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The Master of Pleasures and The Taste of Cherries: Vatel, the Film

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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.

Château de Chantilly ©

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.

Julian Glover as Prince Condé and Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu as his wife, the Princess, Vatel ©

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.

Depardieu as Vatel, and Glover as Condé, Vatel ©

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.

Murray Lachlan Young as Philippe of France, Duke of Orléans, Monsieur, The King’s Brother, Vatel ©

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.

Julien Sands as King Louis XIV, Vatel ©

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.

Uma Thurman as Anne de Montausier and Tim Roth as Lauzun, Vatel ©

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.

Depardieu as Vatel and Thurman as Montausier, 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.

Vatel is available for rent (or purchase) from Amazon ($2.99 HD), YouTube ($1.99 SD, $2.99 HD), iTunes ($2.99 SD), Vudu ($2.99 SD, $3.99 HD), and GooglePlay ($1.99 SD).

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Crime, Passion, Ambition, Stupidity: Darkly Twisted Comedies

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Christian Slater & Patricia Arquette, True Romance ©

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)

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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.

Christopher Walken, Suicide Kings ©

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.

Suicide Kings ©

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)

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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.

John Travolta & Samuel L Jackson, Pulp Fiction ©

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).

Uma Thurman, Pulp Fiction ©

Now throw in a pair of supremely romantic but amateur armed robbers, “Pumpkin” (Tim Roth) and “Honey Bunny” (Amanda Plummer), at the beginning and the end of the film, and you’re in for a treat.

Director Quentin Tarantino’ s Pulp Fiction is an ingenious and glorious romp on the dark side. Available for rent ($3.99) from Amazon, YouTube, and iTunes.

Lars and the Real Girl
(2007)

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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.

Paul Schneider, Emily Mortimer, Ryan Gosling, and “Bianca”, Lars and the Real Girl ©

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.

Patricia Clarkson and “Bianca”, Lars and the Real Girl ©

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.

Available for rent ($3.99) from Amazon, YouTube, and iTunes.

True Romance
(1993)

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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.

Christian Slater & Patricia Arquette, True Romance ©

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.

Available for viewing via Yidio.

Scotland PA
(2001)

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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.

Maura Tierney, James LeGros, Scotland PA ©

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.

Christopher Walken, Scotland PA ©

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)

51l1m++CXvLAfter 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.

Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, In Bruges ©

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.

Ralph Fiennes, In Bruges ©

In his play No Exit, Sartre wrote that “Hell is other people,” but to bumbling hit-man Ray, Hell is being In Bruges.

Available for rent ($3.99) from Amazon (free with Starz 7-day trial), YouTube, and iTunes.

Very Bad Things
(1998)

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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.

Cameron Diaz and Jon Favreau, Very Bad Things ©

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.

Available for rent ($3.99) from Amazon, YouTube, and iTunes.

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