Execrable: The Night We Never Met

The Night We Never Met (1993)
Directed and written by Warren Leight
Produced by Michael Peyser, Robert De Niro, Rudd Simmons, Mary Ann Page, Janet Graham, Daniel Rogosin, Susan Seidelman, Sidney Kimmel, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein
Starring Matthew Broderick, Annabella Sciorra, Kevin Anderson, Justine Bateman, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Tim Guinee, Michelle Hurst, Christine Baranski
Leight’s insipidly indirect contribution to the surplusage of charmless, unfunny, independently produced romantic comedies that glutted American theaters in the ’90s contains all the earmarks of its genus: smarm substituted for sarcasm, painfully proportionate protraction and predictability, and an abject absence of agreeable characters. Obstructed and repelled by the slovenly roommates with whom he shares a flyblown apartment, a precious, superficially cultured delicatesseur (Broderick, at his career’s nadir) employed at Dean & DeLuca who harbors a restauranteur’s aspirations sublets more comfortable and commodious lodgings from a scummily sexist broker (Anderson) biweekly, as does a miserably married dental assistant (Sciorra) who luxuriates only in her painterly avocation. Both men (and the audience) tolerate dismal women: ever a milksop, the fromagier dotes on a dimwitted performance artist (Tripplehorn, burlesquing an atrocious French accent) who works him like her personal punch press, while his piggish landlord’s engaged to magisterial and neanderthaloid dullard Bateman, who couldn’t be more suitable for the role of a dense virago. By correspondence and favors, both of the desperate leaseholders (who repeatedly, adorably miss one other) establish a remote sympathy, but enduringly discommodious misapprehensions characteristic of a plot belabored during a sitcom’s seventh season separate them until a distinctly underwhelming conclusion. It’s far worse a rigor than most flicks of its subgenre: plodding formulaically through its three hoary acts — every development of which any child could readily presage — character development is advanced an inch in toto through wearily dilatory sequences clumsily punctuated by ill-timed fades and lousy editing to the jazzy twee of Evan Lurie’s unbearable score, all parading the inefficiencies of the writer-director and his post-production staff. An apish, clamorous tantrum provoked from Bateman briefly dispels supreme tedium, but cameos from Garry Shandling and Louise Lasser only remind viewers that they could instead be watching something worthwhile, or at least humorous. Impressively, Leight fulfilled what ought be an impossibility by raising the funds to produce an ostensive comedy void of a single amusing scene.

Palatable: Criminal Law

Criminal Law (1988)
Directed by Martin Campbell
Written by Mark Kasdan
Produced by Robert K. MacLean, Hilary Heath, Ken Gord, Derek Gibson, John Daly
Starring Gary Oldman, Kevin Bacon, Karen Young, Tess Harper, Elizabeth Shepherd, Joe Don Baker, Michael Sinelnikoff, Sean McCann
Scruples are foisted upon rather than acquired by a complete, cocksure criminal defense attorney (Oldman) after the wealthy, pyromaniacal serial rapist and murderer (Bacon) for whom he’s wrested an acquittal resolves to retain his services in exchange for extravagant remuneration and an unbidden firsthand exhibition of his malefactions. Notwithstanding its universal critical scorn, Oldman’s performance is actually fine, albeit marred by a nebulously unconvincing pan-Atlantic accent. Neither are his co-stars at all deficient; as the demented recidivist, Bacon’s frightful, gazing conviction occasionally dwarfs Oldman’s own presence: both sustain an absorbing naturalistic tension whether delivering dialogue elegant or bromidicly ostentatious. Accomplished action director Campbell triggers some efficacious shocks with taut cuts, clamant foley and tight close-ups and zooms, but this flick’s proficiently depicted morbidity and violence hardly composes its most intriguing scenes. A curious contradistinction between the counselor’s most dramatic exchanges with two detectives of his reluctant connivance (Harper, Baker) and a victim’s acquaintance (Young) with whom he’s romantically involved, and those allusive with an avuncular law professor (Sinelnikoff), his brooding client and his frigid mother (Shepherd) divulge the pathologic key to both the murders and their motive, impel narrative and characters alike, and reflect the duplicities immanent of the culprit, his counsel and jurisprudence itself. Alas, the novel story is burdened with implausibility: Young and Oldman produce terrific chemistry together, but the amorous aspect of their relationship is as absurd as a gaping hole in an otherwise tidy plot: the most fledgling investigator would have solved this case within minutes of the aforementioned key’s inculpative disclosure; one can only assume that Mitchell’s trenchancy’s been much reduced by crapulence. Campbell’s slick direction is buttressed by the alternating grime and floridity of Curtis Schnell’s sensational production design, best evidenced in a wooden, subterranean bedchamber of a nautical theme. Its many flaws don’t overcome this prepossessing (if occasionally preposterous) crime drama’s strengths, chief among them an antagonist whose personal depth and deplorably thoughtful proposal of retributive incendiarism and murder as both a perquisite and moral obligation have few cinematic similitudes.

Sublime: Cul-de-Sac

Cul-de-Sac (1966)
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Roman Polanski, Gérard Brach
Produced by Sam Waynberg, Gene Gutowski, Michael Klinger, Tony Tenser
Starring Donald Pleasence, Françoise Dorléac, Lionel Stander, Geoffrey Sumner, Renee Houston, Jack MacGowran, Iain Quarrier
A marital mismatch’s lifestyle of reputed repose is disrupted by twain waves of welter when a jittery, retired industrialist (Pleasence) and his beddable, whimsically wanton trophy wife (Dorléac) residing in an ancient manse of the Northumberland seaboard suffer imposition first by an injured couple of crooks (Stander, MacGowran), then an unheralded party of the retiree’s intolerable friends. Polanski’s jet-black comedy first pits natural nebbish Pleasence against raspy Stander’s buirdly barbarism, but both the characters’ and audience’s sympathies are twisted by actions wholly dictated by fancy and umbrage, relating a common superficiality between perpetrator and bourgeois. Keenly scripted and shot by one of but a few filmmakers to exploit both Dorléac sisters effectively, this hysterical specimen of Polanski’s perfect pacing and inconspicuously painstaking images merely demonstrates that necessaries are more relative and less overt than most might imagine.

Favorites: The Flower of My Secret

The Flower of My Secret (1995)
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Written by Dorothy Parker, Pedro Almodóvar
Produced by Agustín Almodóvar, Esther García
Starring Marisa Paredes, Juan Echanove, Carme Elias, Chus Lampreave, Rossy de Palma, Manuela Vargas, Imanol Arias, Joaquín Cortés, Kiti Mánver
One can always expect eclat from an ensemble at Almodovar’s command, and his histrions hardly disappoint in the umbra of Paredes’ powerful performance as a genre novelist deluged by passions: torrid longing for her absent husband (Arias), a NATO lieutenant-colonel dispatched to belligerent Bosnia, concern for her spry and morbidly voluble mother (Lampreave), and diversion from the authorship of popular lightweight fare for which she’s grown weary by a furor scribendi freshly inspired by chastened rancor. Cinematic melodrama has seldom if ever felt so plausible as when wrought by one of the medium’s few remaining great storytellers, whose diegesis subtly predicates willing purblindness as a result of anonymity and rigidity. Secrets regarding authenticity, identity and infidelity are implied with gestures and aspects shortly preceding their revelations, but these are mere MacGuffins designed to conduce far more substantial realizations of love incipient and unrequited. Paredes’ middle-aged resemblance to Lauren Bacall is terribly felicitous to their affinities of charisma and nice delivery; she emotes a sweep of elation, resentment, reflection, heartbreak without overplaying a frame. Brazilian DP Affonso Beato lenses Almodovar’s characteristically gorgeous visuals with pizzazz, despite relatively muted hues (in contrast to his collaborations with José Luis Alcaine) to suit his story’s diminished levity, most of which resides in the squabbles of the author’s mother and nettled sister (the invariably divine de Palma). Pedro’s devotees will immediately recognize the sordid premise of a purloined manuscript and a provincial Almagran locality, both of which were reused in one of his best ulterior movies.
Recommended for a double feature paired with Volver.

Execrable: Chocolat

Chocolat (2000)
Directed by Lasse Hallström
Written by Joanne Harris, Robert Nelson Jacobs
Produced by Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Alan C. Blomquist, Meryl Poster, Michelle Raimo, Kit Golden, David Brown, Leslie Holleran, Mark Cooper
Starring Juliette Binoche, Alfred Molina, Lena Olin, Johnny Depp, Victoire Thivisol, Judi Dench, Hugh O’Conor, Peter Stormare, Carrie-Anne Moss, Aurelien Parent Koenig
Viewers affected by glycemic disorders aren’t advised to view the most successful and saccharine of Hallström’s many syrupy features in a single sitting; conceivably, anyone prone to horripilation may also suffer convulsions of a severity thitherto unimaginable when subjected to this foul fable of a periodically migratory chocolatier (Binoche) whose animacy and perceptivity regarding her vendees’ adversities and sweet teeth endear her to the less subdued residents of a rigidly religious village in postwar France. Throughout Harris’s puerile story, every conflict is contrived, each character a caricature: a latitudinarian society of Mary Sues comprising Binoche’s errant artisan, her cute daughter (a heinously dubbed Thivisol), one battered housewife (Olin), a miserably cynical old bat (Dench) and her morbid drafter of a grandson (Koenig) resist the provincial proprieties imposed by the hamlet’s stuffily overbearing mayor (Molina) and the gauring, pusillanimous priest (O’Conor) under his thumb who assay the reclamation of a churlish publican (Stormare) to curb his domestic abuse by dint of penance and catechesis. A maternal bitch (Moss, presumably manifesting internalized patriarchal oppression) and daffily debonaire Irish Gypsy (Depp) merely incorporate another implausible clash and prerequisite love interest. Hopelessly trifled away by a director whose unceasing and seemingly obstinate ignorance of dramatic rudiments befuddles even the most hardened cinephile on an incorrigibly risible script, a respectable cast are reduced to the weirdly stilted yet hammy delivery now omnipresent in televised and cinematic productions: odious drama club theatrics revisited as professional pabulum. Launching the drearily perfunctory phase of his career that’s yet afoot, somnambulant Depp’s silly flourishes prove particularly peeving as yet another bathetically romanticized Romani — a portrayal of galling and specious political correctness proposed to patronize we Roma who know far better for the entertainment of whites who should. Numerous hokey hallmarks of Hallström’s glorified Lifetime picture wantonly layer treacle upon his unpalatably overproduced glop, especially shopworn narration paired with Rachel Portman’s cloying score to augur whichever few plot points aren’t predictable during the first act. A shred of depth is implied by the protagonist’s perpetuation of a ritual no more fruitful or righteous than those of her papal antagonists, but even this is enacted and duly resolved in as artless and obvious a manner as one could expect. Therewithal, whenever common flaws of a conservative society — which here hardly reflect the ethos of Gallic parochial life — are demonstrated in a work exuding typically trite Anglo-American convictions, deleterious phenomena such as spousal abuse and groundless xenophobia are trivialized, only addressed to safely vilipend a majority. This particular stamp of heterodox allegory might’ve been marginally subversive during the commercial culmination of Stanley Kramer’s popular propaganda forty-odd years prior, but by 2000 it was long since as dated as banal, another tired stab at Catholic tradition to propitiate aging suburban boomers and their guileless offspring, all weaned on the dissent of a counterculture long since expired and reanimated by corporate media entities. Yet to ostentatious hausfrauen, civilization began circa 1960; the Weinsteins craftily baited yet another hook for the gaping maws of a lucrative target demographic. Confections prominently snacked and snarfed appear ambrosial, but the contemptible subtext that Harris, Hallström, etc. peddle here is nothing save nauseous.

Mediocre: Savage Streets

Savage Streets (1984)
Directed by Danny Steinmann
Written by Danny Steinmann, Norman Yonemoto
Produced by John Strong, John L. Chambliss, Michael Franzese, Cleve Landsberg
Starring Linda Blair, Robert Dryer, Johnny Venocur, Debra Blee, Scott Mayer, Marcia Karr, Luisa Leschin, Sal Landi, Linnea Quigley, John Vernon, Lisa Freeman
A trashy high school coterie in filthy Hollywood trifles with a slaughterous trio of drug dealers to their terminal peril until the baddest (Blair) among them snaps, gussies herself up and exacts her requital with bear traps and a crossbow. Nary a single silly shot of Steinmann’s late exploitation thriller doesn’t divert — not the derision, pranks, catfights or combat — and all present are serviceably typecast as confiding rape victim (Quigley), meshuga malefactor (Dryer), rugged yet ineffectual authority figure (Vernon), et al. Blair’s coked to her tingling teeth, consonant with her castmates, and consequently unable to render her role with the deportment of a sane human, yet she nails the frenzied furor of her character’s vigilantist break with fantastic panache, spouting cheesy, deliciously dynamic dialogue. Yonemoto and Steinmann imparted to their script meager logic but liberal requisites of its genre, blazoned with lascivious nudity and equally gratuitous gore. For all its inane engagement, Streets still can’t prompt a moment’s boredom, but it might’ve been bettered by less ribbing in interchange for more action; howbeit, ladies are never so delightfully daffy in B-fare as when so patently scripted by men!
Recommended for a double feature paired with The Warriors.

Palatable: Cash McCall

Cash McCall (1960)
Directed by Joseph Pevney
Written by Cameron Hawley, Lenore J. Coffee, Marion Hargrove
Produced by Henry Blanke
Starring James Garner, Natalie Wood, Dean Jagger, Henry Jones, Nina Foch, E.G. Marshall, Roland Winters, Edward Platt, Otto Kruger
Of the plenteous polished, peremptory alpha males who dominated lead roles in the postwar era, few were so versatile as Garner, who’s as becoming to the part of a suave financier as it he. When the aging, harried proprietor (Jagger) of a plastics manufacturer wearies of the clout abused by the administrator (Winters) of his largest client, he divests himself by sale to the vulpine raider, whose extravagant emption is as much a means to pursue the hand of his vendor’s beauteous daughter (Wood) with whom he’s enamored as a legitimate transaction. A succession of misunderstandings arising from incessant machinations, the intrigues of an embittered and infatuated assistant hotel manager (Foch) and the tainted reputation of his trade threaten to stymie McCall’s romantic and financial prospects, but by scheme and sincerity, he prevails; don’t they always? In conceivably the most satisfying of all his theatrical vehicles, the charismatic star neither overplays nor disappoints in practice of guile and reposed confession of heartsick vulnerability. None among the supporting players constitute a weak link, either: Marshall’s in fine, typecast form as McCall’s humorless lawyer, Foch metes charm and pathos to lend plausibility to her inane divorcee and Jones renders comic relief as a scrupulous yet ambitious efficiency consultant whose moral permutation underscores the narrative’s principle theme. However, this cast’s jewel is the indispensable love interest: ever a paragon of filmic femininity, Wood’s loveliness nearly exceeds her expressive elan as the lively, lovelorn lass. This time capsule from the close of the ’50s is irrefutably dated: Wood’s screen mother advises her to marry in lieu of a frivolous career in illustration, and Garner mentions the fugacious potential of a military contract (ha!) in an obiter dictum. Its fun — and an unexpected depth of characterization revealed by copious exposition — is no less certain.

Sublime: Hotel des Amériques

Hotel des Amériques (1981)
Directed by André Téchiné
Written by André Téchiné, Gilles Taurand
Produced by Alain Sarde
Starring Catherine Deneuve, Patrick Dewaere, Etienne Chicot, Sabine Haudepin, Dominique Lavanant, François Perrot, Josiane Balasko
Desolation’s the commonality that binds an anesthesiologist (Deneuve) whose addiction to barbiturates stanches the grief attending her inamorato’s recent death, and the erratically unbalanced son (Dewaere) of a hotel manager when she nearly runs him down in the wee hours; their untenable yet persisting romance provokes a constellation of acquaintances, especially his guarded yet ardent sister (Haudepin) and intolerably ignoble best friend (Chicot, as usual). Their first of seven collaborations to date finds Téchiné and Deneuve alike enkindling the best in one another as he explores his protagonists’ fervor and heartbreak, skirting elegiac conventions to relate the durability of a love buckled beneath the weight of derangement and insecurity. Through Téchiné’s lenses, Biarritz brims with forlorn poignancy and his single, elegantly exposed augury consorts with the yearning emanative in every surpassing personation, attesting the Gallic conviction that all solitude either bespeaks or occasions misery.

Favorites: F for Fake

F for Fake (1973)
Directed by Orson Welles
Written by Orson Welles, Oja Kodar
Produced by François Reichenbach, Dominique Antoine, Richard Drewitt
Starring Orson Welles, Oja Kodar, Elmyr de Hory, Clifford Irving, François Reichenbach, Laurence Harvey
This tribute to frauds and chicanery by American cinema’s rotund doyen disbosomed his enduring innovation with idiomatic economy by expanding the breadth of documentary form and style. Welles profiles a trio of impostors: embattled, consummate art forger Elmyr de Hory, his biographer Clifford Irving (himself notorious for inditing the sham Howard Hughes autobiography) and himself, the guileful stage magician who’d famously illuded a credulous interwar radio audience to the conviction that Martians had invaded New Jersey. With a profusion of often specious interviews and anecdotes, facetious speculation, convivial discourse, edited artifice and the allure of his leggy trophy wife Oja Kodar, Welles plumbs the mythoi of his subjects with relative indifference to veracity, knowingly betraying the fine (if extant) line delineating art and entertainment from skulduggery. Natheless, his excursive narrative is neither nugatory nor exclusively preoccupied with matters duplicitous: from one brilliantly cut sequence in which Hory and Irving (shot individually) appear tensely discordant as the former struggles to extenuate, Welles deftly segues to a profound meditation on the universal transience of life and attainment alike. Few filmmakers have showcased themselves with such indulgence or substance, surpassing most of his contemporaries and rivalling the visionary New Hollywood successors who esteemed him in veneration. Never mind what’s authentic or counterfeit herein; for every ball in each of the obese master’s dexterous hands, he’s three lofted, and the assiduous craft evident in his intriguing disquisition, painstaking conjoint editing and prestidigitation verify the playful prowess of an interdisciplinary veteran prone to draw the curtain back, as likely as not to disclose what may be another illusion.
Recommended for a double feature paired with A Man Vanishes.

Execrable: The Last Slumber Party

The Last Slumber Party (1988)
Directed by Stephen Tyler
Written by Stephen Tyler, Jim Taylor
Produced by Jill Clark, Bill F. Blair, Betty S. Scott
Starring Jan Jenson, Nancy Mayer, Joann Whitley, Rick Polizi, David Whitley, Danny David, Lance Descourez
One can only speculate from its uniquely categorical inferiority that this choice contender for the coveted title of World’s Worst Slasher was less directed than wrangled over a weekend’s duration. Flagrant flubs, erratic continuity and cretinous characterizations abound, proving more memorable than some premise involving a serial murderer’s escape from a hospital where he’s scheduled for a lobotomy, and subsequent massacre of his physician’s unaccountably licentious nurse, obnoxious daughter, her halfwitted friends, their oafish prospective boyfriends, etc. Only thematically hackneyed, its sheer schlock is almost visionary: the acting’s arrantly atrocious, audio is muffled, editing wildly irregular, its jejune dialogue reads like that scripted by an outraged adolescent and murky photography seems to have been achieved with a beclouding, lenticular application of petroleum jelly, and the soundtrack might have been derived from a recording of a Casio keyboard abused by a toddler. Its final thirty-odd minutes degenerate into a laggard, somniferous slog that may represent some attempt to simulate surrealism. It’s best tolerated as a backdrop to amusing RiffTrax zingers, but for cinematic horror completists, the unsurpassed incompetence palpable in its every property is a wonder to watch.