Friday, February 25, 2011

Big Night (1996)

Movies about food work best when the food is not a metaphor, but is actually food. Does this make Julie and Julia a better film than Chocolat? Sort of--if only because the former makes you want to cook, while the latter makes you want to--well, I'm not sure. Feed dainties to Johnny Depp? Assert independence from petty provincialism? OK; but a movie about food should be a movie about food--and Big Night is certainly that, as it observes food so closely it approaches the fascination of Food Network in its unflagging insistence that one should not simply watch, but do. Cook, that is.

And Big Night goes one delicious step farther: It explore the relationship between food and family, the ways in which food can reflect the harmonies and breakups, the deep-rooted affections and deep-seated resentments of family life. But it never makes food a metaphor; instead, food remains the catalyst, the vehicle for the brothers' love and grudges, their misguided dreams and opportunities. And the relationships extend to their friends and customers, their rivals and hoped-for lovers who crowd in on this "big night" when all their hopes ride on the perfect Italian mega-meal.

And, like the Timpano itself, that big drum of southern Italian ecstasy,* the movie adds one more layer: the setting, Atlantic City in the '50s, when everyone ended up on the boardwalk, both blue and white collars taking a look at the Atlantic Ocean, the way it held out its hand to show you the piers and restaurants waiting. More could have been made of that milieu, but the hints of this world outside the restaurant--captured by the elusive non-presence of Louis Prima and His Orchestra--are enough.

And of course, one more layer, the cast. Shouldn't Stanley Tucci and Tony Shaloub make more movies together, and shouldn't Ian Holm, Isabella Rossellini, and Minnie Driver step into those other movies to offer more promises and veiled threats? The brothers in particular are so carefully shaped, so perfect together--even in conflict--that one almost could imagine this movie without a restaurant, without eating. Almost.

*And here is the recipe for Big Night's signature dish, straight from Stanley Tucci's family kitchen: Mangia!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

I'm glad Woody Allen is still making movies, but I join those who hold a special fondness for his work in the 1980s, which seemed to come from a much older director, someone looking back at a long life. There is a gentle sense of loss, even a nostalgia, in many of them. From Stardust Memories (1980) and Zelig (1983) and Broadway Danny Rose (1984) (my favorite Woody Allen picture, if I were forced to commit), to The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and Radio Days (1987), Allen mourned with quiet affection lost eras, folly without consequence, the desire to reinvent ourselves. He was kinder than the hard times the movies were made in--and maybe that was the point: After two terms of Reagan, in which anything failed to trickle down, at least we could still go to the movies.

But at the end of the decade he picks up some dirt and spits in his hand and rubs the paste in our eyes to make us see. Crimes and Misdemeanors examines the loss of not only guilt but also meaning, and shrugs at our efforts even to document the collapse. Following various characters' trajectories, Allen gives himself something close to the Russian novels that seem to run beneath the surface of his less-comic movies, at once expansive and claustrophobic, as more and more lives slip into the same small cellar to confront each other in the dark.

His documentarian, Cliff Stern (a name that puts me in mind of Sisyphus), tries to preserve a beloved philosopher's work--while enduring a better-paying gig: profiling Lester, played with such self-satisfied smugness by Alan Alda that everything smug and self-satisfied the actor had ever done is finally both exposed and forgiven. Allen gives Stern a suitably jaundiced eye for the kind of amused disgust he can write so well--but the jokes are on him, bitterly: His documentary subject, Prof. Louis Levy, his only ray of hope, commits suicide--while Sam Waterston's gentle Ben goes blind. And then the final blow: Martin Landau's beloved ophthalmologist, Judah, has his mistress (Angelica Huston frazzled and doomed) killed by the inimitable Jerry Orbach, his bad suits matched only by his hooded vulture eyes.

The worst slip away unnoticed, the good are discarded, the indifferent let alone. Allen leaves the '80s without a shred of dignity, almost bored with itself and way beyond good and evil. It's interesting to note that his follow-up picture is Alice, a sweet assertion starring Mia Farrow--the two of them soon to sink into the hole themselves.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

I often hesitate before recommending a Werner Herzog film, if only because he is so assertive about going his own way. He doesn't make films to please you, but himself--which I always admire; but you have to be willing to hop on board--often while the train's moving, jump in the boxcar, pray you don't stumble--and hang on tight.

But I can never resist him--even when at first blush I hesitate, as with The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. I'm reminded of my initial uncertainty about the Coens' remake of True Grit: Is this trip really necessary? Then I saw the trailer--I was so skeptical I broke one of my rules: Never watch the trailer if you admire the director; save all the fun for the movie itself. But I checked it out, and had to admit that remakes can be worthwhile after all.

But Herzog's Bad Lieutenant is only peripherally similar to Abel Ferrara's film, in which he and Harvey Keitel get medieval on our asses for an hour and a half--certain our souls need a good roto-rootering--and grimly go about their work. Yes, Herzog's movie is scary and weird--but in a giddy sort of way, veering from one piece of puzzling evidence to another, a cop movie turned into a bizarre pinata, with everyone taking a wild swing at it.

I'll leave the plot to you. For me, the real feature--aside from Herzog's trademark insanity--is Nicolas Cage, standing up and reminding us how crazy-good he is, past all expectations otherwise lowered by his comic-book/action-hero poses, still willing to invite us to his happening, freaking us all out. Have fun, kiddies.

Companion piece: a second Herzog cop movie, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, in which Michael Shannon takes his turn at bat, and smacks the ump a good one, then runs the bases backwards, and moons the Commissioner, and tears off all his clothes, and so on. Cage has a not-so-evil twin.