Mediocre: Dead of Winter

Dead of Winter (1987)
Directed by Marc Shmuger, John Bloomgarden, Arthur Penn
Written by Anthony Gilbert, Marc Shmuger, Mark Malone
Produced by John Bloomgarden, Marc Shmuger, Michael MacDonald
Starring Mary Steenburgen, Jan Rubes, Roddy McDowall, William Russ, Mark Malone, Ken Pogue, Wayne Robson
Shmuger’s and Malone’s admittedly clever reworking of My Name is Julia Ross was sufficiently dissimilar to Joseph H. Lewis’s mediocre noir melodrama and the novel from which it was adapted (Gilbert’s The Woman in Red) for them to circumvent both copyrights and any associative legal action, but the goofy, glossy result is only technically superior to its source. Later a failed executive of Universal Pictures and Luc Besson’s tiresome EuropaCorp, Shmuger was reportedly unprepared for his first week’s directorial difficulties, and hired Penn to helm this picture while his co-producer Bloomgarden did so intervallically. Nina Foch’s working girl lured though an employment office by a mother and her twisted son to their seaside estate, where’s she’s confined and publicly paraded as his missing wife, is recharacterized as an unemployed actress (Steenburgen) hired at a casting call by the vivacious valet (McDowall) of a crippled psychiatrist (Rubes) to perform a screen test at the shrink’s mansion during a snowstorm in upstate New York on behalf of a Canadian filmmaker who’s reportedly lost to squabbles his leading lady, to whom she’s identical. It’s certainly nice to behold: Jan Weincke’s sharp, brilliant photography is commendable for its distinct yet balanced contrast, exhibiting Bill Brodie’s splendid production design and sets appointed by Mark S. Freeborn and Paul Harding that emphasize the luxuriance of the wealthy mythomaniac’s manse and cozy modesty of Steenburgen’s apartment. Especially in dramatic worm’s-eye and lingering still shots, Penn’s usual craftsmanship is executed as adroitly as ever, and snappily cut by Rick Shaine. However, this particular journeyman’s inclination to grant his casts carte blanche has always determined the varied quality of his best (Bonnie and Clyde, Night Moves, The Missouri Breaks) and worst (Alice’s Restaurant, Penn & Teller Get Killed) movies. Perennial ham Rubes looks and sounds like elderly Werner Herzog channeling one of Adam Sandler’s zanier characters; he hasn’t a line too brief or gesture too small to overplay. Once infallible even whenever over the top (see The Legend of Hell House), McDowall’s instincts were diminished either by years of roles in B-features or Rubes’ influence, for he seems to be vying with the elder Czech for the blue ribbon with laughably mincing mannerisms. Steenburgen tackles three parts with gusto, but falters in two when attempting to maintain tonal accordance with Rubes. Consequently, the third act descends into a silliness that should’ve been suspense. For all this tale’s riveting twists, its production’s polish and a couple of appellative winks to Julia Ross, it’s largely ruined by Rubes’ gaping japery, and his co-stars’ attempts to meet it.

Mediocre: Bless the Child

Bless the Child (2000)
Directed by Chuck Russell
Written by Cathy Cash Spellman, Thomas Rickman, Clifford Green, Ellen Green
Produced by Mace Neufeld, Stratton Leopold, Bruce Davey, Lis Kern, Robert Rehme
Starring Kim Basinger, Jimmy Smits, Holliston Coleman, Rufus Sewell, Angela Bettis, Christina Ricci, Michael Gaston, Lumi Cavazos, Dimitra Arliss, Eugene Lipinski, Anne Betancourt, Ian Holm, Helen Stenborg
Who would’ve guessed that a supposedly autistic, wonderworking ginger (Coleman) birthed and deserted within a fortnight by a junkie (Bettis) and raised lovingly by a psychiatric nurse (Basinger) in her sister’s stead was destined to fulfill some unspecified, pivotal prophecy? Only an unctuous self-help guru (Sewell), who instructs his Luciferian cult to locate, slay and brand children of NYC sharing her birthday until they identify by her thaumaturgy the Delphian tot, and deliver her by abduction to their heresiarch’s corrupting claptrap. Less dopey than but just as predictable as coetaneous Stigmata or End of Days, Russell’s briskly paced and constantly conventional religious thriller has as little sense as doctrine, but it’s entertaining enough as a vehicle for its gracefully aging leading lady. Smits is fitly typecast as a federal agent whose investigation of the serial juvecides leads him into the orbit of Basinger’s aunt, as are perennially ghoulish Bettis as her sordidly squirrely sister and Ricci, half as sleazy in the recreant role of another heroin addict. Holm’s fugaciously frittered late in the second act, playing a crippled, defrocked Jesuit who paraphrases Baudelaire’s famously reiterated quote and furnishes vatical exposition in a bogus brogue. Despite Peter Menzies Jr.’s warmly attractive photography, most of the interiors are consistently overlit. Spuriously digital rats, winged demons and a cameo by Beelzebub himself are qualitatively comparable to figures of a video game’s cutscene, but a trio of volatile, irradiant angels (resembling those mortally recorded in Brainstorm) are prettily imaged without physitheistic banality during the picture’s climax. Neither Spellman nor the adapting screenwriters bothered to research European sorcery, here misattributed to druids of the 16th century and Hebraically incanted by Sewell’s reprobate! For fans of Basinger, still felicific and photogenic well into her fifth decade, or of genre pictures that treat of their extramundane subject with moderate religiosity and theurgy, this passable, periodically preposterous pic should fit the bill.

Mediocre: Babes in Toyland

Babes in Toyland (1986)
Directed by Clive Donner
Written by Glen MacDonough, Paul Zindel
Produced by Tony Ford, Neil T. Maffeo, Anthony Spinner, Bill Finnegan, Patricia Finnegan, Sheldon Pinchuk
Starring Drew Barrymore, Richard Mulligan, Keanu Reeves, Jill Schoelen, Googy Gress, Pat Morita, Eileen Brennan, Walter Buschhoff, Shari Weiser, Rolf Knie, Gaston Häni, Pipo Sosman, Chad Carlson
Middling production values and design, clever yet unmemorable musical numbers and plenteous daffy havoc distinguish this sweet yet slight televised adaptation of Victor Herbert’s and Glen MacDonough’s fabular operetta from its six predecessors. One inanely implausible automotive accident during a blizzard on Christmas Eve delivers a preteen (Barrymore) to a fantastic municipality resembling a tidy, second-rate theme park populated by bipedally anthropomorphic animals and characters from nursery rhymes to unite a pair of lovers (Reeves, Schoelen), learn a few lessons from a magian artisan (Morita) in Santa’s employ, and thwart the maniacally pleonexic designs of a feathered, usurious scoundrel (Mulligan). For adults, entertainment resides in these principals’ alternately wooden and hammy delivery, and Donner’s perfunctory direction leaves but a bit to the imagination, but this musical’s adequate for families whose wee ones aren’t yet terribly demanding, fans of America’s favorite little addict when she was still only incipiently corrupt, and anyone apt to ogle Reeves and Schoelen for their pulchritude. Brennan’s comic timing exceeds that of her co-stars, but she’s granted regrettably scanty screen time. Don’t expect much of Herbert’s music, which is quoted occasionally in Leslie Bricusse’s score and songs. Two versions were broadcast in the United States and Germany, respectively running 140 and 95 minutes; the condensed shorter of these is commonly available on videocassette and videodisc, though both are streamed by various services.

Recommended for a double feature paired with The Wizard of Oz or Disney’s superior Babes in Toyland.

Mediocre: Back in Action

Back in Action (1994)
Directed by Steve DiMarco, Paul Ziller
Written by Karl Schiffman
Produced by George Flak, Rae Crombie, Allan Levine
Starring Roddy Piper, Billy Blanks, Bobbie Phillips, Kai Soremekun, Matt Birman, Nigel Bennett, Damon D’Oliveira, Rob Stefaniuk, Sam Malkin
Supererogative emphasis on that titular action forms and fills to its brim the paltry plot of this desipiently diverting B-grade actioner pairing its strapping pro wrestler and expert exerciser turned action stars. Cliches compel and conjoin in vengeance a police detective (Piper) whose partner was messily slain and a veteran of the Special Forces (Blanks) violently striving to locate his presumably kidnapped, senselessly injudicious sister (Soremekun), who choke, clout, kick, flip, slam, stab, stomp, throw, shoot and defenestrate a horde of henchmen resembling barmen, bikers, janitors, electricians, street magicians, Michael Bolton, G.E. Smith and the Saturday Night Live Band, and the Super Mario Brothers to confront the Final Boss, a natty, minaciously eccentric drug lord (Bennett) and his greasily merciless coadjutor (Birman) bedizened with nocturnal sunglasses and a medallion. They hardly duplicate that macho magic nailed by Piper and Keith David when memorably brutalizing each other, brooding together and slaughtering extraterrestrial cops and yuppies in They Live, but the lovably lunky Canadian grappler is nicely complemented by beefy Blanks, who ably performs most of his flying stunts and…recites his lines clearly. The entire cast amuse deliberately and otherwise, especially toothily toothsome Soremekun, whose mobster’s moll could scarcely be more absent in her vestural frivolity to her impending peril. As intentionally funny as not, this caboose of the ’80s’ explosive glut is, subject entirely to one’s palate, delightful or discomfiting, perhaps both. As vital viewing for fans of either lead, it hasn’t a dull or sensible second.

Recommended for a double feature paired with They Live or Hell Comes to Frogtown.

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. After sharing a pleasant, private dinner, father and daughter 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. After 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.

Mediocre: Knowing

Knowing (2009)
Directed by Alex Proyas
Written by Ryne Douglas Pearson, Juliet Snowden, Stiles White
Produced by Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Alex Proyas, Steve Tisch, Ryne Douglas Pearson, David J. Bloomfield, Topher Dow, Norman Golightly, Stephen Jones, Aaron Kaplan, Sean Perrone
Starring Nicolas Cage, Chandler Canterbury, Rose Byrne, Ben Mendelsohn, Nadia Townsend, Lara Robinson, D.G. Maloney
It’s an ingenious germ worthy of Bradbury, Ellison or Eco: an apparent numerical cryptogram inscribed by a troubled schoolgirl in 1959 is stowed with her classmates’ conventionally juvenile images of a projected future in their school’s time capsule; disinterred a half-century later, it’s discovered to chronologically foretoken dates, death tolls and coordinates of numerous consequential catastrophes that occurred during its fifty years underground, as well as three imminent. Alas, in the pudgy paws of Proyas, this overscripted, overscored, overproduced eschatological thriller degenerates into bathetic banality when a widowed astrophysicist (Cage) tenured at MIT happens upon and interprets the portentous string after his bratty son (Canterbury) receives its leaf upon exhumation. What might’ve been a fun race to deter disasters presaged instead wallows in familial distress and sappy hysterics, bedizened with flagrantly fake CG in a picture focused on characters who’ve neither sufficient amenity nor insight to warrant such an overpersonalized story. Whether he’s underplaying monotonously or hamming his passions with that goofy voice, Cage is unfit as ever a dramatic lead; everyone else — including underfed Byrne — is credible yet unable to indue to their stock personae any especial interest. Some clever prefigurements, presagements and misdirections can’t salvage considerable potential trifled on tragedy depressing beyond engagement and mythic hokum in a story too trite to affect.

Mediocre: Gloria

Gloria (2014)
Directed by Christian Keller
Written by Sabina Berman
Produced by Alan B. Curtiss, Matthias Ehrenberg, Christian Keller, Barrie M. Osborne, Braulio Arsüaga, Joan Christian Carmona, Rodrigo de Santiago, Manuel Espino, Mario Ganon, Carlos Garcia de Paredes, Eduardo Gómez Treviño, José Levy, León Levy, José Asse Marcos, Sergio Palacios, Guillermo Pino, John Winston Rainey, Emma Ramos, Osvaldo Ríos, Eduardo Sitton, ElÍas Sitton, Siahou Sitton, Antonio Soave, Salomón Sutton, Yeoshua Syrquin, Diego Szychowski, Luis Szychowski, Jorge Trad, Patricio Trad, Gerardo Vaqueiro Ussel, Álvaro Vaqueiro Ussel, Vita Vargas, Alex Zito, Mariana Félix, Luis Díaz, Max Appedole, Ricardo Kleinbaum, Charlotte Larsen, Anthony Picciuto
Starring Sofía Espinosa, Marco Pérez, Tatiana del Real, Karla Rodriguez, Estrella Solís, Ximena Romo, Alejandra Zaid, Alicia Jaziz, Ma. Fernanda Monroy, Andrea Bentley, Andrea Isamar, Marisa Rubio, Gutemberg Brito, Marcia Coutiño, Clarissa Malheiros, Miriam Calderón, Pepe Olivares, Arturo Vázquez
Nolens volens, anyone who’s becharmed their nation is entitled to — or incumbered with — an unavoidable biopic. This glossy reenactment of the ascent, celebrity and scandal that established pop singer Gloria Trevi (Espinosa) as a household name in both her native Mexico and the Hispanosphere entire is the rare picture that might’ve moved more satisfaction for superficiality. Espinosa’s vocal and visual likeness to Trevi is as felicific as her personation opposite Pérez, who plays with equal energy her abusive, autocratic, egregiously polyamorous producer and unexclusive lover Sergio Andrade, under whose auspice the playfully prurient popstar’s career was formed, furthered, nearly foredone. No stranger to defamation, Trevi entertained understatement by repudiating this production as “aberrant.” Berman’s schmaltzy script nearly sinks its enterprise with an uncurbed maudlinism, subtext of feminist banality, one scurrilous fiction theorizing the songstress’s maternity, and frequent narrative rotation from Trevi’s exhilarating career during the ’80s and ’90s to her Brazilian incarceration in the early aughts, which ruins the flick’s momentum and appeal. This isn’t improved by Keller’s rote direction, or an instance of propagandistic casting courtesy of Berman’s stereotypically kosher kin populating those risibly plethoric productional credits. After nearly a decade of research comprehending extensive interviews with their subjects, Keller and Berman somehow couldn’t catch that Trevi’s substance and allure consists in the voice and verve by which she romped into Mexico’s common heart, not her victimhood as an alleged accessary to Andrade’s ephebophilic felonies. Their focus on the latter to the relative pretermission of the former wastes a capable cast and a fun, absorbing true story depicted a decade too late — a disservice to Trevi, her fans and uninitiated viewers.

Mediocre: Tess

Tess (1979)
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Thomas Hardy, Gérard Brach, Roman Polanski, John Brownjohn
Produced by Claude Berri, Timothy Burrill, Jean-Pierre Rassam, Pierre Grunstein
Starring Nastassja Kinski, Peter Firth, Leigh Lawson, John Collin, Rosemary Martin, Carolyn Pickles, Sylvia Coleridge, Suzanna Hamilton, Caroline Embling, Fred Bryant, David Markham, Pascale de Boysson, Josine Comellas, Dicken Ashworth, Arielle Dombasle, John Bett, Tom Chadbon, Richard Pearson, Tony Church

Multiple-choice Tesst

  1. Polanski’s most swank, syrupy, celebrated feature is dedicated “To Sharon.” Who other than his famously slain wife might’ve been a more fitting dedicatee?
    1. Lead Nastassja Kinski (whose boundless conceit and opportunism the director assuaged while boffing her)
    2. Gloria Steinem
    3. Judge Laurence J. Rittenband (LOL)
    4. Any of the above
  2. At the conclusion of the first scene, a local parson (Church) pivotally apprises our peasant protagonist’s alcoholic father (Collin) that the noble, Norman d’Urbervilles were direct ascendants of his lowly Durbeyfields. In how many instances is that datum reiterated during this story?
    1. 10,000
    2. 2
    3. 11
    4. Ugh! Too often
  3. Sweet, simple, saturnine Tess (Kinski) would prefer to moil her years away than exploit her beauty and luxuriate lifelong for high espousal. Ergo, she appeals to:
    1. Careerists
    2. Strivers
    3. Single mothers
    4. All of the above
  4. How does the viewer secern Alec’s (Lawson) rape of Tess from mere seduction?
    1. Her momentary resistance
    2. Her sheer submission
    3. This scene’s orchestral swells, transitioning abruptly from a minor to major key
    4. Her later acceptance of his largess
    5. Who knows?
  5. Those elements compensating for Brach’s, Polanski’s, and Brownjohn’s prosy, often bathetic treatment of Hardy’s dialogue include:
    1. An able cast obliged to navigate their plenitude of leaden lines
    2. Stunning, respectively foggy and effulgent photography courtesy of Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet
    3. Pierre Guffroy’s production design, which further beautifies every embellished interior
    4. Polanski’s painterly vision of landscapes, interiors and his most photogenic players, instanced by lavish long shots out of doors, or slow pans, as of a creamery’s milk dripping from suspended bags
    5. One gushingly romantic (albeit often misapplied) score composed by Philippe Sarde
    6. All of the above
  6. At her most morose, Tess assumes the demeanor of:
    1. Any dour teen
    2. A petty ingrate
    3. A goth
    4. All of the above
  7. Rather than to hypocritically disclaim, then desert Tess on their wedding night sequent to her confession, Angel (Firth) might’ve instead:
    1. Reconsidered her worth after consummating their marital union with a hearty feast and fuck
    2. Compared their respective premarital indiscretions to objectively assess their relationship
    3. Divorced Tess and remarried another of two comely, receptive prospects (Dombasle, Hamilton)
    4. Any of the above
  8. Which course of action would’ve been preferable to Tess’s madcap murder of the peremptory and prickish, yet fervid and freehanded Alec?
    1. To absquatulate with Angel without killing him
    2. To divorce Alec on the grounds of her bigamy without killing him
    3. To finally set aside her picayune moral pretensions and secretly live with both and maximize her romantic, sexual and financial benefit without killing him
    4. To contemplate the potential fate of her mother and siblings, who’ve been generously housed by her victim, so to avert his murder
    5. Anything besides murder
    6. Any of the above
  9. Polanski’s is the ninth among how many adaptations of Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles?
    1. Nine
    2. Eleven
    3. Four
    4. Too many
  10. Notwithstanding the novel’s and movie’s commination of antiquated Victorian mores, a prolix blurb of the latter’s theatrical poster enounces it, “As timely today as the day it was written.” Why?
    1. Marketing
    2. Feminism
    3. Polanski sought to rehabilitate his tarnished image
    4. All of the above

Answers: 4, 3 or 4, 4, 5, 6, 4, 4, 6, 2 or 4, 4

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.