Suburbicon


Matt Damon is having a really bad night.

(2017) Black Comedy (Paramount) Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac, Richard Kind, Gary Basaraba, Leith Burke, Karimah Westbrook, Tony Espinosa, Glenn Fleshler, Alex Hassell, Don Baldaramos, Ellen Crawford, Megan Ferguson, Corey Allen Kotler, Steven Shaw, Steve Monroe, Allen Wasserman, Rupert Pierce, Pamela Dunlap, Biff Yeager, Lauren Burns. Directed by George Clooney

 

Suburbicon is a black comedy. Suburbicon is a treatise on social injustice. Suburbicon is a crime drama. Suburbicon is a period piece. Suburbicon is all of those things and none of those things. It’s a pastiche of different things that flutter through the proscenium and then wither on the screen. It’s one of the most disappointing movies of 2017.

Based on an unproduced script by the Coen Brothers, Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov have added a bit of contemporary social commentary – white racists in a suburban planned community in the Northeast talk endlessly about erecting a giant wall around the home of the first African-American residents of the community but this is no mere Trump-bashing exercise although it is that too.

The arrival of the Meyers family into  lily-white planned suburban community in the Eisenhower 50s only shows the insidious racism lurking just beneath the surface of America’s golden age – and by implication, continues at present. However, that’s not the only story going on here. During a home invasion, Rose Lodge (Moore) dies of a chloroform overdose, leaving her grieving husband Gardner (Damon), son Nicky (Jupe) and twin sister Margaret (Moore again) to pick up the pieces.

Much of the comedy centers around the blatant consumerism of the suburban 50s and as well there are certain Coen moments (like an oily insurance investigator (Isaac) who figures out what’s going on or a chase scene between a thug (Fleshler) and Gardner in a VW and child’s bike, respectively) that will delight their diehard fans. Still, there aren’t enough of them to overcome the curiously flat energy and the wildly all-over-the-place script that derails the project despite the presence of high-wattage stars. There are enough moments to make it worth checking out, but not enough to go out of your way to do so.

REASONS TO GO: Matt Damon plays way against type. There are some occasional moments of offbeat humor.
REASONS TO STAY: The comedy is scattershot and the energy is flat. The soundtrack is annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence (some of it graphic), profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first time Clooney directed a film in which he did not also appear as an actor.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Paramount Movies, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews: Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Downsizing
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Finding Your Feet

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Wiener-Dog


Music to tame the savage beast.

Music to tame the savage beast.

(2016) Black Comedy (IFC/Amazon) Greta Gerwig, Kieran Culkin, Danny DeVito, Ellen Burstyn, Julie Delpy, Keaton Nigel Cooke, Tracy Letts, Charlie Tahan, Ari Graynor, Zosia Mamet, Michael Shaw, Marcella Lowery, Connor Long, Tyler Maynard, Devin Druid, Sharon Washington, Rigoberto Garcia, Haraldo Alvarez, Dain Victorianio, Andrew Pang, Trey Silver, Molly Gay, Bridget Brown. Directed by Todd Solondz

 

Indie auteur Todd Solondz is one of those directors that either you love or you hate. There is rarely anyone who takes the middle ground with his films, which tend to be somewhat misanthropic. His view of the human condition, particularly as it applies to American suburban life, is pretty bleak. Would that change given in his newest film?

No it wouldn’t. This has been touted as something of a follow-up to his seminal 1995 film Welcome to the Dollhouse but only in the sense that it has a couple of characters in common with that film albeit portrayed with all-new actors. This is a series of four vignettes linked together with the presence of a sad-eyed dachshund who endures four different owners of various degrees of likability.

He is brought from the pound initially by Danny (Letts) and Dina (Delpy), parents of Remi (Cooke), a young boy who survived what appears to be some form of cancer. He’s lonely and depressed and the Wiener-Dog, as he names him, seems just the tonic. However, Danny and Dina have their own things going on; Dina isn’t above manipulating her son, explaining that the reason that they have to have Wiener-Dog spayed is so that she doesn’t get pregnant from being raped by a local dog. Charming.

But Remi frankly isn’t mature enough to handle the dog so she is returned to the local shelter to be put down. However, veterinary assistant Dawn Wiener (Gerwig) rather than putting a healthy dog to death steals Wiener-Dog away and keeps her for herself. In many ways Dawn is as lonely as Remi was, and now that she has a Wiener-Dog of her own, she renames him Doody after Howdy-Doody, not necessarily getting the other connotation of that name.

A chance meeting with an ex-high school classmate named Brandon (Culkin) whom she continues to crush on despite the fact that he was unrelentingly cruel to her in high school leads to a road trip to Ohio, ostensibly to get drugs but also for Brandon to meet up with his brother Tommy (Long) and his wife April (Brown), both of whom are afflicted with Down’s syndrome. They will galvanize Dawn into doing the most selfless thing she’s ever done.

After a hilarious “intermission” starring Wiener-Dog herself, we go to the next vignette. Doody is now owned by Dave Schmerz (DeVito), a screenwriting teacher at a New York-area university (and not one of the better ones) who is juggling teaching students who don’t think they have anything to learn with trying to sell a screenplay that his condescending agent has been dangling in front of him like the proverbial carrot. He doesn’t realize that he’s a laughingstock, his refrain of “What if…now what?” having become something of an iconic mock. This leads him to do something quite drastic.

Finally, we meet Nana (Burstyn), a bitter, crotchety elderly woman who lives with an apathetic housekeeper (Lowery). Nana is visited by her granddaughter Zoe (Mamet) who never visits unless she needs money. Zoe has a new boyfriend, the artist Fantasy (Shaw) who doesn’t have a terribly high opinion of anyone not named Fantasy. Nana and Zoe end up having a bit of a heart-to-heart but as it turns out, something nasty is just around the corner for Nana.

Solondz is, as I mentioned earlier, not really everyone’s cup of tea. Those who enjoy his particularly type of brew will find this film extremely palatable, although some may grouse that his movies all carry similarities that are beginning to get a bit repetitive. He likes to employ the anthology format and has done so on more than one occasion.

When Solondz is at his best, he can be wickedly funny. He blows past boundaries without a second thought and treats sacred cows like they’re so much hamburger meat. However, his point of view about humanity is not very compatible with those raised on Disney thinking that everyone is basically a prince or princess at heart. Mostly, he sees humans as selfish, self-centered, cruel, vain and morally weak. He doesn’t paint flattering pictures of the species and quite frankly he isn’t required to.

He sure does coax out some great performances from his actors though. DeVito turns in a marvelous performance that is easily the best thing he’s done in years or even decades. His sad sack screenwriter is a figure of pity even though he is a bit of jerk at times. Still, DeVito does a lot of work with his eyes getting his emotions across here and it works. You can feel the beat down dog elements of the character and you can also feel the pressure beginning to escape as he reaches the boiling point.

Equally marvelous is Burstyn, who wears this bizarre oversize eye wear that are like a cross between aviator sunglasses and World War I flying ace goggles. She orders people around like a martinet but that doesn’t disguise the terrible vulnerability inside her. She knows her granddaughter is taking advantage of her, and she knows her granddaughter is making terrible life choices, but nonetheless she helps her out. Burstyn imbues the role with gravitas and dignity, solidifying herself as the grand dame of American cinema.

Da Queen was very vocal about her feelings for the film, stating that she dug it right up until the last five minutes and I have to concur. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a huge dog person; I have been known to wear a t-shirt that states “I don’t care who dies in a movie as long as the dog lives.” Animal lovers in general and dog lovers in particular will have a hard time with the ending. I get why Solondz went this particular route and to a certain extent I can admire it, but those who find violence to animals unpalatable had best check out before the movie ends.

There are moments here that are as good as anything I’ve seen from Solondz but the ending was really a deal killer for me. Maybe it’s a bit illogical for me to be fine watching humans being chopped up like celery but not able to watch even a hair on poor Fido’s head harmed but that’s how I’m wired, so take this with a grain of salt. This isn’t filmmaking for everyone, but then again it’s not meant to be. I can admire a movie like this without liking it and the shame of it was that I liked most of it but the parts I didn’t like I loathed. Maybe that’s what Solondz had in mind all along.

REASONS TO GO: There are some really funny moments here. DeVito and Burstyn come through with some tremendous performances.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is extremely disturbing and most definitely not for dog lovers. A little bit too much like all of the director’s other films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some pretty disturbing content (particularly if you’re an animal lover) as well as some animal excretions, as well as quite a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Dawn Wiener from Welcome to the Dollhouse was originally played by Heather Matarazzo who turned down the opportunity to reprise the role. Greta Gerwig was cast instead.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Welcome to the Dollhouse
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Breaking a Monster

Swiss Army Man


Just another day at the beach.

Just another day at the beach.

(2016) Fantasy (A24) Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Antonia Ribero, Timothy Eulich, Richard Gross, Marika Casteel, Andy Hull, Aaron Marshall, Shane Caruth. Directed by Daniels

 

Look, some movies simply aren’t meant for everybody. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; in an era where Hollywood is constantly trying to create franchise films that are all things to all people, it’s refreshing once in awhile to happen upon a movie that is meant to appeal only to a narrow few and if you’re one of that narrow few, it’s like getting a private message from someone who shares your own particular interests.

On a deserted tropical island, a bearded and bedraggled Hank (Dano) is standing on a cooler with a noose around his neck, ready to step off and have an end to everything. How he got to this island is unimportant; the salient fact is that he’s totally alone – and sharp-eyed viewers will recognize that as a metaphor that drives the film.

However, his loneliness ends with the site of a man washed ashore on the beach. Forgetting his precarious position, Hank steps off…and fortunately for him, the rope snaps, allowing him to rescue the man…who is sadly, quite dead. The corpse, whom Hank names Manny (Radcliffe), is full of the gasses of decomposition and farts constantly. If you are the sort who is offended by flatulence, read no further and skip this movie altogether. You will not find a movie anywhere ever that revels in the act of breaking wind as this one does.

It turns out that Manny’s gasses can be used in a variety of ways, including as a propulsion system turning Manny into a kind of stinky Jet Ski that transports Hank from the desert island to a location of forest and ocean. The prospects are much better for survival here, and Hank builds…well, a recreation of his life for Manny because Manny is able to talk to Hank. Hank gives Manny tips on how to pick up girls and other assorted facts of life. As he does, we begin to learn that Hank is a deeply wounded and possibly deeply disturbed young man and that not everything he says can be trusted.

Which, once again, is a metaphor for this film. Not everything that the filmmakers show you can be trusted and as the story unfolds, our point of view is changed somewhat – more than somewhat, in fact. It is a bit of a carnie trick, a game of Three Card Monty that the filmmakers – a pair of young auteurs who got their start in the music video game and who are known collectively as Daniels – play on their audience. Some are going to feel a bit cheated and others will be delighted, as is usually the case in cinematic con games.

The movie is largely Radcliffe and Dano, with Winstead showing up mainly in the last reel as the object of obsession for both of the main characters, the living one and the farting corpse. There are other characters here as well but again, they show up late and have little impact on the story except to help bring it to an unexpected although not unsurprising conclusion given on what we witnessed in the rest of the movie. Dano has become known for parts like this and he performs it with gusto; this well may become one of his signature roles. Radcliffe continues to take chances while distancing himself from a certain boy wizard, and we are rewarded by a character who is sweet and funny and charming. I don’t know that Radcliffe will necessarily want to be remembered for being a flatulent cadaver but he seems to have promoted the role with a good sense of humor and a ton of enthusiasm.

There are some scenes that are heart-achingly beautiful here, as well as others that are downright crude. It is a literal mix of the profane and the sublime. I will say that this may well be the most imaginative movie of the year; certainly you won’t be seeing anything like it in the multiplex or at your local film festival. You may find yourself smirking at fart jokes, that lowest common denominator of all humor, but you will also find yourself thinking about the human condition. If the movie has a flaw, it is that the filmmakers seem to be completely aware that they have a high cinematic IQ and at times the movie feels a little condescending, a little hipper-than-thou.

Mostly though, this is an artistic endeavor that tickles the funny bone as well as the brain stem. I can’t say that every reader is going to fall for this the way I did. For that reason, I’ve given the movie a lower rating than it deserves; I can’t in good conscience say “everybody should go see this.” Everybody should not go see this. If your tastes run towards the adventurous, if you’re not easily offended by the scatological and if you are willing to allow yourself be taken in by the wonder, this is the movie for you.

REASONS TO GO: An imaginative exercise different than anything you’ve ever seen. It’s genuinely funny at times. This is truly movie magic on a budget.
REASONS TO STAY: This is most definitely an acquired taste. It may be a little bit too full of itself.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of gruesome images, some violence and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the songs in the movie are sung a cappella, mainly by Andy Hull of the Manchester Orchestra (who also cameos as a cameraman near the end of the movie) and Robert Powell.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Adaptation
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Fundamentals of Caring

Kill Your Friends


Alone in a crowd.

Alone in a crowd.

(2015) Comedy (Well Go USA) Nicholas Hoult, James Corden, Georgia King, Craig Roberts, Jim Piddock, Joseph Mawle, Dustin Demri-Burns, Damien Molony, Bronson Webb, Emma Smith, Rosanna Hoult, Ed Skrein, Tom Riley, Edward Hogg, Kurt Egyiawan, Hugh Skinner, Moritz Bleibtreu, Alex Gillison, Ieva Andrejevaite, Osy Ikhile, David Avery, Alannah Olivia. Directed by Owen Harris

Music is a highly personal thing. It can define you, it can color your world, it can take you back to good memories in an instant. It can also make a lot of money for someone.

In the 1990s, it was the era of Cool Brittania, when music from the UK ruled the airwaves. Blur, Oasis and Radiohead were at the top of the charts and even lesser-known bands had their moments in the sun. That was a really good time to be a record company A&R man in Britain.

Steve Stelfox (Hoult) has that very job, and judging from the tabloids it’s all drugs, sex and concerts and that’s pretty much true, but he actually has to sign some bands and those bands actually have to make some money for the label. His good friend Roger (Corden) wants to sign bands that matter, but Steve thinks that’s silly – except that the head of A&R for the label has essentially had a breakdown and the open job is likely Roger’s because he’s been there the longest – and Steve wants that job.

So Steve takes drastic steps to ensure that he has the longest tenure but a curveball is thrown his way when Parker Hall (Riley) is hired; and Hall is bringing with him a highly coveted indie band, the Lazies, in with him. Steve has in turn signed the Songbirds, a Spice Girls-wannabe act who are temperamental and damn near impossible to work with and look to be a dead end for the label.

Steve is aided by his secretary Rebecca (King) who is blackmailing him for a promotion and there is a detective (Hogg)  investigating what happened to Roger, who after interrogating Steve slips him a demo because, you know, he always wanted to be a singer-songwriter. Steve is clever and Steve is ruthless and Steve doesn’t really have much of a conscience; perfect qualifications for the music industry.

Screenwriter John Niven adapted the material from his own novel, and he certainly has some background in the subject – he was actually an A&R guy during the period the novel takes place in. So you figure that some of the goings on had some basis in fact, particularly the back-biting and hustling. That lends an air of authenticity which differentiates this from other films set within the music industry, in which plucky young songwriters who have something to say end up getting a contract. The cynicism here is well-earned.

Hoult is perfectly cast as Stelfox, operating with a furrowed WTF brow alternating with an eye-rolling sneer. The character has been compared to Patrick Bateman in American Psycho but I think that’s a bit of an easy cop-out; Stelfox may be amoral and cynical but he’s not psychotic; he simply has no ethics whatsoever. There’s a very important difference there.

He does the voiceover narration as well, and it’s pretty damn funny. In fact, a lot of the material here is funny to the point I was laughing out loud – possibly because I have an insider’s perspective to the music industry (I was a rock critic for more than a decade) but also because it’s just so damn mean. If you’re in the right mood for this kind of stuff (and I clearly was) there’s a gold mine of laughs here.

I wanted to call attention to the soundtrack. It has a lot of period-accurate and place-accurate music that will instantly bring you back to the era. It’s not all hits either; some of the songs you’ll here were essentially album tracks, but they were not the filler – they were the tracks that could have been singles. There is also some original music and the score is by Junkie XL, who is rapidly becoming one of the best there is.

The movie was a touch too long and there will be plenty who will find it too dark. I will definitely give the caveat that this isn’t the movie for everyone and there are some who won’t take well to the cynical tone. However, as far as it goes, I think the movie accomplishes what it set out to and in fact exceeded my expectations. This is going to be one of those movies you’ve probably never heard of but when you find it on Netflix or some other streaming service you’ll be delighted that you did.

REASONS TO GO: A really great soundtrack. Black comedy that’s laugh-out-loud funny. Nicholas Hoult is spot on in his performance.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit too long and maybe too cynical for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of profanity and a ton of drug use, as well as some nudity, plenty of violence and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s protagonist is partly inspired by A&R legend Don Simpson.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: VOD, Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: High Fidelity
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: London Has Fallen

The Big Short


Christian Bale is overwhelmed by script submissions.

Christian Bale is overwhelmed by script submissions.

(2015) True Life Drama (Paramount) Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong, Adepero Oduye, Jeffry Griffin, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro, Selena Gomez, Anthony Bourdain, Melissa Leo, Karen Gillan, Margot Robbie, Stanley Wong, Rajeev Jacob, Vanessa Cloke, Leslie Castay. Directed by Adam McKay

The financial meltdown of 2008 was the worst economic event since the Great Depression. Millions lost their jobs and their homes. The repercussions of that event continue to be felt, but many don’t understand how it happened – and how it could happen again.

Dr. Michael Burry (Bale) is a one-eyed manager of a small hedge fund in San Jose, California who discovers that securities based on mortgages – once thought to be nearly recession-proof as the going wisdom is that most people pay their mortgages on time – are actually filled with mortgages that are much riskier, with balloon payments that will commence in 2007 that the homeowners will never be able to pay and create an economic meltdown. He wants to essentially bet against these securities as he knows they are doomed to fail; such securities don’t exist so he goes to Wall Street to places like Goldman Sachs to have them create those securities. He is nearly laughed out of the building but they are happy to take his money – in fact, nearly all of his fund’s cash which doesn’t sit too well with some of the investors.

Mark Baum (Carell) is also a hedge fund manager based at Morgan Stanley who has an anger management issue (Baum, not Morgan Stanley). His team discovers from investment banker Jared Vennett (Gosling) – who also serves as the film’s narrator – that these securities exist and that there’s a good chance that investing in these securities will result in runaway wealth. Baum, who has a hate on for the industry he works in, after talking to a number of bankers and securities industry insiders, becomes certain that Vennett is on to something and risks a good deal of his fund’s capital to buy these securities.

Two ambitious young Colorado-based hedge fund managers – Charlie Geller (Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Wittrock) also discover these securities through happenstance but their fund is too small and too unknown to be able to get a seat at the table to bid on securities like that. They enlist Ben Rickert (Pitt), a disillusioned former Wall Street titan who has become something of a paranoid recluse, out of the game until Geller and Shipley manage to reel him back in.

All of these players discover first-hand the venal stupidity of the banking industry whose blindness led to the near-collapse of the world economy; the corruption and absolute greed that was behind that blindness staggered even these members of the same financial industry.

Based on a nonfiction book by Michael Lewis, the film takes some real-life people involved in the market (Burry) as well as creates fictional ones – some out of whole cloth and some based on others (Baum, based on real-life hedge fund manager Steve Eisman), McKay does a credible job in taking some fairly esoteric financial market concepts like CDOs and credit default swaps.

He has gathered an eclectic but solid cast that brings to life the arrogance and testosterone-infused world of finance. It is definitely a boys club with an aggressive attitude with an absolute focus on money. Carell gives Baum a moral compass – maybe more of one than the other characters in the film – but also an angry streak that comes from a family tragedy. In many ways, Baum is the most compelling character in the movie because while all of the characters have an agenda, Baum’s is more than just making money.

I also like Bale as the real-life Dr. Burry, who prefers to be barefoot, rarely wears a suit and tie, and blasts metal in his office when he’s stressing out. His characters is a little bit more complex than the others and we don’t really get a decent grasp on him, which something tells me is true of the real guy. Pitt brings a little bit of New Age gravitas here as well.

McKay is known for his comedies and there is a kind of black humor here. His tongue is often planted firmly in cheek as he uses various celebrities in incongruous situations to explain various things in the script (like a naked Margo Robbie in a bathtub explaining the subprime mortgage market, or singer Serena Gomez in a casino talking about CDOs) and we are told that certain things actually happened but more interestingly, that some things actually didn’t as depicted in the film. You have to give him points for honesty.

I imagine your political outlook will drive how much you enjoy the film to a certain extent; those who are fairly left-wing in nature and distrustful of industry will no doubt find this film much more to their liking than those who are right-wing and who might look at this as tarring an entire industry with the same brush because of the actions of a relative few. The Big Short takes the point of view that the stupidity, shortsightedness and corruption was industry-wide and implies to a large extent that the culture of the financial industry of the bro-tastic almighty dollar have a big hand in driving that corruption.

The Big Short does a credible job of explaining a fairly complicated and often confusing situation that brought the economy to its knees, and warns that many of the same factors remain in place that may yet again take the economy down for another plunge. It reminds us that despite the blatant fraud that took place, only one person – and he relatively low on the totem pole – ever was tried and jailed for his role in an event that created so much human misery. This is an outstanding movie that may disturb some because the “heroes” of the story made enormous profits from that misery (a fact pointed out by Pitt’s Ben Rickert) and that the tone overall is somewhat snarky. I found that the tone made the events somewhat easier to bear and while I don’t condone profiting from the pain of others, I can say that at least none of the protagonists broke any laws, which is a fairly low bar for cinematic heroism but given the industry depicted here, probably about as high a bar as can be expected.

REASONS TO GO: Really explains some of the very confusing information about the 2008 crisis well. Extremely solid performances from the cast. Occasionally funny.
REASONS TO STAY: A very dry subject matter.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of profanity, some nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film directed by Adam McKay in which Will Ferrell doesn’t star.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Margin Call
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Point Break (2015)

Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?


Robert Morley is da bombe!

Robert Morley is da bombe!

(1978) Comedy (Warner Brothers) George Segal, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Morley, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Phillippe Noiret, Jean Rochefort, Luigi Proletti, Stefano Satta Flores, Madge Ryan, Frank Windsor, Peter Sallis, Tim Barlow, John Le Mesurier, Joss Ackland, Jean Gaven, Jacques Marin, Jacques Balutin, Jean Paredes, Michael Chow, Anita Graham  Directed by Ted Kotcheff

Films For Foodies

I think all of us have soft spots for certain movies that may or may not deserve them. It’s not that the movie is particularly bad or good, it’s just that we associate a memory with them, or the movie has for some reason stuck with us for years or even decades after having seen it.

So it is for me with this light and fluffy confection, based on a much darker novel by Nan and Ivan Lyons (although there are plenty of dark moments in the movie as well). The concept is this; Max Vandeveer (Morley), the world’s pre-eminent food critic, has recently released an article for his magazine The Epicurist detailing all the elements of the ultimate meal in the world. The elements of the meal include pigeon en croute, the specialty of Louis Kohner (Cassel); Lobster Thermidor, the specialty of Fausto Zoppi (Satta Flores), pressed duck, the specialty of Moulineu (Noiret) and for desert, Le Bombe Richelieu, the specialty of Natasha O’Brien (Bisset).

Vandeveer is acerbic and sometimes rude, although he has lived the high life long enough to have acquired a certain amount of elegance. He has also acquired a goodly number of health problems from a lifetime of eating the world’s richest foods and the morbidly obese critic has been told by his doctors that if he doesn’t adjust his diet to healthier options, he won’t last long. Vandeveer chooses to ignore the advice, although his devoted assistant Beecham (Ryan) does her level best to keep him on the straight and narrow.

O’Brien is a particular favorite of Vandeveer, and he has not only been a patron for her career but holds a personal affection for her. He is less sanguine about her ex-husband, Robby Ross (Segal), an American fast food entrepreneur known with some derision as the Taco King. He is in the midst of organizing a new fast food chain specializing in omelets to be called “H. Dumpty.” Vandeveer despises him and everything he stands for.

He happens to be in London working on a deal for this new project at the same time his ex-wife is assisting in preparing a state dinner for the Queen, along with Kohner. After she has a one-night stand with him, Kohner turns up murdered – stuffed into a 450 degree oven. Not a pretty sight.

Afterwards, the other chefs on the list of Vandeveer’s world’s most fabulous meal start turning up dead, killed in gruesome fashion that recalls the preparation for their signature dish. With O’Brien on the list with a target on her back – and also under suspicion for being the perpetrator because of her romantic relationships with the first two – the Taco King and the high-end pastry chef must become detectives and figure out who is killing these great chefs before Natasha ends up as the last victim of a twisted murderer.

Kotcheff, whose pedigree includes The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, was never an innovative director but he was always a solid one; he knows how to keep the pace quick and how to balance between mystery and black comedy without having one overwhelm the other. The adaptation was written by Peter Wilson, who 15 years earlier had written the screenplay for the Aubrey Hepburn classic Charade. The dialogue is clever, urbane and full of witticisms.

Segal is here to play the ugly American and he is so successful that he actually at times is like fingernails on a chalkboard. This isn’t to say that Segal is an annoying actor – his career boasts some really fine performances – but here the character is meant to be somewhat annoying albeit with a heart of gold. However, some modern viewers might find him a little hard to stomach if you’ll forgive the awful pun.

Not so with Robert Morley. He was one of the world’s great character actors and this is the type of part that was perfect for him. Nobody ever played the pompous Brit like he did and he was so good in this role that Heinz recruited him to act as the character in a series of advertisements for their line of soups at the time. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy/Musical but not for an Oscar although Roger Ebert mused he would be in his review of the film.

The movie is definitely a product of the late 70s, and in its day was reasonably popular although box office figures for the film are unavailable; the movie was evidently popular enough to inspire the authors of the original book it was based on to write a sequel.

These days it’s fairly hard to find. It rarely plays on cable or broadcast TV although it does occasionally; it has not yet made it to Blu-Ray although it remains in print on DVD (and you can also find VHS copies of it if you look hard enough). This is the ultimate in disposable entertainment, carrying elements of Murder on the Orient Express along with 70s-era black comedy. While some of the murders are gruesome, the gore is pretty tame by modern standards, or even the standards of its own time.

It hearkens back to an era when great chefs were dignified and considered national treasures, a far cry from this era of celebrity chefs who are more like rock stars. The style of cooking here (the dishes were all provided by the legendary Paul Bocuse) is certainly much heavier than it is in this health-conscious age. They really don’t make meals like this anymore, but watching it may make you wish that they did.

WHY RENT THIS: Irreverent. Morley is delightful.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Extremely dated and cheesy. Segal can be grating.
FAMILY VALUES: Comic violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the novel the movie was based on, recipes were given for each specialty dish.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: The movie is not available for streaming at present. However, DVD copies of the movie may be purchased at Amazon or Best Buy in the United States. For readers outside the US, check your local online DVD retailers or local DVD or electronics shops.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Abominable Dr. Phibes
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Films for Foodies continues!

In Bruges


Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell enjoy the magic that is Bruges.

Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell enjoy the magic that is Bruges.

(2008) Crime Comedy (Focus) Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clamence Poesy, Jordan Prentice, Jeremie Renier, Elizabeth Berrington, Zeljko Ivanek, Mark Donovan, Anna Madeley, Jean-Marc Favorin, Rudy Blomme, Thekla Reuten, Inez Stinton, Ciaran Hinds, Theo Stevenson, Sachi Kimura, Eric Gordon, Stephanie Carey. Directed by Martin McDonagh

My wife is fond of saying that your sins will find you out. She used to say that to our son when she knew he was hiding something from us. With a mom’s unerring nose for a kid’s transgressions, she’d sniff out whatever it was that he was keeping from her. Sometimes, it’s a pity that our mums can’t be with us even as we get older to steer us right.

Ray (Farrell) and Ken (Gleeson) have been ordered to Bruges to cool their heels after botching a job. Of course their chosen profession is contract killing, so who would think of looking for them in a sleepy little tourist town like Bruges, the best-preserved medieval town in Belgium?

The skittish Ray could care less; he’s bored out of his skull and haunted by the results of his sanctioned but unintended mayhem. Ken on the other hand is a little more worldly; he is quite content to sit back, do some sightseeing and enjoy the magic that is Bruges. He knows that in time, his employer will call with instructions and the best thing to do is lay low and make as few waves as possible.

Ray, being Ray, is more interested in hanging out in the pub, finding himself a girl and getting his bones generally jumped. After getting more than a little tipsy one night, Ray and Ken run into a location set for a Dutch movie being filmed in Bruges, with a dream sequence starring Jimmy (Prentice), who prefers the term “dwarf” to “midget.” Ray also meets a beautiful local named Chloe (Poesy) whom he flirts with. She finally agrees to go out to dinner with him.

Meanwhile, their employer Harry (Fiennes) is getting more and more frustrated that he can’t contact his men since they are always out when he calls. He leaves a profanity-laced message with Marie (Berrington), the very pregnant receptionist who happens to be the co-owner of the boutique hotel the men are staying at. When Harry finally gets in contact with Ken, he gives the man instructions that the worldly killer may not want to follow, but at this point, Ken may not have a choice.

The top three leads – Gleeson, Farrell and Fiennes – are three tremendous talents who by themselves individually would entice me into the theater. All three together, well now you’re talking. Gleeson in particular has developed into a marvelous actor who gives a memorable performance nearly every time out. His trademark “gruff with a heart of gold” rough about the edges sorts translates well for Ken.

Farrell has that innate Irish charm that has served him well in both major high-profile projects and smaller independent-minded ones like this one. While Farrell has been somewhat less active in the cinema recently, this one shows him at the apex of his game. His Ray is young and less experienced, virtually jumping out of his skin and bored to tears, failing to see what’s right in front of him. Yet Ray is truly a tortured soul and his sins are just about to catch up with him, but the question becomes is it too late for redemption. Farrell’s soul-searching is particularly poignant and you virtually watch him crumble before your very eyes in one unforgettable scene.

Finally, Fiennes who has Schindler’s List and The Constant Gardener on his resume of award-winning performances doesn’t have a whole lot to do here but makes every scene he is in memorable. He’s one of those actors who makes every line count and uses every nuance in his arsenal to make his character remarkable.

Eigil Bryld’s cinematography is understated, effectively so. Bruges is already fairytale-like in appearance; he uses the town’s charm to his advantage. Carter Burwell’s score is, as always, well-suited to the atmosphere. Although early in his career he tended to be a bit too jazzy for my taste, he has become in my opinion one of the more reliable film composers working today.

Bruges itself is a character in the movie, and its charm is the movie’s charm. I wasn’t that familiar with the town before seeing this movie; now it’s a place I’d like to visit someday. I suppose that would characterize me as more of a Ken sort than a Ray, but history and architecture are two passions of mine. Movies like this one can make a particular place come alive and excite your imagination. Who knew that Bruges would end up on my bucket list?

The movie was sold as a black comedy and it really isn’t when it comes right down to it. This is more of a crime drama with a bit of farce but the tone is black nonetheless. In point of fact, I’m not sure if the writers and director were quite sure what this movie was intended to be, so it turns out to be neither one thing nor the other. My expectations going in from what I’d heard about it weren’t met so I came out disappointed when I saw it initially, but the truly odd thing is when I revisited it recently (I first saw it in theaters back in ’08) is that my opinion of it revised upwards to a near-mediocre score to the much more enthusiastic score you see below.

There is a great deal of charm in the movie and some wonderful performances in it. I think if you go in without the very high expectations I went in with you might wind up enjoying it more than I did. It is definitely worth seeing regardless, if not for Gleeson, Farrell and Fiennes but for the irresistible appeal of Bruges itself.

WHY RENT THIS: Tremendous, compelling performances from Farrell, Fiennes and Gleeson. Bruges might just enchant you. Dreamlike surreal quality in some scenes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Wobbles between crime caper and black comedy.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is some explicit violence, a surfeit of profanity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Both Gleeson and Farrell were nominated for Golden Globes for their performances here; Farrell eventually won the award.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a gag reel, a montage of all the copious cursing done in the film called F***ing Bruges, and a five minute-plus boat trip through the canals of Bruges, further cementing the magic of the place.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33.4M on a $15M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Seven Psychopaths
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Art of Getting By