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!

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Asylum (2005)


Natasha Richardson takes in a little sun while contemplating a lot of sin.

Natasha Richardson takes in a little sun while contemplating a lot of sin.

(2005) Thriller (Paramount Classics) Natasha Richardson, Marton Csokas, Ian McKellen, Hugh Bonneville, Joss Ackland, Gus Lewis, Judy Parfitt, Sean Harris, Hazel Douglas, Wanda Ventham, Sarah Thurstan, Alwyne Taylor, Maria Aitken, Andy de la Tour, Anna Keaveney, Robert Willox, Roy Boyd, Rhydian Jones, Nick Chadwin, Veronica Fairhurst. Directed by David MacKenzie

Boredom can lead us to do things that we wouldn’t ordinarily do. As a species, we are particularly irritated by having nothing to do. We need stimulation and we will go to great lengths in order to get it.

Dr. Max Raphael (Bonneville) has just been appointed superintendent at a maximum-security insane asylum outside of London as the 1950s draw to a close. The facility, built in the Victorian era, is crumbling into ruin, but I daresay not nearly as much as Raphael’s marriage to Stella (Richardson), who is suffering from terminal boredom to her workaholic husband to the point of a kind of misery-induced trance, much to the dismay of her son Charlie (Lewis) and disgust of her mother-in-law (Parfitt). Dr. Raphael himself has to deal with the acid barbs of Dr. Peter Cleave (McKellan) who was passed over for Raphael’s job by the director of the asylum, Dr. Straffen (Ackland) and Cleave is not letting people know that this is a terrible mistake.

Maybe, but not as massive as the mistake Stella is about to make. A garden house a few steps from her on-site home is literally a standing ruin; keen on gardening, she wants to turn it into a rookery. Inmate Edgar Stark (Csokas) is assigned to do the grunt work. Charlie, who has been ignored pretty much by both parents, latches onto Stark as a buddy/father figure which disquiets Stella at first. After being assured by both Dr. Cleave and her husband that the man is perfectly safe, she begins to accept him.

Her acceptance is a godsend to Edgar, who treats her like a princess. Not used to being treated well, Stella slowly begins to fall for the handsome Stark, which leads to sex, lots of it and in all sorts of places. It isn’t long before their transgressions are being noticed, and Edgar’s yearning for freedom begins to match his passion for the psychiatrist’s wife. Stella has started a journey on a train that is very likely to run away on her; what will her passion eventually cost her and those she loves?

The cast, with the exception of McKellen, was not particularly well-known when this was made (although Csokas appeared with McKellan in The Lord of the Rings as Celeborn). Richardson is required to be sexy and passionate and her sex scenes are unusually graphic. Csokas is solid as the brooding inmate with the horrors burning just below the surface. McKellan has to play a conniving man with little or no scruples and he plays him with the kind of polite front you might expect from such a man – this is the kind of reminder that the man is so much more than Magneto and Gandalf. Most of the rest of the cast is solid, but unspectacular. I was tickled to see Ackland, a character actor best known for such movies as The Hunt for Red October and Lethal Weapon 2, working; he is a fine character actor who classes up a production whether he’s playing a villain, a hero or a supporting cast member. McKellen gives a very nice performance of a complicated and not very nice character. The brooding hospital is almost a separate character within the film, creating an atmosphere well-suited to the downbeat nature of the movie.

Much of the action takes place in the titular Asylum; production designer Lawrence Dorman makes sure that the hospital has that look of an older building gone to seed but like many old buildings used for that purpose, you can almost feel the decades of anguish and insanity breathing within its walls. The filmmakers also capture the period nicely with Consolata Boyle’s costumes, the period magazines and the abundance of cigarette smoking that goes on; in some instances, the cigarettes are almost like weapons used to convey the disdain of the smoker.

The story is actually preposterous. Richardson’s Stella doesn’t act like a normal, rational human being would act. Especially in the middle and final acts of the movie, her behavior leaves you clutching your head to keep it from spinning around on your neck. Given that there are no characters within the movie that you can really relate to or even root for in any way shape or form (except maybe for Charlie and even he is something of a caricature whose sole purpose in the film is to introduce his mother to her lover, and then serve as the means for driving the final denouement of the story. This really is hideously written.

This was a Netflix rental for me; it played in Orlando for only a week or two and even then only in a few theaters (maybe only one – I’m not completely sure on that instance). I can’t say as I can recommend it even on that level for anyone. Those who enjoy explicit sex scenes will probably find this irresistible, but you’re probably better served watching a porno for that. Those who like period psychological dramas would be better served renting the very long list of better movies in the genre. I suppose if you’re a big Ian McKellen fan, this might be worthwhile for his fine performance but there honestly isn’t very much else worth seeing here.

WHY RENT THIS: Compelling performance by McKellen. Captures the period nicely. Some very erotic sex scenes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Poorly written and preposterously plotted. Lacks relatable characters. May have too much sex for those who are sensitive to that sort of content.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is a very strong sexual element to the story and much nudity. There are also instances of wife beating, infidelity and child endangerment.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Paramount bought the rights to the Patrick McGrath novel this is based on with the intention of having Stephen King write the screenplay and Jonathan Demme directing. When both of them were unable to work the movie into their schedule, Paramount shifted the property to their boutique/art house Classics label (which has since become Paramount Vantage) and appropriately reduced the budget.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.6M on an unknown production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Unfaithful
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: I, Robot

The Hunt for Red October


The Hunt for Red October

Sean Connery lights up the screen.

(1990) Thriller (Paramount) Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Sam Neill, Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, Joss Ackland, Richard Jordan, Peter Firth, Tim Curry, Courtney B. Vance, Stellan Skarsgard, Jeffrey Jones, Fred Dalton Thompson, Tomas Arana, Gates McFadden. Directed by John McTiernan

 

There are weapons of war – planes, ships, tanks, subs – that we all know about and each side keeps tabs on and has whatever countermeasures that are available to combat them. All sides have them and it keeps things honest. What if there was a weapon of war that only one side had, one which avoided the whole Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine and gave one side a critical advantage, one which in order to have would have to be used without the knowledge of the other side?

In this classic Naval thriller set during the Cold War the Soviets have done just that. The Red October is a submarine with a propulsion system that allows it to run virtually undetected by sonar (who might mistake it for whales). This is bad news for the Americans who would never know if the sub parked itself off the Atlantic seaboard and start lobbing nukes into New York City, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia…hell all over the northeast with virtually no warning.

Captain Marko Ramius (Connery) realizes that this is the only use a sub such as this would have; the Red October has nearly zero maneuvering skills and  isn’t particularly fast. He knows that the vessel he has been tasked with taking on a trial run could mean the end of everything. Therefore he enters into a pact with his senior officers, including his second-in-command Borodin (Neill) to do the unthinkable.

In the meantime the CIA is frantic. They’ve monitored a new sub leaving the shipyards and then disappearing as monitored by the USS Dallas’ crack sonar operator Jones (Vance). His captain, Bart Mancuso (Glenn) is mystified. So is the CIA. Admiral Greer (J.E. Jones) has never heard of this kind of vessel. His expert in Soviet subs is Jack Ryan (Baldwin), an analyst who is currently living in London. They put him on the first flight to DC where he is shown some pictures of a sub with an odd pair of openings in stern. Ryan takes the pictures to a sub builder (Jeff Jones) who realizes what it could mean.

Soon it becomes apparent that something extraordinary is going on. The entire Soviet fleet is scrambled, apparently searching for something. Ryan reports his findings to the President’s defense counsel, including his most senior advisor Jeffrey Pelt (Jordan). While the military men think that this signals that an attack on the U.S. is imminent, Ryan – who wrote the C.I.A.’s analysis on Ramius suddenly realizes that Ramius might be intending to defect.

Nobody really thinks Ryan is for real but Pelt wants to hedge his bets; if he can get his hands on a piece of Soviet hardware this advanced, the opportunity has to be at least explored. He sends Ryan – who is not a field agent – to the Dallas (which is by no means an easy feat) to intercept the Red October and determine his intentions – while trying to keep out of the way of the entire Soviet and U.S. Fleet which are trying to sink her.

Jack Ryan is the creation of former insurance agent and now bestselling author Tom Clancy who has made his career out of these political thrillers with military overtones. Clancy knows his military hardware and while even at this date nothing like the Red October exists (at least to the knowledge of the general public), it certainly is within the realm of possibility.  This was the first Jack Ryan novel to make it to the screen and its success both critically and commercially paved the way for three other movies to make the transition (with a fourth scheduled for Christmas 2013).

A large reason for this is Connery. He brings dignity and gravitas to the part of Ramius. Though this is a Jack Ryan film it is Ramius you will remember and it is in many ways his show. The relationship between Ramius and Borodin is crucial in the film and Connery has some pretty believable chemistry with Neill.

The sub chase sequences are as good as any you’re likely to see with the possible exception of Das Boot. I also found the political intrigue that goes on during the movie to be second to none; you get the sense that everyone is playing a game that is unique to themselves, from the ship commanders on up to the President himself. That may well be how it is in real life.

There are some who have criticized Baldwin’s low-key performance as Ryan; certainly I think Harrison Ford nailed the part better in later versions of Jack, but I don’t think Baldwin is that bad. He plays it more intellectual and less action than Ford but that’s all right – his performance is well-suited for the film, which really makes most of its action bones with the sub duels rather than individuals. In that sense it’s the captains of the various vessels involved who make the action heroes here.

There is definitely an 80s film sensibility here (it was shot in 1989) although it would open the door for the 90s political film ethos. In a very real way this is one of the movies that transitioned the 1980s action film into the 1990s special effects film. As such it’s a classic and to my mind one of a kind. I do not necessarily agree with Clancy’s political beliefs, but the man can write an excellent story and he has done so here; I’m not entirely sure if he likes the movie that came of his imagination but I know that I do.

WHY RENT THIS: Quite realistic. Details are superb. Connery, Baldwin, Jones and Glenn are amazing. Great sets and breathtaking story.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Something of a throwback to cold war attitudes.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some violence, a few adult themes and a bit of swearing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the film was released on VHS, the tape was colored red.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $200.5M on a $30M production budget; this was a blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Das Boot

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Uncertainty

Flawless (2007)


Flawless

Michael Caine and Demi Moore make their plans.

(2007) Period Crime Drama (Magnolia) Demi Moore, Michael Caine, Lambert Wilson, Nathaniel Parker, Joss Ackland, Shaughan Seymour, Nicholas Jones, David Barras. Directed by Michael Radford

Corporate stuffed shirts have always been with us, and the movies have always used them as villains; greedy, heartless and amoral. Heist films have always been a means for audiences to vicariously thrill to these individuals getting their comeuppance, although in real life they almost never do.

Then again, this isn’t real life although to the filmmaker’s credit, it sure feels that way. Laura Quinn (Moore) is a bit of a rarity; a female executive at a London diamond exchange circa 1960. While she is clearly capable and even, in many ways, superior to her peers, she continues to knock her stiff raven-shaded bouffant against the glass ceiling. She wants nothing more than to get ahead to prove to herself that she is capable and in many ways superior, but all her long nights of chain-smoking, fretting over reports and bantering with Hobbs (Caine), a friendly night janitor, have gotten her nowhere.

To add insult to injury, she discovers that she is about to be fired by the very people who stole her ideas and then took credit for them. At first, when Hobbs – who is much more than he seems – comes to her to propose a quiet little robbery of just a few gems (which the exchange would hardly miss but would set up the both of them for life), she is appalled but as she realizes that she has no future at the exchange, she finally relents.

What follows is pretty much a standard caper film. Radford, who directed the far superior Il Postino, is certainly a capable hand at the game but to be honest, the movie suffers from the same petrifaction that permeates the London diamond exchange depicted here.

Most of that is due to Moore, who operates as if a wax figure from Tussaud’s. Rarely does she betray any emotion, some of which could be attributed to the stiff upper lip mentality of the Britain of that time, but even when she is displaying emotion it rings false. Perhaps it’s her truly atrocious accent that brings that feel along.

Fortunately, the movie also has Caine, who has fun with the grandfatherly cockney who hides a brilliant strategist with an axe to grind. Caine seems to be having more fun than everyone else in the movie combined, and for my money the movie could have used a good deal more of that sense. Far too much of the movie comes off as stodgy.

While the scenes of the actual heist build credible suspense, it is the first reel and the last where the movie falls a bit. While the movie succeeds in creating the era and brings the sexual discrimination card into play, it never really captured my imagination nor grabbed the heart the way better heist films like The Bank Job and 11 Harrowhouse did. Fans of movies like The Sting and the Oceans trilogy will find this lifeless, but that’s somewhat unfair of a comparison. The movie is solid but unspectacular, and lacks the kind of twist that these types of films really call for.

WHY RENT THIS: A capably executed jewelry heist film that brings to mind The Bank Job albeit in a stuffier vein. Michael Caine is, as always, impeccable. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: No new ground is broken here. Moore never really gives me a sense of who her character is.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is a bit foul in places but otherwise this is suitable for all teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michael Caine’s grandfather had a similar job to Hobbs.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.8M on an unreported production budget; My guess is that the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Objective

How About You


How About You

Hayley Atwell ponders how to hold her own with a quartet of aging scene-stealers.

(Strand) Hayley Atwell, Vanessa Redgrave, Joss Ackland, Orla Brady, Brenda Fricker, Imelda Staunton, Joan O’Hara, Elizabeth Moynihan, Darragh Kelly. Directed by Anthony Byrne

Some can accept the indignities of growing older with grace and dignity. Others rage against the dying of the light and in doing so, rage against life itself.

Kate Harris (Brady) runs the Woodlands, a nursing home in the quaint and charming countryside of Ireland as best she can. She is constantly on the edge of financial ruin and lives in terror of having her accreditation taken away from her, and is tormented by the unscheduled visits of a bureaucrat (Kelly) who seems hell-bent on finding an excuse to shut her down.

When family business forces her to leave over the Christmas holidays, she has no choice but to turn to her sister Ellie (Atwell) to run the joint while she is away. Ellie is a headstrong girl, one who brooks no crap from anyone which she at least has in common with Kate. However, where Kate is a by-the-book conformist, Ellie is spirited and anti-authoritarian. This deadly combination has gotten her fired from more jobs than she can count and now, with nothing really to do and a fairly ambitious set of financial needs, she decides to help her sister out. After all, how hard could it be? Most of the residents had gone home with family members for the holiday, leaving only four people remaining.

Those four are about the most cantankerous, ill-tempered and difficult people you can imagine. There’s Georgia (Redgrave), a former actress who is an alcoholic with all the attitude of a diva. Donald (Ackland) is a widower who has lost his soulmate and takes out his pain on anyone unfortunate enough to fall into his orbit with a caustic wit worthy of Mort Sahl. The Nightingale sisters, Heather (Fricker) and Hazel (Staunton) moved into the home not because they needed the care but because after their mother died, they didn’t have anywhere else to go. Heather is a bit of a bully while Hazel harbors a terrible secret.

Ellie means well, but she often does the wrong thing for the right reasons, as with giving some marijuana to a dying resident (O’Hara) to ease her pain. She immediately butts heads with the four who are known, none too affectionately, as the Hard Core by the Woodlands staff. The four of them have alienated so many of the other residents that they have begun to leave in droves, which is the source of Kate’s near-ruin.

As Ellie stands up to the hi-jinx and imperious demands of the Hard Core, they begin to soften. For her part, Ellie begins to see things from a different perspective. Against all odds, they begin to bond. However a Christmas dinner and a surprise visit from the inspector may put an end to their impromptu family once and for all.

Those who loved serio-comic films like Ladies in Lavender or Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont will dig this big time. Like the other two films, the leads are elderly Brits with thick crusts that hide hearts of gold. While this is based on a short story by the Irish writer Maeve Binchy, it doesn’t break new ground in terms of films of this genre. There are a lot of cliches; naughty, crotchety elderly sorts who smoke pot, drink and curse, free-spirited mule-headed youngsters who learn to lower their defenses, mean bureaucrats who are revealed to have a reason for their anger. It’s all here, with a touch of Irish pipe music to remind us that it’s set in Ireland, and old standards to remind us that the leads are elderly.

However, the actors in the main roles are good enough that they help the movie rise above the material. Ackland, best known as the heavy in Lethal Weapon 2, delivers the kind of performance that those familiar with his stage career and some of his earlier work know that he’s capable of delivering. Redgrave exudes class and elegance, even in a role that sometimes demands its lack; she is magnificent here. Fricker and Staunton are two reliable veterans who are sadly underappreciated; they deliver solid performances here.

Any young actress would be hard-pressed to hold their own with a troupe like that, but Atwell does so, and more. Her Ellie is a bit of a screw-up, but mainly because she doesn’t have enough confidence in herself. She is hot-tempered and unpleasant at times but Atwell makes her so likable that we can’t help staying connected to her even when we want to reach out and smack her upside her head.

The title refers to a Burton Freed-Allen Lane standard that while written in 1941, had a version recorded in the early 60s by Bobby Darin which is the version that is heard here, which is appropriate since that more or less approximates the era of the main characters. The song has a vivid role in the movie which I appreciated as an old ex-rock critic – never underestimate the power of a song to change one’s life.

As I said, this isn’t really adding anything new to the genre but then again, who says it has to? It is very easy to sit back and allow yourself to be captivated by the performances and the magic of the Irish countryside. That, as far as I’m concerned, is two hours well spent.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by a cadre of veteran actors with whom Atwell more than holds her own. A bittersweet but upbeat treatise on growing old with or without dignity.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat predictable in places in terms of “eccentric oldsters changing the life of spirited young person” flicks.

FAMILY VALUES: Some extraordinarily salty language and a surprising amount of drug use so it’s probably not suitable for the young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actor Joss Ackland worked as a tea plantation manager in Africa during the 1950s.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Unborn