get Out’s Sundance premiere let loose an audible groan. They could see where things were headed, what videos on the Internet and a history of systemic racism had taught them to expect: Rose would plead to the police officers that Chris—a black man– had attacked her defenseless white, up-standing suburban family in a fit of rage, and our hero would either be gunned down or imprisoned, yet another black man consumed by American racism. 

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And even then, Peele surprises us, allowing his black hero to walk away victorious. The police car turns out to be the work vehicle of his wise-cracking best friend Rod, a TSA agent.  The audience’s laughter during the final scene was as much about Peele’s gift for comedy, as it was an expression of relief: for once, a horror film was less horrible than the world outside the theater. 

Get Out’s ending is a both a distillation and illustration of the true power of the horror film–to disturb an audience in such a way that they recognize the unsettling issues that fuel the film’s subtext. 

Great horror films refuse to let the audience off the hook, they tell us that no one is safe and that a happy ending is not guaranteed. Though we have been rooting for Chris to escape the clutches of the evil racists (that sort of look just like us… but surely couldn’t be us), horror suggests that he might not make it after all. And this is why the best examples of the genre resonate so deeply. They challenge us to see the fragility of civilization and the hollowness of moral certainty. Horror demands that we appreciate that acts of evil and injustice are a permanent, ineradicable aspects of our world. And maybe, if the film’s message disturbs us deeply enough, we can begin the slow process of change.

For the horror writer, Get Out offers a very clear lesson in craft–and most especially the power of creating unity between story choices and thematic subtext. But beyond those mechanics, it’s important to remember that the best horror is not just about ghosts or zombies or evil cults or mad brain-swapping scientists. Good horror recognize that we are the zombies that mindlessly devour. We are the monsters who prey upon women. We are the race that claims ownership of black lives. Consumerism is the monster. Sexism is the monster. Racism is the monster. Humanity is the monster.

                                                                                                           Jeff Meyers

Best Films of 2017

2 Jan

Though I am criminally behind in my viewing (see below), here is my annual list. The year started off rough, there wasn’t much I liked until suddenly the year blossomed in late fall; I saw a string of excellent movies that made 2017 feel like a pretty damn good year for features. Additionally, three of these terrific films – The Shape of Water, Coco and The Florida Project – were as visually stunning, albeit in very different ways, as any movie I’ve seen in years.

THE SHAPE OF WATER

It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Romantic. Violent. Erotic. Funny. Dazzlingly beautiful. Magnificent. 

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THE FLORIDA PROJECT

“A movie that defies traditional narrative storytelling” is always, for me, a polite way of saying “boring as hell.” Yet The Florida Project may be my favorite movie of the year (it’s a close call with The Shape Of Water.) Sean Baker’s objective look at the lives of marginalized people living in crap hotels on the outskirts of Orlando is funny, shocking, wrenching and heartfelt. It’s also a stunningly composed film. Baker and his DP, Alexis Zabe, somehow take these scummy yet colorful locales and bring beauty and art to the images. The movie also has some of the best performances you will see all year, many from non-actors. This is an amazing movie.

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THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Whoa. The great playwright, Martin McDonagh, follows up his debut, In Bruges, with the blackest film comedy I’ve seen since War of the Roses. Shocking, funny and shockingly funny, none of the movie’s main characters are who they seem to be initially. Each makes a surprising journey, one of the many pleasures of the film. Save one bit of miscasting in a smaller role, the performances across the board are exemplary. I’ve seen it twice and will watch again.

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LADY BIRD

It can be hard to explain why Lady Bird is such a wonderful movie. It’s a story we’ve seen told many times before and there is nothing innovative about the filmmaking… unless “damn, that is fine filmmaking” is innovative. Given the crap we see on screen, yes it is indeed innovative. Lady Bird may be a simple story told in straightforward fashion, but the writing and acting are so strong, so enjoyable, that writer/director Greta Gerwig uncovers originality and deep emotion, making what should seem old, a coming of age story, fresh and new. I had a smile on my face the entire time I watched Lady Bird. (What a wonderful year of acting is 2017! Everyone shines in this movie.)

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COCO

Pixar seemed to lose some of its magic in the last couple of years. While Coco isn’t perfect, and there are a couple of plot revelations you can see coming from the start, the movie is a revelation because the milieu and characters are so unique, at least for mainstream cinema. Coco is also a dazzling feast for the eyes, one of the most visually arresting movies I’ve ever seen. It goes for your heart and it will get your heart. Bravo.

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THE LOST CITY OF Z

I saw this dense, challenging movie three times in the theatre and was really bummed it did not catch on, though it is easy to understand why given the complexity of both the characters and the ending. James Gray steps into David Lean territory with the true life adventure tale of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who becomes obsessed with finding a lost city of the Amazon. It all works for me: grandiose and beautiful images, a terrific score, richly written characters, and superlative performances from Charlie Hunnam, Tom Holland, an unrecognizable Robert Pattison (becoming such a great actor) and Sienna Miller, a chameleon who may be the best actress working in film today. It will haunt you.

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DUNKIRK

Dunkirk certainly had its detractors. But it did boffo box-office, to use Variety-speak, which is surprisingly and encouraging given the movie is a $150 million dollar art film with no lead character, no real villain and a time-jumping narrative. I loved it. Rarely have I been so tense and keyed up in a movie. Nolan and his team build an incredible amount of dread, heightened by Hans Zimmer’s innovative score, one of his best.  Easily one of Nolan’s best as well.

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GET OUT

Jordon Peele somehow crafted a funny, suspenseful horror movie that slaps you up side the head while also being incredibly satisfying, a true audience pleaser even as it challenges you. Smart, clever and a lot of fun.

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PHANTOM THREAD

Wow. I’ve never used this word before now, but this movie ravished me. Stunningly beautiful with a magnificent score, directed with PTA’s usual precision and incredible performances across the board, I loved this movie. Loved it. It has put some people off as being cold and distant. I get it. Kind of. It’s lush and romantic yet ultimately a bit disturbing. Whatever. Phantom Thread transfixed me from the start and never let go.

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I, TONYA

I don’t know what I expected but it wasn’t this: sharp, smart, hilarious and ultimately surprisingly deep and even moving. The filmmakers somehow make the standard mock-documentary format new and exciting. And the performances are stellar. (It has been such a wonderful year for actors.) This might just be the most purely enjoyable movie I’ve seen all year. What a blast.

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Honorable Mentions: Call Me By Your Name, The Big Sick, Baby Driver, Logan, Logan Lucky, The Disaster Artist, Blade Runner 2049

Did not yet see: Wind River, Phantom Thread, I, Tonya, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Mudbound, Brawl in Cell Block 99, The Darkest Hour, Ingrid Goes West, Good Time, Hostiles – Wish I could just stop and watch movies for a few days!

Tell us your favorites in the comments!

 

Homemade Butter… in 5 minutes

14 Sep
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Butter made in 5 minutes

One of my favorite movies of all time is Rosemary’s Baby, still as chilling and brilliantly acted and directed as it was almost 50 years ago when it debuted. A favorite line in the movie has a modern relevance regarding food.

Rosemary (Mia Farrow), as you should know, becomes pregnant after moving into an old gothic apartment building on Central Park. On the advice of her doctor, she begins drinking a fresh, healthy milkshake every day, mixed and delivered by her next door neighbor, Minnie Castavet (Ruth Gordon deservedly won an Oscar for this role). According to Minnie, the shake contains raw egg, gelatin, herbs, and something called Tannis Root.

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Mia Farrow and Ruth Gordon in “Rosemary’s Baby”

Rosemary, along with the audience, slowly begins to suspect there is a conspiracy to steal or harm her baby. Famously, very little happens in the movie yet it ruthlessly crawls under the skin. The ordinary becomes terrifying as we wonder if something is actually happening or if Rosemary’s imagination is running wild. 

When the book (1967) and the movie (1968) were each released, both phenomenal hits, our country and much of the world was in the midst of a decades long embrace of chemically created food over natural: formula over breast milk, margarine or oleo over butter, Saccharin and corn syrup instead of sugar, boxed food over food made from scratch, etc, etc. It seems so obvious now that something natural would be healthier than something created in a lab. But given years of misinformation and outright lies from both the government and food corporations, there was no reason for the public to believe otherwise. (I really despise the FDA, a rant I’ll reserve for another post.)

What’s fascinating today about Rosemary’s Baby is that the shake, made from natural ingredients, is one of the creepiest things in the movie. It becomes a focal point and a source of fear for the audience, and then Rosemary herself. A knot begins to form in our stomachs every time Rosemary takes a sip. As her paranoia increases, she finally snaps and revolts against what she perceives is being done to her. Rosemary then delivers the line I love:

“I want my vitamins from pills, like everyone else!”

Crafted and created in a lab is what was healthy and normal to audiences at the time. Natural was not. Even with our modern perspective, we are thrilled when Rosemary takes this stand. Is she too late? Is anything actually wrong? You’ll have to watch this brilliant movie to find out. (Note: It’s free if you have Amazon prime… the movie is gorgeously shot by William Fraker so try to watch it on a big screen!)

We are thankfully moving away from the days of margarine and corn syrup (lies, LIES!) and the idea that crafted in a lab is good for you. We have returned to the wonderful knowledge that something as simple and wonderful as butter can be enjoyed without the guilt that was thrust upon us for years. It actually is healthy!

Yet true, decadent butter is still hard to find, at least in the USA, thank you FDA. Years ago I was in Italy and ate at a small family owned hotel/restaurant on a farm. After I sat down, they brought me bread and butter. I tasted the butter on the bread and thought my head would explode. I’d never tasted anything so good. I called the owner over and in my very broken Italian kept asking him, ‘What is this??” He kept shrugging and saying, “It’s butter.” I kept saying,  “No, this is NOT butter.” He became frustrated and looked at me like a stupid American and finally threw up his hands. “It’s just butter!” I realized later it was butter that had been churned that very day, with no pasteurization. My goodness, was that incredible butter, so different than what we buy in most stores. 

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Il Falconiere

I’ve recently discovered you can make such butter at home, fast, without a churn! All you need is some heavy (whipping) cream and a food processor. With basically no effort at all, you will have fresh, incredible butter. Give this a try (and let me know what you think!)

For the recipe, click here: Continue reading

Best Films of 2016

31 Dec

(With a little TV included!)

Most exciting to me about the films on this ‘best of’ list are the directors, none of whom are old guard. I should state that while I very much believe diversity of all kinds is of the utmost importance in the arts, I myself don’t think about the age, race, sexual identity or gender of an artist when I view a work. Is this a dichotomy? Some would say yes. I think not. A work of art is great or it isn’t no matter who creates or guides it, at least by my own judgement. 

A debate for another post.

Something wonderful is happening in movies, though. Only after I compiled this list did I realize all the directors were younger or less established than the directors we usually find on year-end lists. A very diverse collection of artists were involved in the movies I found worthy of note in 2016. I didn’t compile the list with this in mind, it just happened. Which fired me up.  

Agree with my list or not, the directing (and writing!) talent found here bodes well for the future of my favorite art form.

ARRIVAL

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Denis Villeneuve is my favorite director working today. As evidenced previously in two incredible thrillers, Prisoners and Sicario, Villeneuve builds tension and dread better than anyone. In Arrival he does the same, brilliantly, but for very different effect. A thought-provoking work of science fiction with a dazzling emotional payoff, I’ve seen the movie three times. It gets better and richer with each viewing.

Along with stunning cinematography by Bradford Young and an innovative score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, Villeneuve creates an atmospheric movie that somehow is simultaneously majestic and intimate. All of the actors shine, even in the smallest parts. Jeremy Renner does some of his warmest, most charming work ever. And Amy Adams is my pick for best actor of the year, male or female. Her understated performance is filled with great emotion and depth. She grounds the movie with a quiet power that makes the last twenty minutes even more thrilling and eye opening. A second viewing only elevates her work, given the final revelations. I’m not ashamed to say I wept the first time I saw ArrivalIt’s a masterpiece.

For the rest of the picks, click here to  Continue reading

A Movie for the Political Season Vol. II

7 Oct

Spellbound, a 2002 documentary about kids competing in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, is hands down one of the most entertaining movies ever made. You may not think a movie on this topic could ever be enjoyable but damn! Alternately hilarious, joyous, spellbinding (had to go there) and heartbreaking, the second half of the movie also becomes as riveting and suspenseful as The Fugitive or Die Hard. 

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Beautiful in its narrative simplicity, the first half of Spellbound introduces us to eight different teens. We meet each contestant, one after the other, in short vignettes. We find out about their families, their interests, their various quirks. Then all arrive at the National Spelling Bee and, given the wonderful emotional work done by the filmmakers in the first half, the spelling bee itself is an absolute nail biter. When I saw it in the theatre, people were audibly reacting in the second half as if it was the original screening of Rocky. As Ann Hornaday wrote in the Washington Post, “This just might be the most action-packed suspense thriller of the summer.” 

Please don’t let the title of my post put you off. Spellbound is not an outwardly political movie. It truly is wildly entertaining and is one of my personal favorite movies of all time. (I’ve seen it many, many times, it is that much fun to watch.) Yet given everything that is currently going on in our country — and world —  Spellbound, without trying to do so, has a subtle yet very powerful message, much more so than when it was released almost 15 years ago. Given the broad range of families depicted in the movie, Spellbound will make anyone who watches it, whatever their own background and political belief, proud to be an American. At the same time, it might challenge some beliefs on what exactly our nation of immigrants means.

For a few years, Spellbound was unfortunately difficult to find. It’s such a good movie and was so popular, at times even used copies on Amazon were going for over $50 dollars. While I still can’t find it streaming anywhere, a bunch of very cheap used copies have turned up on Amazon:

https://www.amazon.com/Spellbound-Ted-Brigham/dp/B0000WN13Q

This is worth the few dollars the DVD copies cost! So stop what you are doing and watch this movie!

A Movie for the Political Season Vol. I

10 Sep

As I noted a few weeks ago, when it comes to politics I tend to keep my big fat mouth shut. I’m not going to change my current habit. Instead, over the next eight weeks or so, in line with my previous posts about Great Movies You’ve Probably Never Seen (Volumes I, II and III), I’ll feature a few outstanding movies many haven’t seen that everyone should encounter. These films also have eye-opening parallels to our current season.

The first is the groundbreaking masterpiece, Children Of Men.

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Released at Christmas in 2006, Children Of Men is a dazzling thriller loosely based on a novel by the great P. D. James. James’ idea was a not too distant future where humankind has gone infertile. The movie takes place in 2027, 18 years after the birth of the last baby, Diego Ricardo. Opening with the death of Diego, which causes worldwide grief, Children of Men thrusts us into a dystopian society that is immediately unsettling given how similar much of this crumbling civilization is to our current world. Britain, where the movie takes place, is the only stable government remaining in the world though it too seems on the verge of collapse. The movie explores what happens when the first woman in 18 years becomes pregnant.

CLICK TO  Continue reading

A Food and Film Affair

10 Feb

This is mostly for my Texas friends and readers, although anyone is welcome to make the journey to the utterly charming town of Fredericksburg, Texas!

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Fredericksburg, Texas

Friday, February 19th, I’ll be in the glorious hill country of Texas hosting a “Food in Film” benefit for The Hill Country Film Society, a terrific organization I’ve had the pleasure of working with for the past 5 years.

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Bluebonnets of Texas Hill Country

In partnership with Hoffman HausOtto’s German Bistro and Pedernales Cellars, I’ll be sharing some of my favorite “food in film” clips and discussing film while we all share in a multi-course meal designed with the clips in mind. The menu is incredible, it’s going to be delicious.

Better yet, your ticket will help benefit a great organization dedicated to supporting Texas filmmakers, independent film and children interested in filmmaking. (Proceeds benefit the Hill Country Film Society’s year-round programming: the Hill Country Film Festival, Indie Film Series and Summer Film Camp.)

Five Star ranked Hoffman Haus is offering 20% off accommodations if you are not local. 

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Hoffman Haus

So come out and join us for what should be a blast of an event. Click the link below for more information and tickets. Feel free to contact me as well! Would love to see you there.

For tickets and information click here: 

https://www.universe.com/events/film-affare-tickets-fredericksburg-ZM6R58

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Clemenza teaches Michael how to make Spaghetti Sauce