The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)


Back when we could still enter one another’s homes freely and without anxiety or rapid testing, a friend loaned me his copy of the Peter Greenaway film Drowning By Numbers. I had never heard of the movie and nodded at the mention of Greenaway’s name because it sounded distantly familiar, although I wasn’t sure why. After returning that one, the same friend then loaned me the director’s more famous work, the title of which I recognized instantly: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. I’m not sure where I first heard the title, but its immediate association in my mind with Eating Raoul leads me to believe it was probably an essay of Joe Queenan’s that was all about the rise in (spoiler alert) the use of cannibalism as part of its narrative (as inspired by his queasiness upon viewing the contemporary film Alive, about a soccer team eating one another in the mountains after a plane crash).

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is the story of boorish, abusive, and violent mafioso Albert Spica (Michael Gambon), who purchases the noteworthy French gourmet restaurant La Hollandais, partnering with chef Richard Boarst (Richard Bohringer). Spica’s well-bred wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) is the primary object of his ill temper, and is forced to accompany Spica and his criminal retinue to dine at La Hollandais on a nightly basis, where the population of upper class clientele slowly declines as his loud, bigoted, and crass dinner conversation drives diners away. One of the stalwarts who stays on is Michael (Alan Howard), who always dines alone and reads while doing so, intriguing Georgina and infuriating Spica, who forcefully invites the man to dine with his party even as Micahel and Georgina have struck up a secret affair under his nose, with the assistance of the sympathetic restaurant staff. Ultimately, this is one of those loves which forgets to maintain discretion, and Spica’s cruelty knows no bounds.

This is a gorgeous, sumptuous piece of film-making, dancing lightly between areas of intense green and red saturation, austere white hideaways, and a grey-blue car park. As characters move between these distinct locations within and near the restaurant, so too do the identically colored parts of their costumes, often in what appears to (but could not possibly) be uncut tracking shots. Spending a film’s entire runtime in so few locations could easily trend toward growing tired of the same places, but each place is so thoroughly baroque in its design that it’s an endless feast for the eye. The green-bathed kitchen of the restaurant is, one presumes, deliberately evocative of a backstage, even having an upper catwalk that serves no conceivable purpose. The center of the room is occupied by a great cooking island, but other areas are occupied by a washing station manned by a prepubescent albino soprano (Paul Russell) and a poultry plucking bench where the feathers drift through the air, caught in spotlight like snowflakes frozen in time.

The front of the house is a shocking red, a thoroughly British red of redcoats and the palace guard. It’s here that we spend most of the runtime, as Gambon devours every bit of food and scenery with his interpretation of the “nouveau riche by way of organized crime” vibe, and it’s a sight to behold. It’s almost impossible to overstate just how loathsomely gauche he is from the moment he appears on screen, forcing a man to strip and roll around in dog feces as part of his pre-dinner entertainment. Spica says multiple times that he loves to mix his business with his pleasure, and his business is cruel, inhumane, and loathsome, with his pleasures being all those things again and more. It’s a role that demands the incessant, endless chatter of a man who is completely full of himself, has very precise but malleable and questionable ideas about any and every topic under the sun. He’s thuggish and loud and contemptible, and Gambon’s portrayal fills up the giant dining hall; it’s a possible career best.

Mirren’s performance is one that is more rooted in physicality. She maneuvers and moves her way through the crowded restaurant with the poise and precision of a professional dancer, and Georgina’s wordless exchanges with Michael before they even learn one another’s names are passionate and leave an impact on the audience. Every step she takes is a virtual pirouette as she dodges her oafish husband’s rude demands and questions.

In searching for contemporary criticism of the film, I’ve found that there’s little of it out there, but what does exist appears to have been largely about the film’s use of nudity and brutality, and there sure is a lot of both. The love scenes are clearly simulated, but there are large sections of full frontal from both Georgina and Michael as they embrace one another post-coitally or are forced to hide from Spica in a walk-in freezer and escape in the back of a truck full of rotten protein. As for the brutality, well, I did mention that there’s forced cannibalism, which isn’t even the most horrifying thing to happen on screen, which also includes a man being tortured to death by being force-fed pages from a book, Spica forcing himself on Georgina while a child watches, and a woman being stabbed in the face with a fork. Notably, one of these actions is performed by Tim Roth as one of Spica’s goons, which does seem to mean that Roth never had a real chance to be the hero in anything, did he? Alex Kingston also appears in one of her earliest roles as Adele, the restaurant’s waitress, and she looks amazing.

This isn’t a movie that’s going to be for everyone. Wikipedia’s opening synopsis describes the film as a “crime drama,” which I suppose could be technically accurate but is wrong in every way that matters. This is a tragic story, about a woman who finds love with a kind man despite being a captive of her monstrous husband, but who loses said lover when her husband finds out. There is crime, and there is drama, but it’s not really about either of those two things. It’s a simple, quiet story about love in the wrong place at the wrong time, against the backdrop of an endless vulgar diatribe that takes up all the room. It’s a technical and technicolor marvel. If that sounds like your cup of tea, track this one down.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Winchester (2018)

The writer-director duo The Spierig Brothers tend to hit the same genre film sweet spot for me that Mike Flanagan’s work seems to for other people. They’re churning out formulaic genre pictures that do little to innovate in terms of visual craft or structural narrative, but still endear themselves to me despite my better judgement. Their vampire picture Daybreakers and (even more so) their time travel mystery thriller Predestination are clearly their most accomplished works to date, but I’m always at least intrigued by whatever latest project they have cooking, no matter how generic. I even allowed their involvement in the latest Saw sequel to trick me into revisiting that franchise for the first time in over a decade, God help me. The genre du jour for The Spierig Brothers is a haunted house horror with unearned pretensions of being a historical drama. You’d think that a period film starring Helen Mirren and “inspired by actual events” could elevate itself above the usual Spierig Brothers mold, but Winchester instead glides by as yet another by-the-books genre exercise from the duo, for better or for worse. Anyone looking for a show-stopping performance from Mirren or some historical insight into the troubled times of the real-life Mrs. Winchester are likely to leave the film frustrated. Instead, the Spierig boys bend those potentially extraordinary elements to their genre faithful will, delivering pretty much what you’d expect based on their past efforts: a well-behaved haunted house picture that somehow entertains despite its instant familiarity.

Mirren stars as Sarah Winchester, a wealthy 1900’s widow & heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune. Mirroring rumors of her mental instability in real life, her mental health is being questioned in the film by the board of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company to drive her out of her business & her fortune. The lynchpin in their argument against her sanity is a bizarre mansion she keeps under constant, ever-shifting construction, another real life detail. In the film, the Winchester house is described as “a gargantuan, seven-story structure with no apparent rhyme or reason” to its design, an M.C. Escher-esque 3D jigsaw puzzle that requires construction crews to work 24/7 to keep up with Sarah Winchester’s instructions. Mudbound’s Jason Clarke co-stars as a laudanum-addicted doctor/alcoholic hired by the Winchester company to legally assess the widow’s mental health as a guest in her bizarre home. Since this is a PG-13 horror film instead of an Oscar-minded biopic, however, that investigation shifts to instead determining whether the unexpected spooky beings the doctor encounters there are laudanum-induced hallucinations or a collective of malicious ghosts. Spoiler: it’s ghosts. Once “the difference between illusion & reality” is broken down, the doctor and the widow team up to calm the house’s ghosts, for whom the widow builds an ever-expanding labyrinth of rooms for them to haunt & feel at home in. The usual balance struck in “the house that spirits built” is violently disturbed by a slowly-approaching supernatural event, something much more potentially catastrophic than a lost fortune or a laudanum addiction, two conflicts that fall by the wayside. It all wraps up pretty much how you would expect it to, with very few surprises along the way.

Judging by the weirdly unenthused response to Guillermo del Toro’s similar, but far more masterful Crimson Peak, I doubt many audiences will fall head over heels for this simplistic gothic horror throwback. You’d have to be really stoked about watching Helen Mirren glide down spooky hallways in Helena Bonham Carter drag to enthusiastically love this movie; any personal affinity for haunted house horror or real-life insight into the bizarre case of the Winchester house is not going to cut it on its own. This is a very talky, muted haunted house movie where two too-good-for-this-shit actors discuss at length the value of gun control and the practice of locking ghosts in boxes. Even for all its exploitation of a real-life tragedy & total waste of an Oscar-winning actor, however, Winchester at least has the decency to search for a moral center & a thematic point of view. The ghosts in the film are described to be “spirits killed by the rifle,” and Sarah Winchester’s agitated mental state is framed as guilt from profiting from gun violence, a theme that obviously holds modern significance (and, again, mirrors legends & rumors surrounding the real-life heiress). The way that theme expresses itself through machine-like jump scares, creepy possessed children, and endless exterior shots of a spooky house may not be the most morally delicate approach to adapting the Winchester story, but fans of mainstream horror should be well-accustomed to that kind of exploitative tackiness by now.

The Spierig Brothers did little to pay attention to how the genre tropes of a haunted house picture might distort or trivialize the story of a real-life widow with a tragic history of mental health struggles. Instead, they filtered the Sarah Winchester curio through a one-size-fits-all ghost story lens, with all the minor thrills, chills, and PG-13 kills that accompany it. It’s not likely to win over new fans to their genre-faithful, utilitarian brand, but it’s still a continuation of their pattern of making well-behaved, but surprisingly entertaining pictures out of formulas we’ve already seen repeated hundreds of times before.

-Brandon Ledet

The Fate of the Furious (2017)

The premise of the eighth entry in the Fast & Furious franchise is that Vin Diesel’s long-time ringleader/paterfamilias Dominic Toretto (or, Daddy Dom, if you will) betrays his street racing brethren and turns his back on Family. Now, if you’ve been paying any attention to the first seven installments of the series, God help you, you already know that Family is all that matters to the speed demon lug. He won’t shut up about it. That’s why the betrayal is so cold and so out of character. Worse yet, in this most recent episode the franchise itself turns its back in its own long-time partners, ice cold bottles of Corona. The film betrays over fifteen years of brand loyalty by nonchalantly switching the Fast Family’s beer preference to Bud heavies as if we wouldn’t notice. It also brings back an old villain, played by Jason Statham, who is responsible for the deaths of past Family members as a Good Guy who’s just welcomed to the team with mostly open arms, few questions asked. The Fate of the Furious also breaks format by featuring a couple brutal, non-driving related deaths (including a propeller-aided one that even involves a touch of blood splatter) and by shifting focus from Familial drama to bombastic comedy, where jokes are given far more breathing room than the overstuffed dramatic beats. It’s not just Dom that turns his back on long-established alliances and moral codes in The Fate of the Furious. F. Gary Gray’s contribution to the series also betrays everything that’s come before it in terms of narrative and tone. In a way, though, that kind of blasphemy is perfectly at home with the spirit of the series.

The Fast and the Furious is a universe without a center. It’s a series that continually retcons stories, characters, and even deaths to serve the plot du jour. The first four films in the franchise in particular are a total mess, continuity-wise. It wasn’t until Fast Five that it even found its voice: Vin Diesel endlessly mumbling about Family. The series may be Fast and Amnesious with its various narrative threads on the whole, but Dominic Toretto had always been there to keep the Family together, even in the franchise’s furthest outlier, the under-appreciated Tokyo Drift. That’s why it’s a brilliant move to shake up the sense of normalcy that’s been in-groove since the fifth installment by giving Daddy Dom a reason to walk away from his Family, whom he loves so dearly. At the starting line of The Fate of the Furious, Dominic Toretto is a Christ-like figure, a Man of the People, a Hero to Children Everywhere. He takes a quick break from his honeymoon in Havana with series regular Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) to shame a predatory loan shark in front of the very people he bullies by beating him in an old-fashioned street race while driving backwards & on fire. Every last person in Cuba cheers and we’re all quickly reminded exactly why Daddy Dom is the Greatest Man Alive. This street racing reverie is disrupted by a late 90s holdover Super Hacker played by Charlize Theron. Theron’s newbie baddy preys on Dom’s infamous devotion to Family and mysteriously blackmails him into “going rogue,” stealing EMP devices & “nuclear footballs” to support her Evil Hacker cause. This betrayal of what is Right and Just leads to a global car chase where Dom’s long list of Family members (Rodriguez, The Rock, Ludacris, apparently Statham, etc.) try to steal him away from Theron, who pushes Dom to “abandon his code” and “shatter his Family.” It’s all very silly, but it’s also a welcome departure from the typical Fast & Furious dynamic.

Of course, The Fate of the Furious was never going to survive on its tonal consistency or the strength of its plot. What really matters here is the action movie spectacle. F. Gary Gray brings the same sense of monstrously explosive fun to this franchise entry as he did to the exceptional N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. The Rock is a real life superhero, particularly shining in a music video-esque prison riot sequence where he manually destroys an entire building full of lowlifes (including local pro wrestler Luke Hawx, who also briefly appeared in Logan earlier this year). At one point, Charlize Theron’s Ultimate Hacker gives the ridiculous command “Hack ’em all,” and remotely takes control of virtually every vehicle in NYC, giving rise to literal floods & waterfalls made of cars. Vin Diesel rocks a heavy metal welding mask & oversized chainsaw combo that makes him look like the villain from a dystopian slasher. Even more ridiculously, the Fast Family is asked to race and battle a nuclear-armed submarine that attacks them from under the Russian ice they drive flimsy sports cars across. And (mild spoilers, I guess) they win! As far as The Fate of the Furious might stray from past tonal choices and character traits, it ultimately sticks to he core of the only thing that has remained consistent in the series (now that Dom’s had his opportunity to Go Rogue): there’s no problem in the world that can’t be solved by a deadly, explosion-heavy street race and even the most horrific of Familial tragedies can be undone by a backyard barbeque, where grace is said before every meal and Coronas, um, I mean Budweisers are proudly lifted into the air for a communal toast. There’s something beautiful about that (and also something sublimely silly).

Besides the narrative ways in which The Fate of the Furious breaks format, the film also marks a shift where the franchise functions as an outright, intentional comedy. F. Gary Gray openly shows his roots in the Friday series with the way humor overtakes Family drama in this entry. Vin Diesel starts off the film with the same “Ain’t I a stinker?” mugging he used to anchor xXx: Return of Xander Cage earlier this year. Ludacris’s nerd archetype is in constant verbal sparring with Tyrese Gibson’s womanizing ham. Dick jokes, Taylor Swift references, and meta humor about The Rock’s past life as Hercules all seem to be afforded more heft than the mood-killing dramatic beats, which breeze by no matter how shocking or tragic. The series also seems to have moved on from stunt casting rappers to enlisting well-respected actors for over-the-top cameos, this time none other than Helen Mirren. Despite rumors about an on-set rivalry between Vin Diesel & The Rock and a few drastic shakeups to the franchise’s central Family dynamic, F. Gary Gray manages to keep the mood in The Fate of the Furious just about as light as its explosions are frequent & loud.

If I have any complaints about this most recent entry to the series, it’s that it wasn’t quite blasphemous enough. The Fast & Furious franchise is overdue for another Tokyo Drift-style shakeup that completely disrupts the rules of its universe. Why not take this carnival to space? Why not have the Family get caught up in A Race Through Time? Why not have them travel to Hell and win back the life of a fallen member by beating The Devil Himself in a street race? If the series continues down its current path, I have no doubt it’ll remain a fun, absurd source of racing-themed entertainment. There’s just so much potential for it to jump a new shark in every franchise entry, though, (including literally jumping sharks!) and I think it’s more than ready to both make the leap and stick the landing.

-Brandon Ledet