Hooks and Ladders

A Chef in Love

Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday

Hollow Reed

Suburban World, starts Friday

MEMO TO ALL filmmakers: Hit us with hooks. Lure us in 25 words or less and we'll take the bait. Here's an example: "City bus has to stay above 50 mph or it blows up." (Another, at least in theory: "My stepmother is an alien.") But once the hook catches, it's important to reel us in. Tell a story worth staying up for. Put your mouth where the money is. We know that hooks are expensive and often clinch the deal (e.g. "Arnold gets pregnant").

For instance, here's a novel hook: "French chef falls in love with a foreign land, suffers under revolution, declines in obscurity in the attic of his former restaurant." Those 22 words neatly set up Nana Djordjadze's A Chef in Love as a contest between individual obsession and history's obstacles. However, the hook fails to suggest the entire force of weight and passion behind the snag.

Luckily, A Chef in Love is so wacko about food and romance that it's at least easy to like. Here is Pascal Ichac (Pierre Richard), in the first blush of romance with the stunning Georgian Princess Cecilia Abachidze (Nino Kirtadze): As they smooch in the vineyard, they rub grapes on each other's face. Here is Pascal, pressed into service as a cook for the victorious but crass Bolsheviks: He has tastefully roasted crow over a campfire, and the bowels of the Bolsheviks disagree. Nothing much different happens beyond these choice examples, because the movie is basically a comic catalogue of just how possessed Ichac was with cuisine in general and prerevolutionary Georgia (and Cecilia) in particular. But even though tragedy strikes, it remains fairly congenial and appetizing. With his excessively frizzy hair, Richard resembles Gene Hackman gone loco--the clown prince and patron saint of cuisine.

On to the next hook: "Devoted gay father strives to protect his son from ex-wife's new boyfriend." Admittedly, this 12-word idea lacks the telegraphic efficiency of, say, "Arnold teaches kindergarten," but as a come-on it leaves more to the imagination than the promise of the Terminator leading show-and-tell. As the guiding principle of Angela Pope's Hollow Reed, this hook implies characters and themes that are once removed from ordinary, yet rooted in contemporary issues. You're probably thinking "Lifetime Channel exclusive"--but stay tuned.

In fact, Hollow Reed expands beyond its clever idea into an ensemble suite of acting, motivation, and emotion. Dr. Martyn Wyatt (Martin Donovan) is not just a physician, but a thoughtful person who's finally found comfort in the steady company of Tom (Ian Hart), a record-shop owner. And nurse Hannah Wyatt (Joely Richardson), following a failed marriage, thinks she's found a genuine partner in Frank Donally (Jason Flemyng), an engineer. Preoccupied adults all, none of them finds anything unusual about the stories young Oliver (Sam Bould) tells to explain his cuts, gashes, and bruises.

Then, suspicions and awkward animosities begin to mount, and the movie brings us into the courtroom for a custody battle. Some of this involves Martyn being gay, but more of it has to do with the characters being unique. Ultimately, Hollow Reed rises above its own noble agenda to become an actual drama. If Pope had changed the particulars but kept her characters and her style, she'd still have made a fine, even engrossing film.

Is it worth pointing out that women directed both of these movies? Only in the sense that each has done strong and sensitive work. In Hollow Reed, Pope (who made last year's Captives with Tim Roth and Julia Ormond) weaves a visually compelling fabric: Vulnerable Oliver peeks through window blinds (as does the judge who interviews him), various characters cut vegetables (hinting at how each of them approaches the world), Tom plays soccer with gusto (but has time to fret over Martyn). The director's confident juggling of sensibilities even allows her to present court testimony in the form of closeups against black backgrounds, a technique that approaches the rare power of a great radio drama.

Finally, a memo to moviegoers: Don't fear the hook. Noisier blockbusters may live and die by their hooks (e.g. "Convicts hijack a plane and crash in the Nevada desert"), but it's still no sin for an arty indie to have a nifty come-on too. Chef and Reed demonstrate the ability to promise and deliver, but also to embellish and develop along the way. Their hooks are prologues, not plot summaries.

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