Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Dead in the Water

By Noel Murray and Donna Bowman

The original Speed was my kind of action movie--made on the cheap, with minimal star power and an emphasis on premise, character, and tone. Speed backed up its killer hook--a bus that explodes if it dips below 50 mph--with personable characters and a well-observed sense of absurdity. Thanks to Jan de Bont's unpretentious direction and Graham Yost's taut script, we in the audience knew within moments exactly what kind of people our heroes were, and we had a rooting interest in seeing them through their predicament.

Speed 2: Cruise Control cost three times as much as its predecessor, and it's about a third as good. Keanu Reeves, whose monotonous intensity was put to good use in the first film, has been replaced by Jason Patric, who employs the same monotone with none of the intensity. Speed's snappy premise is AWOL as well. The action this time is aboard a luxury liner that has been programmed by the villainous Willem Dafoe to smash into an oil tanker while he zips away with a fortune in jewels. He needs the money to cover medical costs that his employer refused to provide--even though the company poisoned his blood with copper before it fired him.

Did you follow all that? I almost didn't. Dafoe announces his motive over a loudspeaker, and whenever his explanation starts to sound dubious (like the whole "copper-in-the-blood" angle), returning director Jan de Bont has another character step on Dafoe's lines or fire a noisy gun.

Obfuscation is de Bont's prevailing strategy for Speed 2, and it's manifested primarily in shaky, hand-held close-ups. When Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch established the quick-cut action-film style, each of the shots was at least well-composed and comprehensible. De Bont's battalion of cameras produces sequences of shots that are blurred and usually meaningless. The images are then cut together to give the impression that the action is just too frenetic to absorb. Instead, the effect is merely exasperating, even nauseating. (I recommend focusing on the exit sign and watching the movie from the corner of your eye--although, after a few minutes, that exit sign starts to look pretty good.)

Waterlogged Jason Patric and Sandra Bullock, all wet in Speed
Frankly, Speed 2 is a cheat; it's a sequel to a title, not to a movie. Calling this mess Speed is like slapping a Coke label on a bottle of water. The only real connection the film has to its predecessor is the recurrence of ancillary actors such as Sandra Bullock, who reprises her damsel-in-distress role for a new hero. Unfortunately, Bullock--whose good-spirited anxiety seemed so real and so cute in Speed--has little to do in the sequel but stand around and beg Patric not to risk his life. And when she tries to act nonplused by the mayhem around her, she comes off sounding infantile.

Bullock's big moments are reserved for romantic scenes with Patric, during which they both spout inane dialogue in each other's general direction. It used to be that we went to big movies to watch people more urbane and more together than we could ever hope to be, but these days our screen heroes sound like figures in a first-year Spanish textbook. ("I am going to the beach. Do you have a dictionary?") This inanity stretches to Speed 2's supporting cast, a fatuous bunch of vacationers who add nothing to either the environment or the plot of the film (quite unlike the bus passengers in Speed).

Maybe screenwriters Randall McCormick and Jeff Nathanson put all the good stuff in their first draft--you know, stuff like action context and character motivation--and de Bont cut it out before shooting began. Chances are, though, that they all shared the same vision: to make a movie in which nothing is happening, but it's happening at a breakneck pace.--Noel Murray

Half-baked

Recent films such as Eat Drink Man Woman and Big Night have focused on our fascination with food, a subject that includes both the everyday and the exotic. "Eat to live, don't live to eat," runs the proverb; but true food artists know that a meal can be much more than minimal sustenance. The movies that celebrate food show us its luxurious, extravagant heights as well as its ordinary roots, both made memorable by the care of great cooks.

Among these movies, A Chef in Love, an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film last year, has some similarities to Like Water for Chocolate, which used groaning boards as the basis of legends and magic. But the film's director, Nana Djordjadz, has a confused agenda that undercuts her most potent ideas. When history overtakes fable in the movie's second act, the hero loses stature and the story loses momentum.

Photo by Ron Phillips.
The chef of the title is Pascal Ichak, a French gourmet who loves the beautiful Georgian princess Cecilia. Pierre Richard plays Pascal in a series of flashbacks, while an art curator and a food photographer in the present day translate the lovers' papers and slowly discover their story. Ichak is the author of a book on Georgian cuisine, and he has a superhuman sense for food and drink; in several scenes he performs heroic feats of aroma identification and imbibing. But the Communist revolution overtakes Georgia at last, and hordes of uniformed Leninist flacks overrun Pascal's French restaurant and fail to appreciate his artistry. Cecilia marries the volatile revolutionary leader, Zigmund, to save Pascal's life, while the chef toils for the Red Army and agonizes over the lousy food being cooked by tasteless boors in his beautiful kitchen.

Pascal and Cecilia are outsized figures in the movie's first third, roaming the countryside having culinary adventures, being interrupted at every turn by music and feasting. It's the stuff of rollicking tales, the kind families love to tell about their ancestors, and the episodes have more than a touch of fantasy. When he settles down in Tbilisi to open his restaurant, Pascal serves heads of state and famous aviators--storybook characters who fit neatly into the anecdotal structure of the flashbacks.

This structure persists after the Communist takeover, but the point of the anecdotes becomes much harder to figure out. Pascal seems beaten down and unable to explain why he doesn't flee back to France; Cecilia's marriage to Zigmund doesn't appear to alter her behavior at all. Food is served, but the loutish soldiers destroy the pleasure of the meal. Pascal writes down the "thousand and one recipes" of the original French title in an attic without so much as a hot plate. But the film doesn't take notice of his great feat of imagination: conjuring dishes with only his memories as ingredients.

Some revelations about Anton, the present-day reader of the letters, still remain for the movie's conclusion. The aura of greatness that surrounded Pascal and Cecilia is dispelled after the first hour, however, and the plot stagnates in a sketchy rendition of revolution. If the movie had told the story of a legendary chef reduced to mere humanity, it might have been poignant. Strangely, however, the ineffectual Pascal is still treated as if he were the hero of family stories--only he isn't doing anything.

The audience is left to ponder themes that remain largely unexplored: the misplaced egalitarian impulse of the revolutionaries, which leads them to mock the delicacies of the rich while unable to appreciate them; the "bait and switch" of Communism itself, prefigured in a suckling-pig scam run by Zigmund early in the film; and most of all, the promise of delicious food, simple and timeless, that renders every day a renewable gift. For long stretches, A Chef in Love seems to forget even this last idea as its characters wander through history. The tall tales of the movie's first hour are a savory appetizer, but the entree turns out to be unexpectedly bland.--Donna Bowman







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