Mediocre: The Frontier

The Frontier (2015)

Directed by Oren Shai
Written by Oren Shai, Webb Wilcoxen
Produced by Dana Lustig, Mark Smirnoff, Tal Fiala, Elric Kane, Stephen Harrison, Moshe Barkat, Pirchia Rechter, Dari Shai, Haim Slutzky, Dustin Cook
Starring Jocelin Donahue, Kelly Lynch, A.J. Bowen, Jamie Harris, Izabella Miko, Jim Beaver, Liam Aiken

Synopsis

She’s yet to put enough miles between herself and a homicide in Flagstaff when a drifter (Donahue) stops at a rundown diner and motel for a meal and overnight lodging, only to find that its proprietress (Lynch) and patrons (Harris, Miko, Beaver, Aiken) are soon to be recipients of over $1.7M in cash laundered from a recent heist. Their mercenary commonalities and continual visits by an obtrusive policeman (Bowen) complicate her designs on the money and a clean escape.

Script

Motivations are stultified and their promising story’s second act is bogged by Shai’s and Wilcoxen’s drippy, dispensable exposition, which temporarily reduces a hard-boiled crime thriller to a cheap costume drama. Had so much background been alluded rather than dilated, and the plot enhanced with twice as many twists, they would’ve written a winner.

Direction

His conduct is slick if unambitious: Shai shoots action and dramatics with equal facility, and prudently interposes between both direful, often speechless close-ups and slow zooms, mostly of Donahue.

Cinematography

If at all, Jay Keitel may be known to viewers of independent cinema as Amy Seimetz’s preferred DP. Diurnal scenes are gorgeously enriched though his lucent lenses, but by night, he’s manifestly affected by a nyctophobia plaguing so many in his trade. No harvest moon’s as fulgent as this movie’s nocturnal lighting.

Production design

Worn postwar furnishings and appliances salvaged and fabricated for Taylor Jean’s and Steve Morden’s set design, Yasmine Abraham’s perfectly selected and lightly distressed costumery, hairstyling courtesy of Emilio Uribe, and every other artifact of Lindsey Moran’s production design — driver’s licenses, matchbooks, photographs, suitcases, purses, bottles, mugs and more — replicate the mass-produced fashions of the ’70s. Irrespective of budget, few pictures set during this era look so verisimilar, largely because the aforementioned grasp its grime.

Histrionics

Hers could be the face and presence in a thousand last known photos of doomed and endangered beauties circa ’72-’84, so the niche that Donahue’s occupied since The House of the Devil is scarcely shared. She makes the best of her sly miss with chilly charm, unostentatiously easy expressivity, and a sensitivity which may convince your amygdala that she’s really rolling with so many punches. By contrast, indie regular Bowen (her assailant in House) has defied typecasting in a sweep of roles to varied results; here, he looks a southwestern part that he plays well, but his inauthenticity’s betrayed by a gentle voice. Harris enlivens most of his scenes as a friendly fop in his father’s footsteps, but Miko doesn’t flesh his bleached, bubbleheaded wife with such gratification. Perhaps the worst personation of Lynch’s career can be witnessed here, as she gratuitously overacts her every single line, mien and motion. Beaver’s brutish career criminal and Aiken’s antsy abettor are shallow figures energetically realized by their seasoned character actors.

Score

At its barest instrumentation in a minor key — guitar, horns, underlying strings — Ali Helnwein’s score is resonant of its place and period. It turns mushy with the inclusion of flutes, then musty when electric guitars and staccato strings are employed.

Highlights

Donahue’s pitch- and picture-perfect in every scene, whether evincing trauma and trouble, or trading pleasantries with Harris.

Nadir

Pick one:

  1. The movie’s midpoint slows to crawl through tawdry tales of woe involving Jack Warner worsened by Lynch’s awful acting.
  2. In a regressive episode immediate to bloody gunplay, Lynch’s bygone starlet recites lines from an unrealized production à la Norma Desmond to embarrass everyone watching.

Conclusion

If this were as good as it looks or as exciting as its promotional campaign implied, it would probably be some sort of cult classic by now. Regrettably, too much is said and too little done in an expertly staged but underwhelming production.

Execrable: The Chase

The Chase (1966)
Directed by Arthur Penn
Written by Horton Foote, Lillian Hellman
Produced by Sam Spiegel
Starring Marlon Brando, Angie Dickinson, Jane Fonda, James Fox, Richard Bradford, Janice Rule, Robert Redford, E.G. Marshall, Henry Hull, Robert Duvall, Miriam Hopkins, Clifton James, Joel Fluellen, Martha Hyer, Diana Hyland, Nydia Westman, Jocelyn Brando, Steve Ihnat, Katherine Walsh, Marc Seaton, Paul Williams, Malcolm Atterbury, Bruce Cabot, Maurice Manson, Steve Whittaker, Davis Roberts, Pamela Curran, Ken Renard
Natives of only a few regions have been so frequently and grotesquely distorted in Hollywood’s productions as those of the reconstructed south, where a middle-aged, middle-class, terrible Texan trio (Bradford, James, Ihnat) crazed by booze and white privilege run amok in their town by harrying and terrorizing blacks (Fluellen, Roberts), drubbing their sheriff (Brando), and pursuing with intent to kill a jailbroken scapegrace (Redford) involved in a murder. A year before he and Warren Beatty focused the energies of and popularized nascent New Hollywood, Penn helmed this zany, overheated, overpopulated clunker masquerading as social drama, which condignly ravaged Spiegel’s career. Playwright and novelist Foote is reportedly renowned for the naturalism of his dialogue; one can only conjecture that both he and Hellman are responsible for the unbelievable, ostentatious kitsch invested in nearly every line of her script, and marvel that anyone in the cast could recite it plausibly. Among those so outstanding are Brando and Dickinson as the canny lawman and his liege wife, Marshall in the role of the town’s tirelessly enterprising magnate, and especially Bradford, who indues to his almost cartoonishly villainous banker a confounding charisma and conviction. Both are hopelessly miscast, but Duvall’s less inconsonant as a cowardly cuckold than Redford as a good ole boy named Bubber, cluelessly selected by Spiegel for his sex appeal. (Incidentally, Duvall played a cheated husband with threatening vehemence not too many years later in The Conversation under Coppola, who reunited him with Brando in The Godfather — for which Robert Evans also misintended Redford as Michael Corleone.) Approximately half of Foote’s characters behave like unhinged children, the worst of which are the most overpersonated: (ordinarily superb) Rule slithers sillily about as Duvall’s slutty spouse; Hyer hollers Bradford’s blaringly besotted wife into being; Marshall’s sappy, sententious son played by Fox is as disappointing a romantic interest as he is an heir; aged Hull’s a cornball, roaming realtor who chirps unfunny quips and peripherally insinuates himself into his neighborhood’s felonies; as Redford’s hysterically penitent mother, Hopkins irritates almost so persistently as Westman’s obtrusive, bible-banging widow. Like many movies drawn from stage plays, this is a twofold failure — stagily fake in the worst possible manner, but as overblown as its hams for cinematic liberties of gunplay and explosion. Foote’s story is fundamentally, indulgently horrible, its puny plot dwarfed by excess exposition and contrived complications, such as a pointless love triangle between Fox, Fonda and Redford. Armchair riffers will delight in an alcoholic party at the home of Duvall’s nebbish boasting some of the most jerkily wacko dancing ever committed to film. In the service of sinister sensationalism, this escape, advoutry, wassail and vigilantism might’ve been exploited as the unrestrained frolic of an exciting comedy; as a pontifical social drama, it’s a tremendous waste of histrionic talent and another of John Barry’s big, bold, blustering scores.

Instead, watch Cool Hand Luke.

Execrable: Misunderstood

Misunderstood (2014)
Directed by Asia Argento
Written by Asia Argento, Barbara Alberti
Produced by Mario Gianani, Eric Heumann, Maurice Kantor, Lorenzo Mieli, Scott Derrickson, Guido De Laurentiis
Starring Giulia Salerno, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Gabriel Garko, Alice Pea, Carolina Poccioni, Anna Lou Castoldi, Justin Pearson, Andrea Pittorino, Sofia Patron, Riccardo Russo, Gianmarco Tognazzi, Max Gazzè
Of all the celebrities who annunciated #MeToo, Argento was among the most suspect; who sustains a sexual assault, then repeatedly returns to her lumpily misshapen rapist for a lustrum to improve her professional prospects? Evidently, one who lies as reflexively as ineffectively. This second pseudo-autobiographical flick by Italy’s most catastrophic fortunate daughter is less trashy but just as untruthful as her preceding features. In the putative mid-’80s, a prepubescent Roman (Salerno) suffers her classmates’ scorn and neglect of her squabbling parents — a neurotically liverish leading man (Garko) and an abusive concert pianist (Gainsbourg) fond of countercultural affectations and scummy boyfriends (Gazzè, Tognazzi, Pearson) — who both favor her senior half-sisters (Poccioni, Castoldi). As their divorce looms, the maladroit miss consorts with degenerates, plays pranks with her best friend (Pea), crushes on a prickish skateboarder (Pittorino) topped by an anachronistically stupid haircut, and does nothing to remediate her situation until a few relatively marginal embarrassments spur her first suicide attempt. Argento and Alberti can’t tell a story, so they’ve taken wild liberties while unregenerately stringing together a series of incidents that dramatize Argento’s childhood, and gawkily express the frivolous frolic, daft drama, dinky destruction, and piddling contretemps in which she pretends to languish but actually delights. Her cast do justice to their rankling roles; as grotesque caricatures of Daria Nicolodi and Dario Argento, Gainsbourg’s and Garko’s truculent spunk actualizes the fever dream heretofore confined to their daughter’s addled skull. Nicoletta Ercole’s clownishly loud costume design is every millennial’s misapprehension of day-glo garb in the ’80s; only a few cars and consumer electronics even hint at the period. Even worse, atrocious music by Argento, Pearson and collaborators, Brian Molko, The Penelopes and others maculates the soundtrack, excepting Rachmaninov’s sonata in B flat minor and Mozart’s requiem in D minor — selections as clichéd as the protagonist’s escapades. Many (if not most) Xers born to well-off families were no strangers to the parental overindulgence, negligence and occasional abuse that molded our generation’s complexion, but only from Asia’s self-absorption did these 100+ minutes of total tedium arise. Forget how her relationships (public and otherwise) have been foredone by her promiscuity, she’s publicized herself by flooding media with tirades bemoaning her dysfunction for decades, she traduced the woman whose direction realized the best role of her career, or that any objective account of her mythomania is to her a violation of “her truth,” and pity the poor, punic, pampered, privileged prostitute! She does.

Mediocre: Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night

Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night (1987)
Directed by Hal Sutherland
Written by Robby London, Barry O’Brien, Dennis O’Flaherty
Produced by Lou Scheimer, Erika Scheimer, Robby London, John Grusd
Starring Scott Grimes, Jonathan Harris, Don Knotts, Edward Asner, Frank Welker, William Windom, Tom Bosley, Rickie Lee Jones, Lana Beeson, James Earl Jones, Linda Gary
Flush with lucre in its twilight years for successful, crudely animated adaptations of He-Man, She-Ra and all those other Masters of the Universe, Filmation leapt late upon Disney’s coattails to exploit Carlo Collodi’s classic juvenile novel; as one might expect, the results are at best pedestrian, and at worst as shoddy as a theatrical cartoon comes. On his first human birthday, the transmuted tot (Grimes) offers to deliver a jeweled box crafted by Geppetto (Bosley) for a mayoral commission that represents the modest acme of the craftsman’s career; he’s fleeced forthwith of the handicraft by a procyonine diddler (Asner) and his fezzed, primate secondary (Welker), and during misadventures largely consequent of his many betises, the guileless stripling finds himself twice relignified by a ghoulishly sorcerous puppeteer (Windom) and his satanic master (Jones), despite the subvention of the foregoing finaglers, an arrogant, apian aviator (Harris) and a wooden glowworm (Knotts). Co-founder Sutherland concluded his directorial career with this apparently well-intentioned feature, which is but a slight qualitative cut above Filmation’s usual fare: uninspired character design and low framerates are partially counterbalanced by prettily painted backgrounds and foregrounds, and some fair photic effects, a few of which are imaginatively rotoscoped. Alas, this movie’s overplus of unfunny comic relief padding its runtime by temporization is likely only to amuse the smallest kids, who might well be traumatized by some of its nightmarish scenes. Charmlessly cloying but inoffensive, its vocal dream cast is the most notable distinction of a product marketed to kids who couldn’t be bothered to care.

Instead, watch Unico in the Island of Magic.

Execrable: Lift Me Up

Lift Me Up (2015)
Directed by Mark Cartier
Written by Franco Zavala, Aviv Rubinstien, Mark Cartier
Produced by Mark Cartier, Jonny Jay, Lisha Yakub, Jacob Patrick, Franco Zavala, Mike Montgomery, Lars Anderson
Starring Todd Cahoon, Sarah Frangenberg, Shane Harper, Maureen McCormick, Jonny Jay, Chris Browning, Kathryn McCormick, Gene Gabriel, Jacob Patrick, Madison Hargrove, Mallory Hargrove, Lexi DiStefano, Rafael de la Fuente, Antonio D. Charity, Gary Hargrove
Frangenberg isn’t a pinch as pretty, pleasing, plausible or lightsome as anyone who might clothe with appeal her role of a tetchy teen whose dolor for her late mother is expressed in flailing dance and shared by the stepfather (Cahoon) who she loudly and routinely vituperates, a fit yet estrogenically hypersensitive gunnery sergeant who attends a support group with other proto-menopausal widowers to vent his grief and craft pottery. Nearly everyone in this tame yet overheated drama is wooden, strepitently hammy or interchanging between either unwatchable extreme, obliged by dialogue as stiff and screamingly unfunny, from the mouths of characters defined either by insipidity or quirks as cutesy as Michael Matta’s mincing music. Zavala’s conflict is sloppily fabricated with unexplained absurdities: Cahoon’s obdurately obtuse Marine — who nearly deserves the bitchy invective he sustains daily — protests his stepdaughter’s daily transport courtesy of her unmistakably innocuous, quasi-nerdy inamorato manqué (Harper) without his spoken permission, but when she’s traumatized that he disposed of her mother’s entire wardrobe and other possessions in a previous, purportedly purgative scene without consulting her in advance, can’t fathom why he’d need hers (and nobody else cares); sororal twins (Hargroves) who’ve the demeanor of flamers coked to the gills and popularity warranting an entourage at our carping protagonist’s high school invite her to a party with presumed intent to humiliate her, then lose their minds when she smooches a cute classmate (Fuente) on whom they’d both designs; a sojourn at the home of her negligent and inconsiderate father (Browning) impels the aspiring dancer to her inevitable reconciliation with his successor, but a minute of this deadbeat’s sleazy presence raises the question of why she’s at all eager to reside with him. Their script exposes Rubinstien’s and Cartier’s categorical inability to pen compelling drama or amusing comedy, but much of the latter’s unintentionally manifest in Kathryn McCormick’s choreography, whereby the lunky leading lady and her classmates fling themselves about goofily. Some of that terpsichorean welter is prefaced by a metaphorically convoluted dithyramb delivered by McCormick during her cameo, but it’s never more hilarious than when Frangenberg pantomimes and thrashes wackily through a hokily interpretive routine onstage at a climactic competition. Would that this entire movie was as genuinely entertaining as its risibly tossing steppers, or that its hour of story wasn’t padded with nearly another fifty minutes of filler.

Instead, watch Uncle Buck.

Mediocre: Class Action

Class Action (1990)
Directed by Michael Apted
Written by Samantha Shad, Carolyn Shelby, Christopher Ames
Produced by Robert W. Cort, Ted Field, Scott Kroopf, Christopher Ames, Carolyn Shelby, Kim Kurumada
Starring Gene Hackman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Colin Friels, Joanna Merlin, Laurence Fishburne, Donald Moffat, Jan Rubes, Matt Clark, Fred Dalton Thompson, Jonathan Silverman, Joan McMurtrey, Anne Ramsay

“Lawyers with a weakness for seeing the merits of the other side end up being employed by neither.”

–Richard J. Barnet, Roots of War, 1971

Conflicts of interest, filial gall and malversation taint a civil suit in which 150+ plaintiffs who’ve suffered third-degree burns and loss of limbs and loved ones from a station wagon’s elusive yet replicable, often fatal flaw are represented by a lawyerly firebrand (Hackman) renowned for his demagogic shifts and advocacy for underdogs in the cause of civil rights, opposed by his disaffected daughter (Mastrantonio), a viciously efficient litigator serving as counsel of a top-grade firm to the carmaker. When it isn’t yawing into embarrassingly soppy contretemps, Apted’s juridic drama works well its eminent cast in the service of a sensational story’s gravamen, all but undone by periodic, incredibly sloppy dialogue in a script that was treated for five years in twenty-five drafts! Authenticity endued to its most engrossing legal details is likely attributable to Shad, a civilist and attorney familiar with the knotty pitfalls of such cases. Regrettably, too much running time is spent in living rooms and offices, and too little in courtrooms before the climactic third act, and at least fifteen of these one hundred and ten minutes are alloted to unpalatably saccharine filler. Only faltering for delivery of their very worst lines, Hackman, Mastrantonio and most of the supporting cast are otherwise as excellent as expected, mirabile visu when judicially sparring. Effectively reprising his corporate crook from Darkman sans slaughterous intent and Raimi’s high camp, Friels is divertingly conniving and not without some genuine humanity as an accessary partner in Mastrantonio’s firm and bedroom, but both are bettered by Moffat, whose stiffly upstage bearing as their chief counsel precludes any notion of another in the role. Similarly, Thompson smoothly underplays an unconscionable automotive supervisor clearly unruffled by incidental deaths; would that Jan Rubes (who isn’t half so hammy here as in Dead of Winter) weren’t so goofy as one of his former electrical engineers, a witness as vital as stultifiable. All of this picture’s best and worst traits can be observed in a few microcosmic, consecutive scenes early in its second act: after Hackman’s wife and Mastrantonio’s mother (Merlin) mawkishly expires at the steps of a courthouse’s concourse, her sequent funeral’s almost unendurable for its gospel atmosphere and an anecdote recounted in Hackman’s eulogy, which both beggar bathos of ordinary conception. A pleasant, private dinner between father and daughter, subsequent essay to casually overcome their estrangement before her acrimony surfaces regarding his extramarital infidelities and professional repercussions, and an ensuing feud showcases both performers at the plausible pinnacle of their powers, both hitting their marks with reciprocal timing and expression as credible as any they’ve delivered…until this affray culminates to a cliche as corny as a contrivance from Law & Order‘s seventh season. That it so often descends into such mush is truly unfortunate, for this movie posits insights not explored in too many others: how calculation of actuarial expenses inspires automotive manufacturers to expose their emptors to terrible risk; that personal tragedy may eventuate from even the most noble judicatory achievement; how the sanctimony of social activism too often veils and feeds an inherently selfish nature; inadvertently, that common careerism can’t be conciliated with a healthy personal and particularly familial life. That last applies to both genders. Following an entertaining clash in court and the judge’s (Clark) chambers, dessert consists of a conclusion so sentimental that any viewer thereof whose lifeblood isn’t pure syrup may from their horripilation suffer a dermic malady. Essential viewing only for fans of Mastrantonio and especially Hackman, it’s not without some great moments…and at least as many schmaltzy enough to discountenance anyone who watches in good society.

Recommended for a double feature paired with The Verdict.

Execrable: Caught in the Web

Caught in the Web (2012)
Directed by Kaige Chen
Written by Kaige Chen, Danian Tang
Produced by Chen Hong, Huayi Cao, Ziwen Wang, Song Wei
Starring Yuanyuan Gao, Chen Yao, Mark Chao, Xueqi Wang, Hong Chen, Luodan Wang, Ran Chen, Yi Zhang, David Peck, Qing Huo, Ningyu Zhao
Obloquy’s inescapable in a corrupt and insular society, as an aggrieved secretary (Gao) in Hangzhou learns after video of her cool discommodity toward an old man on an omnibus goes viral. Neither are her employer (Wang), the opportunistic journalist (Yao) who publicizes the video, her intern (Wang) who shot it, nor their respective friends, families or colleagues immune from the repercussions of this infamy. That terrific scenario and the cogent social commentary it examples are ruined by the involutions of numerous, often incredible underplots to pad yet another of Chen’s disappointing features with approximately forty minutes. He’s still skilled as an actor’s director; his players’ performances are uniformly fine, despite his ludicrous story and maddeningly excessive editing whereby shots are cut from one vocalized clause to the next, appealing with apparent success to young audiences of a mean attention span that’s woefully meager. This isn’t the Chen who crafted brilliant, beautiful period pictures in the vanguard of the Fifth Generation during the ’80s and ’90s, but he who’s since shot rancid melodramas such as Killing Me Softly and The Promise, and filed with stupidly barratrous intent a lawsuit alleging copyright infringement against a frivolously comedic short lampooning the latter. Devoted fans may be pleased to observe his wife and co-producer Hong as the disgruntled spouse of longtime collaborator Xueqi Wang, both of whom enact a needlessly nugatory excursus with a dignified maturity exceeding the film’s. Yao supplies this flick’s most apropos representation as its sleazily unscrupulous program director, a role for which the perennially celebrated and unpleasant leading lady’s uniquely suited. Chen’s early work is echoed by a conclusion of elegiac elegance, which is sadly incongruous with the hour and fifty minutes precedent.

Mediocre: Nightbreed

Nightbreed (1990)
Directed and written by Clive Barker
Produced by Gabriella Martinelli, Joe Roth, David Barron, James G. Robinson, Mark Alan Miller, Michael G. Plumides Jr., David Robinson
Starring Craig Sheffer, Anne Bobby, David Cronenberg, Hugh Quarshie, Charles Haid, Doug Bradley, Catherine Chevalier, Kim and Nina Robertson, Hugh Ross, Malcolm Smith, Bob Sessions, Oliver Parker, Debora Weston, Nicholas Vince, Simon Bamford, Christine McCorkindale

The prophet perceives the whole world in terms of justice or injustice.

–Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets

His therapist (Cronenberg) was the last person to whom a welder (Sheffer) should’ve reported his dreams of larking, noctivagous freaks and monsters (Bradley, Chevalier, Ross, McCorkindale, et al.), for they’re just as perturbingly real, and ready to initiate into their haven tucked away in the Canadian backcountry anyone whose bloodlust jibes with their own. For all its ace artisanship and conceptual inspiration, Barker’s second feature (adapted from his novel Cabal) is defeated by its self-reverence and bathos, and far too silly to scare. Sheffer’s barely fair as a perplexed, persecuted protagonist, his strapping screen presence compensating for want of aggression his role requires; diametrically, doxy Bobby’s an aggravating ham opposite, especially when belting out a rankling rock song as frontwoman for a local band. Both leads are excelled by the villains: Cronenberg’s outrageously pestilential psychiatrist steals his every scene, allied with a Procrustean, provincial police chief (Haid) whose sadistic officiousness is matched only by the destructive overplus of the arsenal allocated him and the deputized yahoos under his command. However, all of this picture’s players are belittled by grotesque makeup with which scores of imaginative monstrosities are realized, and Steve Hardie’s phenomenal production design, best manifest as the modern industrial swank of Cronenberg’s offices, and a massive, subterraneous sepulture where the last remaining members of species eradicated by barbarities of homo sapiens reside under prophetic idolatry. Barker’s depiction of Baphomet assumes a countercultural import, allusively assimilating its downtrodden anathemas to the Knights Templar in as heretical a tale as anything he’s authored. His direction’s increasingly refined, but hasn’t the visceral punch of Hellraiser (or its first sequel helmed by Tony Randel), and it’s undermined as much by comedy as overperformance, neither of which Barker plies proficiently. Composed and arranged similarly to his synchronous scores for Beetlejuice, Batman, Darkman, Edward Scissorhands, etc., Danny Elfman’s playfully minacious music is fun but absurdly applied to nearly every running second, disrupting atmosphere and whelming attention. For this, misdirection, an initial theatrical cut of Barker’s butchered vision (since redressed in two expanded versions), and too many abysmal commixed with creative ideas, its mythologic and idolomantic promise is largely thwarted…and despite its excitement, it isn’t at all frightful.

Mediocre: Vatel

Vatel (2000)
Directed by Roland Joffé
Written by Jeanne Labrune, Tom Stoppard
Produced by Roland Joffé, Alain Goldman, Timothy Burrill, Catherine Morisse, Patrick Bordier
Starring Gérard Depardieu, Uma Thurman, Tim Roth, Julian Glover, Julian Sands, Timothy Spall, Murray Lachlan Young, Hywel Bennett, Richard Griffiths, Arielle Dombasle, Marine Delterme, Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu, Jérôme Pradon, Féodor Atkine, Nathalie Cerda, Emilie Ohana

“An aristocracy and a despotism differ but in name.”

–Edmund Burke, A Vindication of Natural Society

Among those extravaganzas conceived and organized at the behest of Prince Louis II de Bourbon-Condé (Glover) by his majordomo François Vatel (Depardieu) for a fete of three days in April of 1671 to the pleasure of a visitant King Louis XIV (Sands) and two-thousand attendees, most notable were: three regales comprehending plentitudes of savory and innovative delicacies; resplendently imaginative stages upon which renditions of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie sung by the prince’s wife, princess and chanteuse Claire-Clémence de Maillé-Brézé (Dombasle), and La Bourree, Colonna’s Absalom, and Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks accompanied by coruscating pyrotechnics are performed; intricately icy statuary in transience; the master chef’s suicide upon notification of his commission to serve the King in Versailles. Those famed feasts were likely of greater interest than this gorgeous yet turgid fictionalization, bloated for its stiltedly, excessively expositional dialogue treating of historic immediacies, improbably melodramatic royal intrigues, Joffé’s ham-fisted avian metaphors and a romance as silly as superfluously stale that bickers between Vatel and one fictive Anne de Montausier (Thurman). One needn’t agonize to ascertain what’s exquisite and excruciating here. Prandial pageantry victualed by Depardieu’s wonderworker are enough to satisfy even the most discriminating gastronomer, sets designed by Françoise Benoît-Fresco and Eric Viellerobe under the accomplished instruction of art directors Hervé Gallet Louise Marzaroli are ever more inventive, and Yvonne Sassinot de Nesle’s costumes are as much an eyeful, despite the anachronistically luxuriant liberties she indulged for the fabrication of certain dresses. Under their director’s limp baton, the cast yields mixed results…Depardieu and Glover acquit themselves adequately in spite of a prosaic script; typecast as a foppish fink after upstaging the leads of Rob Roy, Roth’s entertainingly hammy as a knavishly conniving Antoine Nompar de Caumont; Thurman and Sands seem to vie for the worst performance of both this picture and all others of its millennial year. Though Sands is the more accomplished in his field of atrocious acting, and dretching enough for his ludicrously wooden delivery, Thurman prevails for her gawky postures and insufferably stiff diction. They’re egregious, both far worse than Dombasle, who’s fine as an appurtenant player in many of Rohmer’s dramas, but struggles here to verbalize credibly in English. Similarly, the score may be Ennio Morricone’s worst — mincing, perfunctory pap that recommends how its audience should feel when viewing nearly every shot. Those most interesting scenes find Vatel plying a bricoleur’s ingenuity to compensate for shortages when preparing culinary and staged spectacles for the idle, deviant, hedonistic, mischievous royals of the belligerent Sun King’s court, as the despot contemplates le Grand Condé‘s fitness to lead his army against the brazen Dutch. Otherwise, the cliche conspiracies concocted by Labrune belie their refined trappings and sumptuous setting, Condé’s ritzy, restored Château de Chantilly and the stupendous stateliness of its luxe library and grand gardens in transition from the jardin à la française. Thurman’s pointless character overshadows the dynast’s fascinating and fecund mistresses — Louise de La Vallière (Ohana) is scarcely sighted, and Delterme’s fetching yet fleeting as Françoise-Athénaïs de Rochechouart de Mortemart. Monsieur Duke of Orléans Philippe I (Young, nigh as daffy as Sands) and his minions destructively disport and pursue pederasty as his regal elder brother strains to defecate behind a screen while colloguing with Condé, whose serfs and servants suffer indignities and an unfortunate death while their tormentors repast and relish their spreads and entertainments. Joffé’s career was years into its decline when he consumed this picture’s promise, and while his contrast of these nobles’ abuse and debauchery with the helot’s hardship is as justified as artlessly blatant, his disregard for the actual accomplishments of its hero and malefactors is unforgivably philistine. Here, the misattribution of crème Chantilly to Vatel’s origination is perpetuated, his suicide provoked by an unlikely aversion to servitude; in reality, he was an exemplary maître d’hôtel of two Lucullan banquets who buckled under the pressure of the second and rashly took his life when he wrongly assumed that a consignment of fish wouldn’t arrive in sufficient time for the preparation of seafood. A comedy of his exploits and demise would’ve been more engaging and dignified (if not palatable), but so too would an impartial biopic concerning any of the historical figures misrepresented and derogated herein. Miramax distributed this Anglo-French production stateside, released concurrently and thematically parallel to their popular, preposterous Chocolat: yet another overproduced, Anglophone, cinematic calumniation of French history depicting it as a struggle between racist, sexist, classist, unjust Gallic society and its beauteous, talented, tyrannized latitudinarians — a class of pablum on which British and American hausfrauen and their fat daughters gorged themselves epulose, while Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed and abused dozens of actresses on two continents. Those are the cattle for which this provender’s intended; sybarites and cineastes may enjoy the filigreed luxury of its production and art design, but beneath its surface, they’ll find only a scurrilous soap opera swilled to surburban swine.
Instead, watch The Madness of King George.

Execrable: Battle Royale II: Requiem

Battle Royale II: Requiem (2003)
Directed by Kenta & Kinji Fukasaku
Written by Kenta Fukasaku, Norio Kida
Produced by Kenta Fukasaku, Kimio Kataoka, Shigeyuki Endo, Hikaru Kawase, Masumi Okada
Starring Tatsuya Fujiwara, Ai Maeda, Shugo Oshinari, Ayana Sakai, Haruka Suenaga, Yuma Ishigaki, Riki Takeuchi, Miyuki Kanbe, Masaya Kikawada, Yoko Maki, Maki Hamada, Yuki Ito, Michiho Matsumoto, Natsuki Kato, Aja, Seiichi Ebina, Ayumi Hanada, Mika Kikuchi, Takeru Shibaki, Gou Ryugawa, Chisato Miyao, Kenji Harada, Yuuko Morimoto, Ryoji Fujihira, Shoko Sato, Yasutake Yuboku, Aiko Moriuchi, Kayo Nayuki, Kouta Yamada, Musashi Kubota, Minami Kanazawa, Kazuki Yamamoto, Makoto Sakamoto, Asuka Ishii, Takeshi Kitano

“The conventional army loses if it does not win. The guerilla wins if he does not lose.”

–Henry Kissinger, The Vietnam Negotiations

Is any entertainment of every medium so apt to failure or destined for disappointment as the common sequel? Whether so or not, Fukasaku’s satirically slaughterous classic deserved far better than his son’s cornball chaos of diminished impact, political pretensions and execrable enactment. Two skyscrapers felled by terrorists prompt the Japanese government to temporize, so a class of twoscore and twain is conscripted from a school for delinquents to storm the offending cell’s insular compound and assassinate its jefe (Fujiwara), one of the preceding pic’s surviving twosome. Alas, Kinji Fukasaku expired after shooting a few scenes, and as Kenta lacks the clairvoyance, scrupulous eye and decades of experience evidenced in his father’s best productions, this blatant mistake presents its audience with violence as prosaic and drama as overheated as that of any vehicle starring Steven Segal or Jean-Claude van Damme unintended for theatrical release. Every fifteen to twenty minutes, corny confrontations, maudlin monologues or needlessly expositive flashbacks punctuate the mingy plot to worsen a plodding pace, and combat wherein hammy hysterics abound is nearly as dreary as intervals during which the principals merely mope about. Unlike this forgettable fodder, more than half of the first flick’s fatal, photogenic freshmen were memorably individual for their esprit, and this contradistinction’s as attributable to poor performances as deficient characterization. Sullenly stoic Maeda plays the daughter of Takeshi Kitano’s dead pedagogue without a trace of her junior sister’s charm, Fujiwara’s too cute to be believed as a hardened terrorist, and while the overt delivery twitched and snarled by clamant rebel Oshinari and glowering teacher Takeuchi are amusing while the students are geared, it’s at best tiresome thenceforth. Kitano, Aki Maeda and Sonny Chiba are wasted in cameos, as is one clever idea: with the inducted yet raucous students numbered in yoked pairs, the lethality of their explosive collars is extended; detonations are avoided by obedience and constant progress, but now also the compliance, proximity and survival of either partner. Naturally, this escalated threat is literally defused rather than exploited early in the second act, after which mushy melodrama and trite, insurrectionary postures dominate an hour’s longueur. Politically, this denunciation of American imperium is tenable, and identification of its protagonists with Al-Qaida daringly provocative for a major motion picture produced in the early aughts, but Fujiwara’s preachments betray this particular anti-imperialist creed as no more sensible or sophisticated than a T-shirt printed with Che Guevara’s portrait, worn by a pampered Ivy Leaguer endowed with a fulsome trust fund. Likewise, anti-American sentiment isn’t terribly convincing in an overwrought, overscored movie replete with doleful schmalz, cheap CG and hideous chromatic filters; Fukasaku’s flop rails against the United States’ foreign policy, yet mimics so many of Hollywood’s worst trends. The bracing pace, striking suspense, black hilarity, sociosexual insights, devastating tragedies and slick style of its predecessor is all but forgotten in this unmitigated clunker, perhaps the longest 134 minutes in cinematic history. Even if he’d stepped into his father’s shoes without stumbling, Fukasaku couldn’t overcome the verity that sinks his foray: adolescent war against adults is as stupid a concept as a planet where apes evolve from men.
Instead, watch Wedlock/Deadlock, Cyber City Oedo 808 or Battle Royale.