The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

January 28, 2013

cookthethiefPeter Greenaway, the exceedingly provocative English director of The Draughtsman’s Contract and A Zed and Two Naughts, has said of his new film that “I wanted to engage in some of the excitements of unrestricted license.”

Mm-hmm. That is an elegant way of saying that Greenaway has tipped over a number of taboos in his new movie, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. It’s a film that happily seeks to offend and outrage.

And, oh, it succeeds. But Greenaway is such a witty and imaginative filmmaker that he makes his outrageousness watchable. At the very least, this film is visually stunning, even when it is at its most grotesque, which might be any of a number of moments.

The title provides the basic situation. A gangster (Michael Gambon) comes every night to the lavish restaurant he owns. He has no taste whatsoever, for food or anything else, but he likes to parade around with his entourage. His wife (Helen Mirren) is at his side, apparently for the sole purpose of giving him someone to abuse.

Across the restaurant sits a lone diner (Alan Howard), who spots the unhappy wife and sneaks off for the first of a series of trysts with her, in the hidden corners of the restaurant. The head chef (Richard Bohringer) watches all this with a steady, unflappable gaze.

The film is about the wife and her lover’s attempts to come together, while the gangster tries to figure out what is afoot (Gambon, the brilliant British actor who starred in the BBC’s “Singing Detective,” must have 85 percent of the film’s dialogue, and he thunders magnificently).

But the plot does not describe Greenaway’s gallery of effects. His films are not meant to be realistic; they are theatrical, melodramatic. Costume and set design and music are main characters, and they tend to dominate the puny human concerns.

As far as the taboos are concerned, the film pays disgusting detail to torture, scatological excesses, regurgitative functions, and finally cannibalism, in a climactic scene that will probably send people either screaming or chuckling from the theater. Like him or loathe him, Greenaway completely creates his own world, and it’s like nothing else in the movies.

Incidentally, this film grossed out the MPAA ratings board to such an extent that it received an X rating. Unfortunately, the X has come to be associated with hardcore porn (which this film is not, although it contains much nudity), and some newspapers and TV stations won’t accept ads for X-rated films, regardless of content. In Seattle, the movie is being released without a rating. These sorts of problems suggest that it’s time to rethink the current ratings system.

First published in the Herald, April 8, 1990

Caused some excitement at the time, that’s for sure, and Greenaway was really on a roll at that moment. I wonder whether I’d like it as much now.


Little Monsters

January 25, 2013

littlemonstersFor a few generations now, kids have been insisting that monsters live under their beds. In Little Monsters, this claim is given irrefutable proof.

As the movie explains, monsters live underneath the Earth’s surface in a vast subterranean world. Once night falls up top, the monsters rise up stairways and slip out from under the beds of little kids, wreaking havoc (for which kids everywhere, the innocent darlings, are blamed the next morning). This explains a lot.

Little Monsters is concerned with one denizen of the underworld, a blue reptilian creature with horns and a Mohawk, who goes by the name of—what else?—Maurice. Maurice, played by comedian Howie Mandel, has arrived to torment the nights of 11-year-old Brian (Fred Savage, the likable little ham from TV’s “Wonder Years”).

Brian’s family has just moved to their new house, his parents (Daniel Stern and Margaret Whitton) are bickering, his little brother is a pill. So he has need of a friend, and Maurice turns out to be an amiable monster, and a good guide to the world below, where kids can play pinball to their hearts’ delight and eat as many cheeseburgers as they please.

Director Richard Alan Greenberg tires hard to give this story the feeling of Ray Bradbury’s writing: a lonely kid, an unhappy family, the promise of something supernatural to spark the boy’s imagination. Unfortunately, Greenberg’s efforts don’t mesh well with the monster stuff.

The monster stuff is dominated by Howie Mandel. Mandel was eminently likable in his role in “St. Elsewhere,” but in his comedy routines he tends toward manic obnoxiousness, and that is the direction he takes here. It becomes clear from the first moments of his performance that he is doing much what Michael Keaton did in Beetlejuice, but without Keaton’s sustained frenzy (or the writing to support such frenzy).

Little Monsters runs out of creative juice long before Mandel runs out of shtick. In fact, there is probably a direct correlation here—a little bit of Howie goes a long way.

First published in the Herald, August 31, 1989

Except for this odd picture, the director mostly stuck to visual effects and titles sequences. This was the first credit for Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, who have flourished in animation and live-action alike, including the Pirates of the Caribbean business.


Lock Up

January 24, 2013

lockupSylvester Stallone’s new movie, Lock Up, begins with shots of our hero exchanging loving hugs with his girlfriend and sifting through sentimental old photographs, all accompanied by sensitive piano music.

Piano music? And they call this a Stallone movie? Well, yes, as it turns out. Soon enough, Lock Up gets back to basics. It turns out Sly is a convict on a weekend furlough; he’s quickly back in prison, where he awaits his upcoming release. (His crime, of course, is completely justifiable, so there’s no problem being on his side.)

Unfortunately, he gets transferred from his comfy county club jailhouse to the state’s “garage dump,” a place run by a psychotic warden (Donald Sutherland) who has it in for Stallone. When Sly arrives at the prison, the warden takes him down to look at the nice electric chair and, bathed in red light, announces, “This is hell. And I’m going to give you the guided tour.”

The tour consists of the next 90 minutes, wherein Stallone is beaten up, slammed into the mud, knifed, and driven into the sewers. Such masochism is, of course, a Stallone hallmark, and as always he revels in getting shellacked. There’s also a lot of absurd buddy-bonding, as well as the customary Stallone catch phrases (“Nuthin’s dead ’til it’s buried, man,” is the favorite here).

Director John Flynn (Best Seller) does a competent job in terms of moving things along, but the film is watered down, colorless. The only suspense comes from waiting to see which of Stallone’s little buddies is going to get killed and thus set him off into a climactic rage.

You find yourself waiting for Donald Sutherland to glide into view, because it’s such a relief to see someone who’s interested in doing a little acting. Sutherland doesn’t have very much to work with—most of his role consists of walking over to a window to watch Stallone be humiliated in the courtyard below—but he does bring an elegant sense of depravity to his scenes.

First published in the Herald, August 1989

Not often mentioned when Stallone’s 1980s career is cited, and it was no blockbuster. But as you can see, it taps into some of the man’s most cherished obsessions, and nothing is dead until it’s buried, man.


Leviathan

January 22, 2013

leviathanLeviathan has exactly the same plot as Deep Star Six, a film released in January. Both movies are about a station at the bottom of the ocean menaced by a sea monster that attacks the crew members one by one.

Is there something in the collective unconscious that fears big, ugly things that emerge from the ocean floor? Perhaps. Or could it be that two production companies had the idea for ripping off Alien at the same time?

Whereas Deep Star Six was a bouncy exercise in B-movie silliness, Leviathan comes equipped with some A-movie trappings. It’s got some actors, for starters, and a more impressive set design. The basic idea is slightly more clever: The crew of a mining station discovers the hull of a Soviet ship resting on the sea floor. They investigate.

A couple of the crew decide to drink from the ship’s still-intact vodka supply. Bad idea. This causes, as the doctor (Richard Crenna) puts it, “Some sort of genetic aberration,” and the afflicted mutate into big ugly slimy things that want to kill.

The response of the guy in charge (Peter Weller, Robocop) is to fire up all the power tools, zip the bodies in plastic, and set ’em adrift. Unfortunately, he doesn’t see the spare limb that gets sheared off and left behind, like a demonic leg of lamb. When it reconstitutes itself, things really shake loose.

Some of the other crew members include Hector Elizondo, Ernie Hudson, Lisa Eilbacher, and Daniel Stern. A decent enough ensemble, but with very little to do except wait around to get slimed. Also, there’s Amanda Pays, a luscious British actress (from the “Max Headroom” TV show), who is the resident fitness expert. This means the filmmakers must find excuses for her to jog around in tight sweat clothes. Which they do.

Director is George P. Cosmatos, best known as the man who guided, or endured, Sylvester Stallone in Rambo II and Cobra. Cosmatos clearly has his heart in action sequences, and Leviathan gives him a few to play with. Unfortunately, there’s nothing else going on, and the movie stiffs out long before it’s over. Lloyd Bridges, where are you when we need you?

First published in the Herald, March 16, 1989

This film is no relation to the 2012 release labeled “best of the year” by Cinema Scope…or is it? I haven’t seen the other Leviathan, so I suppose I really can’t say.


Listen to Me

January 8, 2013

listnetomeIn Listen to Me, college coach Roy Scheider describes his avocation as “probably the scariest, most fascinating sport on the face of the planet.” What is this thrilling sport: Basketball? Football? The four-man luge?

Of course not. It’s debating. Yes, Scheider plays the wily coach of one of the country’s best debate squads. Now, I apologize in advance to debaters and debate fans everywhere, but let me suggest that debate is perhaps not the most scintillating subject for a movie. Probably debate is very exciting in and of itself, but it does have a tendency to make a film somewhat talky.

Listen to Me is plenty talky, although it does make an attempt to mix its scary/fascinating sports scenes with coming-of-age drama. The story, from director Douglas Day Stewart (He wrote An Officer and a Gentleman) deals with three students on the debate team, all of whom carry their own problems into battle.

The team leader (Tim Quill) comes from a Kennedyesque clan of wealthy politics; his father (Anthony Zerbe) wants him to use debate as a springboard into political life. But Quill’s secret wish is to be a tortured writer.

Another student is an engaging Oklahoma hayseed (Kirk Cameron), another is a beautiful-but-distant Chicago sharpie (Jami Gertz). Cameron’s main goal is getting Gertz to go out with him, and he becomes peeved when she won’t: “If you’d look at this empirically, you’d see that it’s all your fault,” he tells her, a debater to the end. Frustrated, he and Quill wind up frolicking in a fountain with debate groupies.

The print ads for Listen to Me have been suggesting that the film somehow tackles the abortion issue. Abortion happens to be the topic chosen for the debate teams, and it’s argued in the scary/fascinating climax, which is a debate in a Washington before some members of the U.S. Supreme Court. But the film has nothing to do with the subject; it’s strictly a theoretical football, to be tossed back and forth.

This brings up one of the irritating things about Listen to Me. The movie argues both sides of the abortion question. It does this so skillfully that you’re left with no feelings at all on the subject. This, according to the movie, is exactly what good debaters should be able to do: argue either side of a case at the drop of a hat. In other words, the characters learn how to say almost anything, with no regard to what they really think or feel. Presentation is everything. In this way, the film makes a good case for debate as a training ground for future politicians.

First published in the Herald, May 11, 1989

Which is why I’ve always found the idea of debate totally weird—we should teach people how to successfully argue empty arguments? It sounds like a recipe for creating terrible people.


Loverboy

January 7, 2013

loverboyGood farce should glide. You should be able to enjoy the way all the little pieces come together, but you shouldn’t be aware of how they got there. No visible strain. In Loverboy, there’s too much strain, not enough glide.

The story is a kind of young person’s Shampoo. A pizza delivery boy (Patrick Dempsey), home for the summer and frustrated by his sputtering college career, falls under the attention of a wealthy Beverly Hills shopowner (Barbara Carrera). Her attentions include sexual favors, much to the surprise of the skinny lad.

He bungles his first opportunity. “I had a letter to Penthouse staring me in the face, and I let it go,” he tells his dough-slinging buddies. But Carrera persists. Not only that, she recommends his home-delivery style to all of her rich, bored friends whose husbands are cheating on them. Soon Dempsey is carting extra anchovies all over Beverly Hills.

Eventually, his anchovies will come home to roost, as the husbands see through this thin crust of infidelity. All of this is set against Dempsey’s parents’ marital misunderstandings, which include their belief that their son is gay.

The idea of Loverboy is laid out in a somewhat mechanical blueprint, but the movie is brought to comic life on occasion. Part of this has to do with the director, Joan Micklin Silver, whose usual fare is less harried and more gentle (she made the wonderful Chilly Scenes of Winter and last year’s Crossing Delancey).

I have the feeling Silver isn’t too comfortable with the noisier aspects of the Loverboy script. For instance, the wild dorm party that opens the movie is one of the lamest scenes Silver has ever directed. However, she does bring a nice touch to the more lyrical bits: One of the best moments has Dempsey exiting from his first extracurricular encounter and practically dancing across a hotel courtyard, finally tumbling happily into the pool.

There’s a certain level of romance involved in Dempsey’s transactions (for which he accepts money, an awkward point that is never quite smoothed over). He provides roses and back rubs, too. And with a particularly smitten doctor (Kirstie Alley, from “Cheers”) he painstakingly studies the moves of Fred Astaire.

Probably the funniest sequence comes near the end, when Dempsey’s onscreen mother (Kate Jackson) gets fed up with her husband and places an order with the anonymous pizza man. This leads to some Oedipal confusion, but turns out a near-miss.

The picture has some bounce, but it doesn’t consistently work. It’s just a bit too calculated and committee-like to be memorable. Just the same, file it away as a future video pick.

First published in the Herald, April 1989

A few days ago Patrick Dempsey led a group attempting to buy Tully’s coffee, the baby Starbucks chain. Just another twist in the curious career of this actor, who was going through his early leading man phase at this point. Good to be reminded of Barbara Carrera, who loomed large for adolescent boys in the 1970s.


An Innocent Man

December 6, 2012

innocentmanWhen the action heats up in the maximum-security prison of An Innocent Man, one con surveys the scene and says to another, “Tension in the Big House. Just like in the movies.”

That’s got it about right. Despite the fact that An Innocent Man was written by a first-time screenwriter (Larry Brothers) who has spent some time behind bars, it trots out the basic, familiar elements of a good prison melodrama. It’s solidly in a line from the wronged-justice movies of the 1930s (such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) to Stallone’s outing from a couple of months ago, Lock-Up. Not much changes.

As these things go, An Innocent Man is hard-nosed and effective. Tom Selleck plays a normal guy, with a good life and a happy wife (Laila Robbins), whose existence is messed up when two crooked cops mistakenly bust into his house and shoot him. In order to cover their error, they plant drugs in his home and, when he recovers, frame him for dealing.

Selleck goes up the river, where he learns that his ideas about fair play don’t exactly hold sway. He falls in with a wily con (F. Murray Abraham, the Oscar winner from Amadeus), who’s been in prison “since Jesus was a baby,” and learns the rules of the jungle. The hardest lesson is: Kill or be killed.

There as some clever lines along the way and Abraham gets a lot of the good ones. The occasional moment suggest writer Brothers’ knowledge of prison experience; when Selleck is paroled and picked up by his wife, he murmurs, “Riding in a car,” as though reminding himself of the phenomenon. That’s a telling line.

Peter Yates, whose work has ranged from Bullitt to Breaking Away, is a veteran director who knows what to do with this sort of thing. He keeps it moving, in his colorless fashion, with little wasted motion. The movie’s spikiest moments are not with Selleck, who presents a bland protagonist, but with the two sleazy cops who framed him. They are played by David Rasche and Richard Young, and they are as hissable as villains come these days. Rasche, who achieved some sort of glory on TV’s “Sledge Hammer” series, has a particularly evil romp.

The film is too clockwork; the latter half involves Selleck’s revenge, and it’s predictable. It works, of course, because the bad cops are doing everything but kicking puppies around, and we can’t wait to see justice served. We’re not disappointed.

First published in the Herald, October 6, 1989

Here’s another film, and not actually a bad one, that seems almost entirely without a profile. Does anyone remember this movie fondly, or at all?