In April 1671, on the eve of the Franco-Dutch War, France’s King Louis XIV — the Sun King — desperately needed the military support and expertise of his country’s generals. The formerly rebellious but extremely famous Prince Louis II de Bourbon-Condé was thus informed that King Louis would “honor him” with a three-day visit to Condé’s magnificent Château de Chantilly. Since King Louis always insisted that his nobles and all their sycophants travel with him wherever he went, the honor of such a visit was dubious as well as incredibly expensive. Condé turned all the preparations over to his maître d’hôtel, François Vatel, who had approximately two weeks to prepare menus and festivities to entertain the King, the Queen, the Prince, the Princess, 600 nobles, and several thousand additional visitors. Vatel, formerly the most celebrated chef of his generation, had to orchestrate an extravagant festival which was to culminate in an elaborate banquet so impressive that the King would appoint Condé his general.
Based on the true story of Vatel as it was related in several contemporaneous letters by Prince Condé and also by the notorious gossip Madame de Sévigné, as well as on multiple contemporaneous memoirs, the film Vatel was originally written by Jeanne Labrune, adapted into English by Tom Stoppard, and directed by Roland Joffé. It is unclear which of those three expanded Vatel’s “banquet story” into a moral examination of the jaded 17th century French aristocrats. Filmed on location at the Château de Chantilly, Vatel is visually stunning and sumptuous. The castle itself, the furnishings, the gardens, the costumes, the jewels, and the food are all breathtakingly lush. Beneath these gorgeous trappings, however, the Sun King and his nobility are morally corrupt and corrosive. Further, a bitter discontent seethes under the aristocracy’s brittle veneer. In this world, “as opulent as it is cruel,” the moral choices you make can either elevate or, literally, destroy you.
Vatel begins with a letter in which Louis de Bourbon, Prince de Condé (Julian Glover) is informed by the King’s minister Marquis de Lauzun that King Louis wishes to “visit and enjoy the simple pleasures of the country,” which, Lauzun continues, means that Condé should “spare no expense whatsoever to entertain the king.” Condé is distressed. He is in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy (a departure from historical fact: Condé was extravagantly wealthy). If appointed General in a war with Holland, however, Condé’s debts will be paid by King Louis, so the Prince is desperate to please Louis.
Condé’s maître d’hôtel Vatel (Gérard Depardieu) is confident in his own abilities to entertain the King but more than slightly anxious about all the preparations: it is difficult to obtain supplies when one’s master has no money, even more difficult when one’s master is already significantly in debt to all the local producers and suppliers. As the guests arrive, Vatel, already encountering tactical difficulties concerning the entertainments, finds himself in the midst of multiple moral quagmires as well.
Monsieur, the King’s Brother (Murray Lachlan Young), though accompanied by his lover Marquis of Effiat, nevertheless wishes to have sexual relations with a young country boy. Vatel intervenes, igniting Monsieur’s displeasure and anger.
King Louis (Julian Sands), who has brought with him not one but two mistresses, as well as his wife the Queen, becomes interested in the Queen’s beautiful lady-in-waiting, Anne de Montausier (Uma Thurman).
Vatel himself becomes enamored of Anne de Montausier: not only is she lovely, but she seems quite different from the rest of the nobles and aristocracy.
Unfortunately, the Marquis de Lauzun (Tim Roth) wants for Lady-in-waiting de Montausier for himself, so he bristles at both the King’s and Vatel’s interest in her. Lauzun sets spies on de Montausier as well as on Vatel.
Hounded by local suppliers, plagued by mounting disasters in the festivities, besieged by his master the Prince, threatened by Monsieur the King’s Brother, and manipulated by Marquis de Lauzun, the “Master of Pleasures” Vatel struggles to feed and entertain the royal guests and to resist his increasingly romantic feelings for a woman so far above his humble station.
Though the New York Times critic found Vatel “a costume drama with far more costumes than drama… as shallow as the court popinjays it seeks to expose,” the LA Times critic found it to be “a timeless tale of love and sacrifice.”
With strong writing and tremendous acting by all the principals, Vatel was nominated for awards in Best Art Direction, Set Decoration, Costume Design, and Production Design, winning a César (French Oscar) in Production Design.
There are lots of different types of comedies in film these days, from slapstick, to teen-flicks, to culture-clash explorations. Most of those don’t appeal to me very much, and even if I see one of them, I rarely watch it more than once. I prefer the “comedies” that are dark and twisted. These dark comedies usually have very big name stars, terrific writing, and very unusual stories. They’re usually more sophisticated and intellectually complex. Sometimes they win big awards; sometimes they don’t. But what they virtually always have in common are mistakes, loyalty, crime, passion, ambition, romance, and a healthy dose of stupidity on many of the characters’ parts. (Presented in no particular order: I love them all, and have seen each multiple times.)
Suicide Kings (1997)
Avery (Henry Thomas), Max (Sean Patrick Flanery) and two friends (Jay Mohr, Jeremy Sisto) — all spoiled, über-wealthy boys — concoct a desperate & convoluted plan to save Avery’s kidnapped sister. They kidnap former Mafia boss Carlo “Charlie” Bartolucci (Christopher Walken), planning to use the ransom they get for Charlie to pay the $2M ransom being demanded for Avery’s sister.
Though they think they’ve planned for every contingency, their plan bungles grotesquely, even before fellow pal Ira (Johnny Galecki) comes to his father’s vacation house for a “game of poker,” and discovers, instead, his childhood friends and the kidnapped mobster.
Toss in a healthy dose of Charlie’s “street-smart” psychological manipulation, and the boys soon begin to jump at their own shadows as they suspect that one or more of them was “an inside player” in the kidnapping of Avery’s sister.
Many of the scenes between Ira (Galecki) and Charlie (Walken) in Suicide Kings were ad-libbed, and the film has a surprise twist that will stun you. Available for rent ($3.99) from Amazon,YouTube, and GooglePlay.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
A montage of ultimately connected — though seemingly disparate — stories, Pulp Fiction was a critical and box-office success, due in part to the stunning performances of its mega-star cast. Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson) are hit-men whose philosophical discussions involve even their victims.
Their boss, Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) and his wife, Mia (Uma Thurman) get tangled up with the hit-men, as does a struggling boxer Butch (Bruce Willis), mob-crime “cleaner” Winston “The Wolfe” (Harvey Keitel), drug-dealer Lance (Eric Stoltz) and his wife Jody (Rosanna Arquette).
In one of the most bizarre premises for a film ever, the extremely shy & painfully introverted Lars (Ryan Gosling) finds it impossible to make friends, socialize, or even get himself a girlfriend. When he tells his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and hugely-pregnant sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) that he is bringing home a girl he met on the Internet, they are overjoyed.
Until they meet Bianca — a life-size plastic sex-doll. On the advice of the town doctor Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), however, his family and the rest of the community agree to go along with Lars’ delusion that Bianca is a real girl, rather than to oppose him, in an attempt to understand why Lars needs a plastic fiancée.
An exploration of an emotionally abandoned young man’s lonely life as well as of the love of his family and community that begins to envelop him, Lars and the Real Girl will bring tears to your eyes — and not just from laughter — especially in the ultimate scene between Lars and Bianca.
Another entry from Quentin Tarantino, True Romance has big-name stars, a quirky story, and bang-up dialogue. When comic-book nerd and Elvis fanatic Clarence (Christian Slater) meets the “love of his life” — a call-girl of three days — Alabama (Patricia Arquette), and attempts to save her from her pimp Drexl (Gary Oldman), a mistakenly grabbed suitcase leads to a wild plan for a “happily ever after life” for the two lovers.
Unfortunately, the suitcase belongs to the mob, and they send very bad men to recover their property. From the brilliantly and hysterically savage (improv) “Sicilian” scene between Clarence’s dad (Dennis Hopper) and mafioso attorney Don Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken), to the violently “affectionate” encounter between Alabama and one of the hit-men (James Gandolfini), to the final Mexican stand-off (one of Tarantino’s signature set-pieces) in the luxury hotel suite, True Romance rocks everyone’s world as each tries to maintain loyalty in the face of treachery and violence.
An extremely dark and comedic retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, this story is set in the early ’70s in rural Scotland, PA. Here, fast food “King” Duncan (James Rebhorn) — formerly of Doughnut restaurant fame — employs the McBeths, “Mac” (James LeGros) and Pat (Maura Tierney), who feel under-appreciated and resentful in their dead-end jobs at Duncan’s not-so-successful burger joint.
When Duncan reveals his plan for an innovation that will revolutionize the restaurant world — a plan which three stoned “hippie” witches (Andy Dick, Amy Smart, and Timothy Levitch) have previously foretold in cryptic fashion to Mac — and when Duncan reveals as well his intention to leave the restaurant to his son Malcolm (Tom Guiry), the murder plot is hatched.
Lieutenant McDuff (Christopher Walken) is on the case as early as Duncan’s funeral, and the McBeths must elude discovery while attaining success with their newly acquired restaurant.
A rare comedic take on one of the most famous tragedies every written, the dark violence and brilliant characterizations in Scotland PA are a tribute to and an innovation on the original source material. Available for viewing via Netflix and Yidio.
In Bruges (2008)
After neophyte hit-man Ray (Colin Farrell) makes a dreadful mistake on his first job, he and partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are forced by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes), to head to the medieval city of Bruges, Belgium to hide out until the situation gets straightened out.
Ray hates the city and is a whiny “tourist,” but Ken finds it enchanting and fascinating. At least, until Ken discovers why he and Ray have been sent to Bruges in the first place, and what Harry now wants to happen. Both Gleeson and Farrell were nominated for awards for their brilliant performances — simultaneously comic and tragic — but Fiennes also shows his rare ability to be similarly comedic and threatening.
Before Kyle (Jon Favreau) marries his beautiful but extremely emotionally needy fiancée (Cameron Diaz), leaving his single life behind forever, Kyle and four of his friends (Jeremy Piven, Christian Slater, Daniel Stern, and Leland Orser) head to Las Vegas for a supreme bachelor party.
There, after drugs, alcohol, and philosophical discussions among long-time friends, things go terribly wrong. Innocent fun quickly deteriorates into accidental violence, and then into intentional, escalating crime to cover the initial accident. This film’s characters become ultimately so very “bad” that you find yourself feeling rather guilty for laughing out loud at their circumstances, which are certainly no laughing matter. Then, just when you think you’ve reached the end of your ability to laugh, Very Bad Things hits you with its very stunning and morally appropriate ending.
There are so many ways to look at crime in films, from the perspectives of the victims, of the law enforcement officials, to that of the criminals themselves. Early films tended to concentrate on the perspective of the crime-fighters, saving the stories of the criminals for short, factual documentaries. With one of the most famous crime films ever, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, based on the novel by Mario Puzo, that focus changed, virtually creating a genre where criminals and those who were involved with evil doings, either voluntarily or against their will, were presented in a more empathetic and sympathetic light. In any event, whether you feel any emotional connection with the criminals in this genre of crime film, it’s created some of the most interesting and complex characters, played by some of the greatest actors in their best roles, and made some ground-breaking films.
The Godfather Part One
Virtually ignored by Hollywood during production, The Godfather was one of the earliest films that examined crime entirely from the perspective of the criminals. Based on the bestselling novel by Mario Puzo — and the Oscar-winning screenplay by Puzo and director Francis Ford Coppola — the story centers on a fictional New York Mafia family, the Corleones, led by its patriarch Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando, in an Oscar-winning role), who’s attempting to groom his eldest son, Santino [Sonny] (James Caan) to take over the “family business,” while providing for his weaker middle son, Fredo (John Cazale), and his adopted son, Tom (Robert Duvall), and trying to keep his youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino) who’s graduated from college and served his country during the War, out of the “family business” altogether.
As you can imagine, that’s a formula for disaster when everyone in the family and everyone with whom it does business is a criminal — and violent ones, at that. Filled with big name stars, peppered with memorable lines (“Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes”), awarded with Oscars and multiple nominations, The Godfather set the standard for crime films from the criminals’ perspective.
The Godfather Part Two
One of the first sequels that was actually as good as, if not better than, the original film, Part Two of The Godfather Trilogy — also written by Mario Puzo and director Francis Ford Coppola — reunited most of the characters from the first film while interweaving their continuing story with the “flashback” story of Don Vito Corelone, this time played by Robert DeNiro (Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actor), who had the monumental task of imitating the magnificently original, complex, and tortured criminal played by Marlon Brando — only at a younger age. Showing the development of both Vito’s and Michael’s forays into the criminal world, both men are as sympathetic as they are vicious, as family-oriented as they are ruthless, as interesting as they are complex.
Many viewers who’ve seen all three of The Godfather films can’t decide if they like Part One or Part Two better, and it was a toss-up for me which is best since they’re so different yet both so excellent. The Godfather, Part Two couldn’t exist without Part One, but they’re equally good. Sometimes, channels show The Godfather Trilogy in “chronological” order according to the storyline within the movies, so excerpts of Part Two are shown before Part One, but I don’t recommend watching the films like that, as you lose all the nuances of Part Two, including those in the storyline, the irony, and the actors’ performances.
King of New York
Directed by Abel Ferrara, whose work often explores the human side of criminals and organized crime, King of New York stars Ferrara’s “perfect gangster actor” Christopher Walken as Frank White. Coming out of prison after seven years, White is trying to get back in the game, and it involves drugs. Aided by loyal underlings like Jimmy Jump (Laurence Fishburne), Test Tube (Steve Buscemi), and Lance (Giancarlo Esposito), Frank White delves into the drug scene as it’s developed while he was “paying for his crimes,” and tries to do something good that he’ll be remembered for. Most specifically, he wants to fund a hospital for the poorer section of New York where he operates. The fact that he’s out of jail, still alive and operating, galls the New York detectives who hound him: Bishop (Victor Argo), Dennis (David Caruso), and Flanigan (Wesley Snipes), trying desperately to either indict or kill White.
At the premiere, some viewers — including director Ferrara’s wife — were outraged at the multi-layered, sympathetic portrayal of the criminals, especially that of Frank White (Walken), who tells the lead detective Bishop, “I’m not your problem: I’m just a businessman.” With most viewers, King of New York has become a cult classic and is consistently highly praised critically.
Also directed by Abel Ferrara and starring many of his favorite actors, this film, set in New York in 1939, concentrates on one family, but a small one, consisting of three brothers and their wives (or fianceés), as well as their co-horts and colleagues. Led by the eldest brother Raimundo [Ray] Tempio (Christopher Walken), who’s aided mostly by his brother Cesarino [Chez] (Chris Penn, Best Supporting Actor, Venice Film Festival), the story begins with the death of their youngest brother Giovanni [Johnny] (Vincent Gallo) and their attempts to find his killer.
The eldest brothers’ wives, played by Annabella Sciorra and Isabella Rossellini, respectively, serve as the moral counterweights to these men, and attempt to be guiding lights to the the youngest brother’s grieving fianceé (Gretchen Mol). While Ray (Walken) says things like, “If I do something wrong, it’s ’cause God didn’t give me the grace to do what’s right,” his wife (Sciorra) tells the murdered brother’s fianceé, “They’re criminals: there’s nothing romantic about it.” It may not be “romantic,” but it’s intense and fierce, and has memorable performances by everyone involved, including the one by rival gangster Gaspare Spoglia (Benicio Del Toro) as one of the “suspects” in the brother’s death. With its disturbingly unexpected ending, The Funeral is one of the classics in this genre.
Quentin Tarantino’s writing & directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs shows the tentative, sometimes humorous, “before” and the intense “after” of a diamond heist by a group of professional thieves who do not know each other, but suspect, during the crime itself, that one of them is a “snitch” since the police arrived during the commission of the crime. Assembled by Joe (Lawrence Tierney) and his son Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn), the criminals are given pseudonyms and firmly instructed not to share any personal details with each other, including any crimes previously committed or places of incarceration.
Quentin Tarantino has a cameo role as Mr. Brown, but the film pivots on Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi, who objects to his name in a hilarious scene), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen). The nonlinear storyline, a hallmark of Tarantino’s films, puts the viewer in the same position as the other criminals: unaware if there even is a snitch, let alone who it might be. Brilliant performances by the top-billed actors, including one of the scariest “dance scenes” ever by Mr. Blonde (Madsen) just before “interrogating” a hostage policeman, Reservoir Dogs was an instant critical success and has attained cult status.
Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead
The title of this neo-noir crime film alone gets most people’s attention. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead actually came from a song by Warren Zevon, and he allowed the filmmakers to use it on the condition that his original song be played during the end-credits. In the film, the protagonist, Jimmy the Saint (Andy Garcia) is a former hitman attempting to go straight. Unfortunately, his non-criminal life doesn’t pay as well, and his former boss, The Man with the Plan (Christopher Walken), has paid off his debts and now wants Jimmy, along with any crew he wishes to hire, to do “an action” not a “piece of work,” the latter of which apparently includes murder.
Gathering a rag-tag group of criminal associates — Pieces (Christopher Lloyd), Franchise (William Forsythe), Easy Wind (Bill Nunn), and Critical Bill (Treat Williams, in his career-best performance) — Jimmy is supposed to scare away a boyfriend of the ex-girlfriend of The Man with the Plan’s pedophile son Bernard (Michael Nicolosi): The Man with the Plan blames Bernard’s attempt to kidnap a 7-year-old girl from a playground in broad daylight on his despair over losing the former girlfriend.
Because Walken’s character, confined to a wheelchair after an assassination attempt, repeatedly emphasizes that this is only an “action” — wherein the new boyfriend is to be scared away so the girlfriend will ostensibly come back to Bernard — and not a “piece of work — where the new boyfriend would be killed — the viewer knows that something is bound to go very wrong. This film achieves much of its power from its creative vocabulary: the criminals are to do “an action,” not a “piece of work.” They all long to retire to a life of “boat-drinks,” but are threatened with “Buckwheats” instead. Even their nicknames — Pieces and Critical Bill, for example — come from their characters or former behavior. Rounded out by Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar) as Jimmy’s love interest, Lucinda (Fairuza Balk) as the prostitute he tries to protect and reform, Joe the Diner-Narrator (Jack Warden) attempting to pass on the story of Jimmy the Saint’s “rep” to the next generation, and the involvement of the outside hitman Mr. Shush (Steve Buscemi), this neo-noir classic has been called, by one critic, a “clone” of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. That critic needs to watch the film again, and much more attentively, because Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead is unique and far too powerful to be any other film’s clone.
The Usual Suspects
After all its Oscar nominations and wins — for Christopher McQuarrie’s original screenplay and for Kevin Spacey’s role as Verbal Kint — it’s difficult to believe that, initially, no major studios wanted to finance The Usual Suspects. Executives believed it was too complex for audiences (always an insult to sophisticated audiences), had too much dialogue, and too many characters. Boy, were they ever wrong. This neo-noir crime film begins with “five known felons” in a line-up after a truck of guns goes missing. While in lock-up, McManus (Stephen Baldwin, in the best, and perhaps only dramatic, role of his mostly stoner-comedy career) and his partner Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) tell the others — Hockney (Kevin Pollack), Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), and “the gimp” Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey) — about another high-scoring job. Keaton agrees to “one job,” though he has ostensibly “gone straight.”
Complications arise, however, and things spiral out of control for these career criminals, especially when the mysterious “Keyser Söze” becomes involved, represented by his lawyer, Mr. Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite). The interrogation scenes between Special Agent Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) and Verbal (Spacey) make up some of the best scenes, with the greatest dialogue ever. Brilliant, intense, humorous, violent, sophisticated, and with one of the most “definitive and popular plot twists” in the history of the genre, The Usual Suspects is worth watching dozens of times. Just to see all the clues you missed the first time.
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