Tired of chest-thumping men waging war, driving too fast, taking stupid risks and pretending to be heroes? Tired off crass comedies that reach new lows, or of films geared to teenage boys? Forget the cineplex; make a trip to the video store.
Better Than Chocolate (1999, R) Margaret has fallen in love and her new girlfriend has just moved in when Margaret’s recently divorced mother and her brother announce they’re moving in, too. But Margaret isn’t ready to let mom in on her sexual preference. The results are hilarious and unexpected in this delightfully erotic romp. A Canadian film, it’s both whimsical and original. Margaret’s family and her boss at the feminist bookstore all discover that there is indeed “something better than chocolate,” which proves to be very liberating for all involved. The mother, a failed opera singer, is involved in the best vibrator scene ever filmed when she discovers a box of sex toys under her daughter’s bed. As opera blares in the background and her new friend purrs away, she lets loose with her greatest aria ever. This is one tasty film.
A Merry War (1998, PG-13) This spirited gem is a hilarious lampoon of the artistic drive, and features charming performances by Helena Bonham-Carter and Richard Grant. Set in 1930s London, this adaptation of a George Orwell novel is as relevant today as it was when it was written. Grant and Bonham-Carter work at a sophisticated advertising agency where she’s a graphic artist and he’s the star copywriter. He dreams of being a poet after one reviewer calls him a “promising writer.” Turning down a promotion and a raise, he tenders his resignation at the ad agency so he can become a full-time poet. The patient Bonham-Carter humors his artistic quest, putting plans of marriage on hold. Wickedly clever, this satire of pretension and false hope shows what happens to most people who dream of the artist’s life. Grant ends up in poverty without enough money to buy biscuits for tea. For anyone who has ever dreamed of quitting their day job to become an artist, writer, poet, actress … (fill in the blank), this is a delightful reality check.
The Harmonists (1997, R) An excellent German feature, this film is based on the true story of a group of vocalists, The Comedian Harmonists, who performed in pre-war Berlin against the backdrop of Nazism’s rising specter. The group, several of them Jewish, rose to enormous popularity in Germany and even toured the United States. But competing love interests and the rising tide of anti-Semitism eventually tear them apart. In addition to great music, the film offers an insightful look into how people dealt with the coming Holocaust and the human toll of Hitler’s spreading venom.
The Leading Man (1996, R) John Duigan (Sirens) creates another playful romp, this one set in the world of London theater. Jon Bon Jovi, in a bit of casting genius, plays the seductive American rock star turned actor who is the leading man in a famed playwright’s newest work. The not-so-discreet playwright is having an affair with the lovely leading lady (Thandie Newton), much to the dismay of his neglected wife. Bon Jovi comes up with a solution. He’ll methodically seduce the playwright’s wife, freeing the author to pursue his leading lady. Duigan throws in some delightful twists, leading to an unexpected conclusion for the husband, who hadn’t counted on his own jealousy. Executed in intelligent Duigan style with effective performances, this is a thoroughly delightful film.
Firelight (1997, R) William Nicholson’s erotically charged costume drama is just the right stuff for romantics. The ethereal French beauty Sophie Marceau stars as a woman whose dire circumstances drive her to become a surrogate mother. Stephen Dillane is the English aristocrat whose bed-ridden wife can’t produce an heir. Marceau does her duty—at first begrudgingly, then with more gusto. After producing the contracted heir, she returns to France. Unable to forget her daughter, she tracks down the child seven years later and becomes the spoiled girl’s governess. The English father is initially outraged, but romance and passion are soon rekindled. The 19th century melodrama will leave you as overjoyed as its long-waiting heroine.
The Sheltering Sky (1990, NR) Paul Bowles, the American ex-patriot who lived in Morocco for more than 40 years, wrote a bleak novel about the trip an American couple (loosely based on his own marriage) took deep into the heart of Morocco in hopes of reviving their marriage. Bernardo Bertolucci’s atmospheric adaptation provides a visual landscape that draws you into the terrain and those who find both refuge and despair in it. Fortunately, the film is not as relentlessly depressing as the book. Debra Winger and John Malkovich play the husband and wife hoping to repair their marriage. Theirs is an odd relationship that just won’t click, despite the best of intentions. Don’t expect any happy endings, but for anyone who loves travel and the exotic, this is a masterpiece of place and mood.