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At the Movies

Inner workings


Dinner Rush serves up a convincing slice of New York by concentrating on the inner workings of Gigino, a fashionable Italian restaurant in Tribeca.

An independent film directed by Bob Giraldi from a bright screenplay by Rick Shaughnessy and Brian Kalata, it combines good character comedy, many laugh lines and a sense of menace from two Mafia thugs who want to take over the restaurant by threatening its likeable owner, Louis Cropa (Danny Aiello).

Since the movie rarely goes outside, you get a real sense of what a typical evening is like at Gigino, with repeated shots of frantic food preparation, the chef screaming at his assistants, waiters rushing up and down stairs, and impatient customers demanding tables. The plot line is firmly established at the outset as Louis explains the Mafia threat, and shows his ambivalence about the restaurant’s success under his son, Udo (Edoardo Ballerini), the chef. Although Udo is a brilliant perfectionist who has mastered the newest delights of an Italian-seasoned haute cuisine, Louis fondly remembers the days when his wife ran the kitchen and he could get a heaping dish of sausage and peppers.

Louie and his partner Enrico had always been involved with bookmaking on the side, but he was unprepared for the sudden violence of Black and Blue, the Mafia types who shoot Enrico down in the street as the credits roll. During the night in which the movie takes place, Louie has to deal with the two killers, who show up for dinner; his son Udo, who is impatient for his father to retire and give the restaurant over to him; and Udo’s assistant chef, Duncan (Kurt Acevedo), who cooks in the old style Louie prefers but is frantic with fear because of the gambling debts he has run up with the mob.

The restaurant is so rushed that it takes the whole movie to figure out exactly what is going on. Meantime, we savor enjoyable short takes both in the kitchen and at the tables upstairs. When Fitzgerald (Marc Margolis), an obnoxious art gallery owner, arrives with a few guests, he immediately insults his harried waitress. The latter, however, an artist herself, turns the tables on the would-be sophisticate and even wins the support of Fitzgerald’s friends. Black and Blue make vague threats and Louie seems unsure about how to respond. Duncan is so frightened that he is of no help in the kitchen and rushes out with one of the waitresses for fast sex.

An influential woman food critic arrives with a young woman friend who begins to get overly interested in Udo. There is also a young man who stands alone at the bar for some time before picking up an attractive drinking companion.

The dramatic resolution of the film leaves serious ethical questions that “Dinner Rush” doesn’t really want to deal with. An expertly concocted light entertainment, the movie is content to show how enjoyable Danny Aiello can be as a genial restaurateur and concerned father, and to allow us to pass an evening with beautiful New Yorkers on the make.

Training Day is a frighteningly unpleasant movie dominated by an electric performance by Denzel Washington -- even his smiles come to seem dangerous. He plays the handsome Alonzo Harris, an undercover narcotics officer with a platinum-and-diamond crucifix around his neck, who uses his considerable intelligence and dangerous charm to dominate others at any cost. Straight-arrow Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), a rookie cop who wants to trade a uniformed beat for more important work, endures a wildly overcrowded day of intimidation by Alonzo and instruction in how to bend the rules.

“You have to decide if you’re a sheep or a wolf, if you want to go to the grave or go home,” Alonzo tells Jake. There is an uneasy fascination in the way Alonzo plays mind games with his young student and gets the young cop to smoke a joint as a test of manliness -- and later use it to trap him. “Training Day” makes Los Angeles seem like a constantly dangerous place to live, and the movie is overcrowded with incidents that seem unexplained and improbable, but one watches with horrified fascination. At times it seems to hint at the Los Angeles police scandals of the ’90s, especially during a sinister encounter at a bar between Alonzo and members of the police brass. When a major drug bust yields $4 million, Alonzo splits one million of this with the police who helped make the seizure, but Jake turns down his share.

It is hard not to be caught up in the dangerous thrills of “Training Day,” despite a poorly integrated subplot involving Alonzo’s need to repay a Russian mobster for gambling losses at Las Vegas. Hawke is a good foil for his crooked instructor, conveying fear and uncertainty at the new situations he is constantly thrown into. What is disappointing is that we keep expecting Alonzo’s character to change and deepen but the movie rushes past several false endings without offering further insight.

“Training Day” is the latest example of how Hollywood constantly fails to use its major black actors to make pictures that transcend the clichés of violence and nonstop action. Denzel Washington’s agent may have told him to accept the role as a chance for an Oscar nomination, but the star should have given consideration to the possibility that the glamour he lends Alonzo -- with images of him controlling a white underling -- could easily make him a role model for the young and impressionable. Of course, Hollywood has exploited the theme of the gangster as hero since before the days of Jimmy Cagney, but Washington’s character seems especially dangerous because he is so suavely controlling that it is easy to ignore the fact that he is always capable of murder.

Jacques Rivette’s Va Savoir (“Who Knows?”) opened the New York Film Festival this fall and began its run in art theatres the following day on the reasonable assumption that it would be one of the most popular foreign movies of the year. Rivette (“Celine and Julie Go Boating,” “The Nun,” “Joan the Maid”), a widely admired director whose work often deals with the relationship between film and life, is here surprisingly assured in handling romantic comedy. Although there are farce elements, it remains the work of an intellectual. It tells the story of an Italian acting troupe coming to Paris to stage Pirandello’s “As You Desire Me,” a play about a woman whose identity keeps changing in accordance with the assumptions of those around her.

In “Who Knows?” Camille (Jeanne Balibar), a French actress playing the Pirandello lead (the part Greta Garbo had in the movie version of the Pirandello play), is emotionally upset about returning to Paris after three years because she’s anxious to see her former lover, a philosopher named Pierre (Jacques Bonnaffé). Her exaggerated moods are a bit trying on her director, co-star and current lover Ugo (Sergio Castellitto), who is concerned about poor attendance for the show and anxious to locate the manuscript of a never-produced Goldoni play that may be hidden in a private Parisian library. In the process he is aided by the flirtatious Do (Hélène de Fougerolles), who tells him that the library he is looking for is in her mother’s apartment and has long been a prized possession of her family.

When Camille calls on Pierre, he is not there, and she meets his current lover, an unsmiling dancer named Sonia (Marianne Basler). But she successfully locates him at his customary park bench, and after a strained encounter, she and Ugo are dinner guests in Pierre and Sonia’s apartment. The artificiality of the encounter becomes comic, especially when Pierre discusses his dissertation on Heidegger, and Ugo is the only one who acts naturally. Rivette splices bits of “As You Desire Me” into his leisurely plot (2 1/2 hours running time), which takes yet another twist when Do’s half-brother, Arthur (Bruno Todeschini), a gambler and a crook, forces his attentions on Sonia in order to steal her valuable ring.

Through it all, Rivette keeps attention centered on thin, neurotic Camille, whose long legs help her escape over a rooftop after Pierre tries to lock her in a back room. Though the comedy keeps juggling its male-female combinations, and takes a detached attitude to the exchange of sex to attain one’s ends, the director does not rely on sex scenes to hold audience interest. Instead, he stages a slapstick duel between Ugo and Pierre, and sets his company dancing at the finale.

None of this is profound, but it’s a pleasure to meet Rivette in a lighthearted mood. Liking “Who Knows?” may depend too much on whether you enjoy Camille’s neurotic clowning. And Do’s mother, Madame Desprez (Catherine Rouvel) is irresistible, constantly offering to make cake for whoever comes to her home.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer.

National Catholic Reporter, October 26, 2001