Andrew Wickliffe

Over the Rainbow (2002, Ahn Jin-woo)

Lee Jung-Jae starred in the first Korean film I watched, Il Mare, and I’ve seen another one with him in it. Some bad one that was half-gritty cop movie and half English Patient. I probably did I write up, I remember typing that slight before.

Over the Rainbow is, therefore, his first good film. You can’t followed many actors anymore–even Meryl Streep throws you a curve these days–but it also gave me a nice introduction to Korean cinema. I go on and on about Korean films right after I watched one, then I say nothing about them for months, watch another and then go on and on for a while again. This film has a lot of problems. A lot of third act problems. It’s a cutesy mystery with a lot of flashbacks.

And some of the film doesn’t make sense. The flashbacks are to college, but it’s never specified how much time has elapsed since then to the story’s present period. It’s also predictable, but reminds me a great deal of the back of my old Sabrina (the remake) laserdisc. The conclusion is inevitable–you know what’s going to happen going in the door–but watching the film, seeing the people and their relationships develop–is what makes the experience rewarding.

Another review, somewhere I saw online because IMDb didn’t list writing credits, pointed out that, though Lee is good, the female lead, Jang Jin-Young, sort of walks off with the film. She’s excellent but the film coddles her for the first half or so, before you realize what’s going on. There’s nothing like watching a film and having no idea what you’re going to get in terms of a story. The last time I felt like that with an American film was Liberty Heights. And even though I had a rough idea what Over the Rainbow was about, I still got to experience it fresh. The only other way–besides foreign films–to get this feeling tends to be the “forgotten classic.” Wild River being my perfect example of that experience.

Warren Ellis, a decent comic book writer, said that he wasn’t all that impressed with Korean films because they were like Hollywood films, only not made by committee. Or something to that effect. I agree to a point, but Korean films seem to still love cinematic storytelling. They’re still excited about it. When Judy Garland sings “Over the Rainbow” and you lay it over some action, there’s power to it. Same with “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” which the film does in another scene. Both these songs, if they appeared in an American film, would likely be redone by Madonna or Jennifer Lopez or something. They’d be jokes. Ha ha, look at these sentimental fools. The sentimental has an important place in cinema. The most sentimental moment in American cinema in last–what, ten years?–came in Magnolia of all films. Certainly not regularly recognized for its sentimentality.

Over the Rainbow is a good example of exuberant, rewarding filmmaking. With one exception (the shitty cop/English Patient movie), all the Korean films I’ve seen are exuberantly made, in love with medium. So, I can’t say if you see one Korean film, see Over the Rainbow. But if you see three….

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Ahn Jin-woo; director of photography, Kim Yeong-cheol; edited by Park Gok-ji; music by Clarence Hui; released by Kang Je-Kyu Film Co. Ltd.

Starring Lee Jung-jae (Lee Jin-su), Jang Jin-young (Kang Yeong-hie), Kong Hyeong-jin (Kim Young-min), Jung Chan (Choi Sang-in) and Uhm Ji-won (Kim Eun-song).


Turn (2001, Hirayama Hideyuki)

The modern Japanese drama tends to be emotive. Even when they aren’t good, they succeed in making the viewer care for the characters.

Turn is, ostensibly, a Japanese Groundhog Day. Only not funny. Where Groundhog Day was about Bill Murray interacting with people with no consequence, the character stuck in turnover in Turn is alone. She spends about fifteen minutes with no character interaction.

A character alone is a difficult proposition. She doesn’t have a dog and she doesn’t have a ball with eyes on. She makes some comments–really forced ones for a while–but the first twenty minutes are hard to get through. Without some voiceover, which would have done Turn a great deal of good, you feel too much like you’re watching a movie. It’s hard to identify. The character is a preschool teacher and her experience could have been turned into story for her charges. Turn also provides one with a lot of opportunities to conceive a superior remake (or adaptation, as it’s based on a Japanese bestseller).

The characters and their performers are likeable. There’s the unexplored relationship between the woman’s mother and her sort of suitor. A relationship, I suppose, left for a better film. It’s a fantastic situation, so getting me to care about it–especially considering the film has two principle and two supporting actors–is hard. A film that nullifies itself with its ending has to be careful not sacrifice all that the characters have struggled to achieve. Honestly, Turn was never going to be higher than a one and a half, but when it cut itself off, when it made those struggles secondary to resolving the fantastic situation, it dropped–immediately–to a one. Then the movie ends moments later. It’s not even a twist ending–it’s predictable after a certain point–and Turn manages to suffer most of the downsides of the twist ending.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Hirayama Hideyuki; screenplay by Murakami Osamu, based on a novel by Kitamura Kaoru; director of photography, Fujisawa Junichi; edited by Okuhara Shigeru; music by Micky Yoshino; released by Asmik Ace Entertainment.

Starring Makise Riho (Maki), Nakamura Kanatrou (Youhei), Emoto Akira (Matsubara), Kawahara Ayako (Yukari), Kitamura Kazuki (Kiyotaka) and Baisho Mitsuko (Maki’s mother).


Speaking of Sex (2001, John McNaughton)

Let me annotate the opening cast crawl with my thoughts at the time….

James Spader–great, love him on “Boston Legal.”

Melora Walters–from Magnolia, love her, she’s in nothing.

Jay Mohr–liked him in Picture Perfect when I saw it, now can’t believe I liked it…

Catherine O’Hara, Bill Murray… solid people.

So what happened? It’s actually not all John McNaughton’s fault, which is a big thing to say. I mean, I loved McNaughton when I was sixteen. He did Mad Dog and Glory and that film is a great “adult” film to appreciate when you’re sixteen. Especially if you love Richard Price. Then he did Normal Life, back when having Ashley Judd in a film meant good things, and I waited years to see it. It premiered on video and it sucked. It was terrible.

McNaughton’s direction is fine, though it’s the modern “comedy” directing that comes from commercials. The script is awful and the performances are awful. Spader is playing his character from Mannequin or something. Walters is awful and it pains me to say that. Mohr was fine.

Lara Flynn Boyle shows up and a lot of the weight of the first eight minutes is put on her. She can handle weight for about… no, I’m wrong. She can’t handle any weight.

I rented Speaking of Sex from Nicheflix and it’s probably the first film from there I’ve turned off. It’s never gotten a US or UK release and the DVD is from Germany. The Germans appear to have no taste in cinema, which is painfully obvious. I’m not sure Germany has produced a decent film since Das Boot. That’s twenty-two years.

And it was a TV mini-series.

So, all that excitement I had for the first three minutes, all that promise Speaking of Sex got from its cast, it’s all disappeared and I’m reminded of those fond days when I wanted to hide my head under a rock for ever saying nice things about McNaughton.

Sometimes, you find a jewel in a film that’s unappreciated in its country of origin. Sometimes you find a beautifully cast turd. And Speaking of Sex is a big turd.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John McNaughton; written by Gary Tieche; director of photography, Ralf D. Bode; edited by Elena Maganini; music by George S. Clinton; production designer, Joseph T. Garrity; produced by Alain Sarde and Rob Scheidlinger; released by Studio Canal.

Starring James Spader (Dr. Roger Klink), Melora Walters (Melinda), Jay Mohr (Dan), Nathaniel Arcand (Calvin), Megan Mullally (Jennifer Klink), Lara Flynn Boyle (Dr. Emily Paige), Catherine O’Hara (Connie Barker) and Bill Murray (Ezri Stovall).


Batman Begins (2005, Christopher Nolan)

Well, now, I’m surprised. Batman Begins is not terrible.

It’s not good either. Not good at all. It has damning faults in three areas, and since this film is the first critically praised one I’ve thrashed–at least the first critically praised one currently still in the theaters–this post is going to be a little more “formal” than we’re used to around here.

I’ll get the good stuff out of the way. Christian Bale is good. Now, that’s not actually the biggest surprise–though I imagined it would be since Christian Bale has long been my candidate for the worst working “serious” actor (Hayden Christiansen or someone like him doesn’t count). For evidence, I offer Velvet Goldmine and Shaft. Still, I’m not surprised, since I thought as much from the trailers. Bale might belong in this sort of film–something big and emotionally empty. Whenever he tries to act “real,” he as convincing as … oh, Samuel L. Jackson. No, the big surprise of Batman Begins is Katie Holmes. She’s good. She has some terrible lines and the way she says “Bruce” is annoying, but she’s actually quite good.

Nolan’s direction is adequate. The “epic” shots of Bruce Wayne in China are between annoying and stupid. Never knew so many Chinese people spoke English, I guess those recent college graduates who go over to teach English really get into the boonies. There are a few excellent shots in Batman Begins, but the direction is in no way superior to Tim Burton’s take on the material and I don’t even like Burton. Nolan shoots Batman really well. The costume, in the publicity shots, is incredibly silly. It might not have nipples but it obviously has limited motion. Nolan hides it in the dark.

Now for the damning faults. I made notes during the film, so let’s see if that provides any structure (I doubt it).

Firstly, the guy who plays Bruce Wayne’s father. He sucks. The kid who plays young Bruce Wayne, he sucks too. I hated him. I wish the mugger had shot the little British twit who couldn’t keep his accent. And what was the deal with the mother? She had three lines. For the entire movie, it’s all about Papa Wayne. Apparently, Bruce didn’t love his mother very much. Oh, and there’s some awful exposition explaining Gotham City to young Bruce and the audience (in the film’s only incredibly offensive CG portion). If the Adam West TV show did an episode about the death of the Wayne parents (it didn’t, but if), it would have done a better job.

Damn, I wanted to segue into the next point from that one, but I got all caught up in Adam West’s tighties… Basically, Gotham City is the most important city on the face of the globe. Everything that’s anything is all about Gotham City. And, conveniently, Wayne Enterprises or Industries or whatever the movie calls it, is the world’s most important company. Batman Begins has no concept of scale. Robocop took place in Detroit, but managed to convincingly set-up the huge corporation effecting the film’s world. Batman Begins doesn’t do any such convincing. In fact, it goes so far to tell the viewer Wayne Inc. is the huge corporation that effects everyone. In dialogue.

But for such a huge metropolis, again, Gotham City seems to have only one neighborhood, just like in the other movies. There’s the skyline, of course, which looks a lot like Chicago on a bright day, but the only neighborhood where anything ever–visibly–happens is called the Narrows. And it’s small. But Batman actually doesn’t need that much space to play with. Because he doesn’t actually fight crime. He fights corruption and he fights masterminds, but only if it’ll further the plot along. Batman’s first fight is the drug importers who clue him in to the larger scheme at work, his next fight is to save Katie Holmes, who he makes his wary ally–who’s being attacked by agents of said importers’ boss. I think the next fight is with the film’s only supervillain, the Scarecrow, a psychologist gone evil.

There’s no “first night out,” which shows the audience the hero doing all sorts of heroic shit. Superman is the perfect example (and where the name for the sequence comes from). Batman doesn’t show any concern for the people of Gotham themselves. He doesn’t beat up any spousal abusers or average muggers, it’s all got to be about furthering the lame story. And it is a lame story. Batman Begins is all about Bruce Wayne “becoming” Batman. Well, we all know he’s going to become Batman. Somewhere along the line, shouldn’t it be a choice? Shouldn’t we think, oh, not everything is predestined, that there’s a living, breathing, thinking character at work here? Not just someone who can be an action figure and be slathered on underwear… But there’s not and that’s one of the major reasons Batman Begins fails. It asks the audience to take the character seriously, then refuses to do so itself. Would Bruce Wayne have become Batman if he didn’t have body armor or finding the “batcave?” The film never convinces us he would. It’s all about synchronicity.

Did I mention the annoying little kid he meets in the bad neighborhood who reappears later in the film? Because Gotham City–though the world’s sparkling jewel and the only place a serious terrorist would attack–has a limited number of SAG card-carrying citizens.

Now for the actors. Let’s call them the Pork Pack. I though the Ham something or other, but couldn’t think of a second H-word. I didn’t want to give this one away at the beginning, but Bale and Holmes turn two of the five acceptable performances in the film. Liam Neeson is awful. Michael Caine is slightly less awful. Gary Oldman (who’s got terribly written scenes) is bad too. These three suck, nicely put. They’re silly. Neeson in particular is giggle-inducing. Morgan Freeman is fine but has nothing to do. Rutger Hauer does good. He has shit to do, but he spins it interestingly. Mark Boone Junior (anyone else remember this guy, he was great in Trees Lounge) has a small role and is a welcome breather. Cillian Murphy (Christopher Nolan’s great discovery) sucks. Tom Wilkinson sucks too. Most of the Brits in the film playing Americans can’t hold their accents the whole way through, I think Bale is the only one who does…

The film has some nice sequences. I’m not wild about the entire car chase, but some of it was good. There was no weight to it, of course, it was just an excuse for them to use the Batmobile. The end is particularly hilarious, because the whole thing boils down to an over-the-top Steven Seagal Under Siege movie (just without the good acting). There’s a bomb on a train business. What else… Oh, the DC logo at the beginning. This addition is the saddest. Warner’s is doing it to counter the familiarity of the Marvel logo before their movies. Warner is doing it, not DC. Batman belongs to Warner Bros. From 1989 to 2002–with that first Scooby-Doo teaser–audiences around the world have associated Batman with the Warner Bros. logo. And now they’re supposed to associate it with the new DC logo? Why, because the DC logo will be on the underwear? Because no one who sees Batman Begins and is unfamiliar with the comic books is going to find anything they like in the comic books. If you want to read a Batman comic book, you’ll have to spend a few hundred bucks just to understand what he’s talking about–reborn Robins, brainwashing and whatnot. Batman Begins has little to do with the comic books and nothing to do with the spirit of the current Batman character. Anyone who says otherwise is either stupid, a salesman, or an deliberate liar.

Batman Begins tries to present the audience with a Batman we can identify with. A “realistic” Batman to identify with. Because the whole thing about identifying with Michael Keaton’s pains and human struggles, well, to hell with all that, he can’t compete with Tobey Maguire. And there are moments when Batman Begins almost succeeds. Unfortunately, none of them are when Bale’s in costume (though he’s fine as Batman too) and most involve Katie Holmes being around.

Except, it’s not called Tom Cruise’s Fake Girlfriend Begins. And, yeah, the title is lame. At best it’s a sentence fragment, at worst it’s a grammatical offense to the language Coca-Cola’s ad department (the people who said that the average American doesn’t understand the difference between “everyday” and “every day”) would appreciate.

Oh. I forgot to mention the shitty music. It’s really shitty.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Christopher Nolan; screenplay by Nolan and David S. Goyer, based on a story by Goyer and characters created by Bob Kane; director of photography, Wally Pfister; edited by Lee Smith; music by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard; production designer, Nathan Crowley; produced by Emma Thomas, Charles Roven and Larry J. Franco; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Michael Caine (Alfred), Liam Neeson (Henri Ducard), Katie Holmes (Rachel Dawes), Gary Oldman (James Gordon), Cillian Murphy (Dr. Jonathan Crane), Tom Wilkinson (Carmine Falcone), Rutger Hauer (Richard Earle), Ken Watanabe (Ra’s al Ghul) and Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox).


White Dog (1982, Samuel Fuller)

I kept getting sad during White Dog, probably for a few reasons. First, the film is effective: it’s about people faced with a reality (a racist training his dog to attack black people) they can’t fix, but they’re going to try. I have a bootleg from Denmark (everyone’s bootleg is from Denmark), but hadn’t watched it. Only the end.

Second, because White Dog is a different Sam Fuller. It’s an early 1980s Fuller telling a contemporary story, using more advanced filming technology (location cranes and steadycam), with an Ennio Morricone score. I kept getting sad because White Dog‘s Fuller had a lot of interesting films in him and folks ran him out of the country without even seeing his film.

And White Dog has a lot going for it. The only Paul Winfield-lead I’m aware of–he’s so good. Unless black guys star in action movies, they never get any recognition… Kristy MacNichol proves cutesy actress icons used to be able to act. Burl Ives is good. White Dog is a good film. It’s not a great film, however, because it’s too short. It runs about ninety minutes and there are two ideas never developed on–MacNichol’s boyfriend, played by “Simon and Simon” star Jameson Parker–yeah, he’s good too–was supposed to write something about her and the dog and some tranquilizers got replaced with regular darts but never showed up again. The tranquilizer scene probably was lost when Fuller absconded with a print over to France. With the writer part, I’m just correcting it in my head–ol’ boy writes an article, brings out the dog’s proud owner (who shows up in the third act for a second, letting MacNichol show why “son of a bitch” can be a great descriptor), and lets the characters get some sort of closure. I made up all of the parts past the darts. Fuller never intended of those–that I know of. Maybe I’m sitting here eating chocolate cake, drinking soymilk and channeling him, but I doubt it.

Before the film started, the college kid introduced White Dog as criminally under-seen and criminally unreleased on DVD. He was right on both parts, even though they’re really the same thing. I always hate seeing films about race in America and realizing that things have gotten worse. No one talks about it anymore, but there’s more division than there was when I was a kid. White Dog tries to talk about it. In contrast, Crash tries to tell you about it….

As for White Dog and you good people getting to see it–there’s always shitty Danish bootlegs and there’s always a chance the French will save it.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Samuel Fuller; screenplay by Fuller and Curtis Hanson, based on a story by Romain Gary; director of photography, Bruce Surtees; edited by Bernard Gribble; music by Ennio Morricone; production designer, Brian Eatwell; produced by Jon Davison; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Kristy McNichol (Julie Sawyer), Paul Winfield (Keys), Burl Ives (Carruthers) and Jameson Parker (Roland Gray).


The Eagle Has Landed (1976, John Sturges), the extended version

We all know Winston Churchill wasn’t kidnapped or assassinated during World War II–except maybe President Bush, but he’s still waiting for John Rambo to call with info on Osama–so The Eagle Has Landed‘s ending is a bit of a give-away. The film succeeds–to some degree–since it presents the audience with characters they care so much about, the concern for their futures outweighs the known past.

There’s some good acting in The Eagle Has Landed. Donald Sutherland’s Irish accent is a little much, but he’s fine, so’s Michael Caine. Robert Duvall is so good–so amazingly good–I debated getting a copy for my collection. The beginning, the Nazi politics and the planning of the mission, all good. But once the film gets to England, it all goes sour. Once Larry Hagman shows up as an unexperienced American commander, well, you’re glad when he gets it….

John Sturges is good at making the audience identify with the “enemy.” Making you care about them on a human level. He does it with the Nazis here and in The Great Escape and with Confederates in Escape from Fort Bravo. Sturges doesn’t believe that a country’s ideology makes the man–the soldier. All Quiet on the Western Front presents a similar argument, so does The Thin Red Line and even Saving Private Ryan (or so the reviews said, I always read the lullaby scene differently). Sturges creates awkward emotions inside you during this film. The good guy getting killed feels good because he’s the antagonist. When the double agent dies, you’re sorry for her. It’s a big story told on very human levels (Jenny Agutter almost ruins it, of course).

The Eagle Has Landed was Sturges’ last film. The one before was the unbelievably bad John Wayne-Dirty Harry rip-off McQ. I knew I had negative thoughts about Sturges for some reason other than The Magnificent Seven, which was just mediocre. I have a lot of his films recorded, but haven’t seen that many. Probably five or six. But Sturges is good.

And Robert Duvall. Wow. I’m looking through Netflix right now.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by John Sturges; screenplay by Tom Mankiewicz, based on a novel by Jack Higgins; director of photography, Anthony Richmond; edited by Anne V. Coates; music by Lalo Schifrin; produced by Jack Wiener and David Niven Jr.; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Michael Caine (Col. Kurt Steiner), Donald Sutherland (Liam Devlin), Robert Duvall (Col. Max Radi), Jenny Agutter (Molly Prior), Donald Pleasence (Heinrich Himmler), Anthony Quayle (Adm. Wilhelm Canaris), Jean Marsh (Joanna Grey), Sven-Bertil Taube (Captain von Neustadt), Judy Geeson (Pamela Verecker), Siegfried Rauch (Sergeant Brandt), John Standing (Father Verecker), Treat Williams (Capt. Harry Clark) and Larry Hagman (Colonel Pitts).


Superman II (1980, Richard Lester), the restored international cut

I read about the Superman II restored international cut (RIC)–a fan effort to compile all the extra Superman II footage from various television prints, mostly from foreign markets–in Entertainment Weekly. It said to head over to Superman Cinema to get a free copy, just so long as you provide free copies. By that time, however, Warner Bros. had shut distribution down. I got my copy through a nice guy in alt.tv.tape-trading. It cost eight dollars, which is well worth it, considering the disc has a bunch of special features. It’s an impressive package.

The “restoration” was done in PAL pan and scan, then transferred to NTSC for the DVD. As far as the prints, they look great. As good as a regular VHS. But I’ve been seeing Superman II letterboxed since 1997 or 1998, whenever Warner got around to releasing the remastered laserdisc. But I grew up with a pan and scan Superman II, so I didn’t think it’d hurt me too much. Thought it might even be nostalgic.

Superman II, the RIC, does have some nice “new” moments. Mostly with the cast from the original film. A little more of Ned Beatty, some amusing Lex Luthor/Jimmy Olsen interaction, an attempt at a better close for the Lois and Clark romance. But it doesn’t fix the problems with the film. And watching it in converted from PAL pan and scan–which makes the film look, to me at least, like an episode of “Three’s Company,” or some other TV shot on video–made me hypersensitive. I couldn’t get lost in the magic. And then I realized why.

Superman II doesn’t have any magic. It doesn’t have the wonder of the first film. In fact, the attempt at furthering Superman as a character never appeared before this cut. In the North Pole, in the Lois and Clark scene I just mentioned, Lois tells Superman to “never forget” their romance, echoing Ma Kent telling him never to forget his youth. This scene doesn’t appear in the theatrical version and the end of the film–the idiotic super-brainwashing kiss–invalidates it. Fans constantly attack Richard Lester for the films’ faults, but he’s only partly to blame. The story doesn’t respect Superman enough. There’s no real romance between him and Lois Lane. Once he gives up his powers, it’s obvious she wants the super-dude. He gives them up, gets laid for the first (and, presumably, only) time, gets beat up, then gets them back–all in ten or twelve minutes. There’s no drama to it.

The initial online outrage about Superman II, once enough folks got together and shared what they knew of Donner’s original intent, was directed at Tom Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz responded, defending himself, and placed the blame–I think–on the Salkinds and Lester. Richard Lester is not actually dead. I always thought he was, but he’s not. He’s never responded and, unless Warner taps him for a special edition, seems to have no interest in his Superman efforts.

Watching the film, obviously there are production faults, but it is mostly Lester’s. The moments of comedy when Metropolis is being “blown apart” are inappropriate. It’s laughing at victims. The bad guys are silly, which may be partly Donner’s fault, though I think he mostly shot the good scenes, the Lois and Clark scenes towards the beginning. Since much was shot at the same time, on the same sets, but to far lesser success, Superman II–in any version–seems a disrespect to the first film. Maybe even to the characters themselves. The first film–through the wonderful combination of production, writing, and acting–created people we cared about. Hell, it did such a good job, we even cared about them in Superman IV. Superman II plays off that sentiment.

Sitting here, twenty-five years later, I can see, dramatically, what went wrong. This restored international cut shows, at the time, someone else cared about these characters, cared about developing them further, cared about doing good work. Unfortunately, whoever this person was, it wasn’t the people in charge of producing Superman II.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Lester; written by Mario Puzo, David Newman and Leslie Newman, from a story by Puzo, based on characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; creative consultant, Tom Mankiewicz; directors of cinematography, Robert Paynter and Geoffrey Unsworth; edited by John Victor-Smith; music by Ken Thorne; production designers, John Barry and Peter Murton; produced by Pierre Spengler; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor), Christopher Reeve (Clark Kent/Superman), Ned Beatty (Otis), Jackie Cooper (Perry White), Sarah Douglas (Ursa), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Jack O’Halloran (Non), Valerie Perrine (Ms. Teschmacher), Susannah York (Lara), E.G. Marshall (The President), Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen) and Terence Stamp (General Zod).



This film is also discussed in Sum Up | Superman.

Melinda and Melinda (2004, Woody Allen)

Woody Allen has written around thirty films, probably thirty-four. Ten of these films are some of the finest in the last thirty years, give or take. But he tries something new in Melinda and Melinda and it doesn’t work.

Of his recent work, his post-Miramax period, Melinda is the second strongest–Curse of the Jade Scorpion holding the title. His work hasn’t been astounding, but it’s still good work. Melinda and Melinda had the potential, the writing, and the cast to be his best film in twelve years or so. Wait, I forgot about Sweet and Lowdown. Anyway, when I said Woody tried something new, he screwed up his narrative and ruined the film’s effectiveness.

Melinda and Melinda has three concurrent stories. The reality one: two playwrights, one comedic, one dramatic, at dinner and then each playwright’s story of the titular Melinda. Since neither of these stories is real, but are told with lovely care for their characters, the effect is something annoying (unlike the similarly afflicted, but unmoving The Usual Suspects).

And it’s too bad, because Woody’s got his best cast in years in this film. A bunch of people who, shockingly in some cases, turn in great performances. Chloë Sevigny is great, but we all know that–but Jonny Lee Miller? I had no idea. Amanda Peet continues to impress (her turn in What Women Want starting this run) and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who I’ve never seen in anything much less heard the name, is quite good too. Will Ferrell does a couple too many Woody impressions but is fine otherwise. Touching, even, in some parts.

As the eponymous Melinda, Rhada Mitchell occasionally loses her American accent, but is rather good. Melinda isn’t the protagonist, however. Ferrell is in one story, Sevigny in the other. Melinda isn’t the subject either, instead, Woody uses her as the catalyst, which would work great if the stories had weight. Worse, one story ends before the other, jarring the viewer into realizing the uselessness of his or her investment in the film.

Still, the film is beautifully directed, with amazing Vilmos Zsigmond cinematography, and is still quite good overall. I haven’t seen a Woody Allen film in about a year and watching one always produces a nice feeling. A feeling that the world isn’t empty of art. (Except maybe Bullets Over Broadway or Another Woman).

Narrative device warts and all, he’s just so damn good.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Woody Allen; director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production designer, Santo Loquasto; produced by Letty Aronson; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Radha Mitchell (Melinda), Chloë Sevigny (Laurel), Jonny Lee Miller (Lee), Will Ferrell (Hobie), Amanda Peet (Susan), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Ellis), Wallace Shawn (Sy) and Josh Brolin (Greg).


White Nights (1985, Taylor Hackford)

It’s the perfect time for the White Nights post I’ve been slacking on.

Why have I been slacking? A combination of things. First and foremost, White Nights is a Columbia Picture. Sony releases Columbia Pictures on DVD and has not released White Nights in the US yet. If and when they do, those twits will probably release it pan and scan. We watched the lovely, anamorphic widescreen Japanese release. Even has Taylor Hackford commentary. Two, I’ve seen White Nights before and I don’t know how much I have to say about it. Three, maybe I’d have more to say or something different to say, if I didn’t watch the movie thinking how great an actor Gregory Hines really was, how unappreciated he was in the 1980s (how many good roles did he have in theatrical releases–I’ve actually seen Dead Air–seven or eight, depends on if you count History of the World or Eve of Destruction). Gregory Hines came and went and he shouldn’t have. The fact he’s dead without any acting recognition upset me throughout the film. Just now, I read he dropped out of 48 HRS. for The Cotton Club. So now I’m even more upset.

No one makes movies like White Nights anymore. Hollywood does not produce adult dramas not intended to be Oscar-nominees. It just doesn’t happen. Miramax has ruined adult cinema (and Adam Sandler and Mike Myers have ruined adult comedy).

White Nights is–I suppose–not entirely ludicrous. I have no idea what would have happened if Baryshnikov ended up in the Soviet Union somehow. So, I can accept it. The rest of the story is simple and paced over a couple weeks. The KGB sets Baryshnikov up with Hines, a tap-dancing American defector (over Vietnam), hoping to get world recognition for getting their defector back home. Getting him to give up the world of Western indulgences. Eventually, Baryshnikov escapes again. The end. I’m sure almost everyone’s seen this movie on late night TV (though not in beautiful anamorphic widescreen).

There’s Phil Collins music at some point but it’s that somehow okay Phil Collins 1980s music. Makes for good sequences. That Phil Collins. Not Phil Collins-Monkey Love Song Phil Collins. And it fits because Hackford produces an excellent package. His films are always well-produced. Against All Odds is not, you know, a good film, but it’s well-produced. In the context of the 1980s, I would have called Hackford mediocre. Now, I would have to call him good… comparably.

Nights isn’t a musical, but there’s a lot of dancing and it’s impossible not be awe of the two dancers. No offense to Hines (or tap dancing), but Baryshnikov is the more stunning. What the guy can do is amazing. I can’t do any of it. And neither can you, because you’d be doing it right now instead of wasting your time reading about some movie. My interest in the dancing, besides general appreciation, wanes. It’s not a musical, there’s a story coming before these sequences and they seem long when they’re interrupting that story. Some are great and Hackford does a good job with them. But the dancing makes White Nights good. It’s the peculiar nature of the story and of the actors.

For the majority of the film, Hines doesn’t like Baryshnikov and neither does the audience (though my fiancée seems to like his tush a lot). Baryshnikov is a selfish prig and it takes a while to warm to him. The differences between the Soviet Union and the United States and freedoms do come up, but those difference’s aren’t the character’s motivation. He’s just a selfish prig. There’s no ideology. And that lack makes him likable in the end. In other words, for four-fifths of the movie, it’s all about Hines. And he’s great. He turns an amazing performance, even when he’s got to be drunk and upset. The bad guy, of course, is the KGB guy. But, it’s not so simple because the KGB guy is a selfish prig too and turns out not to be inhuman. He’s just doing his job and he wants as good of a job as possible. And Helen Mirren’s in it and she’s great. So’s Geraldine Page. In fact, only Isabella Rossellini turns in a blah performance. But it’s Isabella Rossellini and she’s always blah, isn’t she?

So, White Nights is good. It’s an unexpected good. It does have a completely out of place Oscar-winning song, though. Lionel Richie sings what seems to be a song about friendship and I really wish there was a scene where Baryshnikov told Hines, “Believe in who you are, you are a shining star.” It’s not even in the movie, it plays over the end credits. How can a song get “Best Song” if it’s not in the movie? At least the songs in Irwin Allen’s disaster movies were in the movie a little….

White Nights reminds me–not too long ago even–most movies were okay. Most I’d see anyway. They were okay. Sticking with the Hackford oeuvre, Against All Odds isn’t any good, it really isn’t. But it’s not a crime against the human intellect. It’s not a Chris Klein movie or something. The 1980s constantly gets shit from people who think Britney Spears can sing or Hayden Christiansen can act. Sure, a lot of the films were incredibly derivative. Oh, you know, like bullet-time. White Nights is a reasonable example of that decade’s film output and it’s a good sign. It’s a sign the decade shouldn’t be ignored just because of John Hughes and Tony Scott.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Taylor Hackford; screenplay by James Goldman and Eric Hughes, from a story by Goldman; director of photography, David Watkin; edited by Fredric Steinkamp and William Steinkamp; music by Michel Colombier; produced by Hackford and William S. Gilmore; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Mikhail Baryshnikov (Nikolai Rodchenko), Gregory Hines (Raymond Greenwood), Jerzy Skolimowski (Colonel Chaiko), Helen Mirren (Galina Ivanova), Geraldine Page (Anne Wyatt), Isabella Rossellini (Darya Greenwood), John Glover (Wynn Scott), Stefan Gryff (Captain Kirigin), William Hootkins (Chuck Malarek) and Shane Rimmer (Ambassador Smith).


Danton (1983, Andrzej Wajda)

Period pieces and biopics tend to fail, at least ones made since 1950. I was just reading something about the growing audience want for realism in movies–this movement growing in the 1960s and 1970s (though the location shooting of the late 1940s is certainly a precursor)–that want made period pictures and biopics difficult… there needed to be reality. You couldn’t have Henry Frankenstein wearing a 1930s robe in late 18th century wherever (they never really specified in Bride of Frankenstein, did they?). Some films, obviously, managed to get around these difficulties. Kubrick embraced it fully–Barry Lyndon had a special lens adapted to shoot scenes by candlelight–while others ignored it and were ridiculed. I’m not sure how historically accurate Danton is, but it’s allegiances are to film, not to history. I’m pretty sure when the French Revolution was going bad, there wasn’t foreboding music in the background.

The film juxtaposes Danton and Robespierre, positing them as alter egos. It’s been a while since I read any French Revolution history, but I remember it both from undergrad and earlier and the Terror was not a particularly happy time and Robespierre never got a positive review. More recently I’ve watched Gance’s Napoleon and his Robespierre is insidious. I think Robespierre’s speech in that film was the scene where Gance swung the camera at him on a trapeze. Danton opines a different Robespierre, a sad one who’s just as upset as Danton about the Revolution going bad.

Danton is not a history lesson. Besides the one subtitle about the year, there’s none of the common exposition to inform the audience. I’ve found that exposition is only common in American films. Danton drops the viewer into a situation about a bunch of leading politicians and tells a story. The film’s present action is maybe two weeks, not longer. It gradually builds, introducing its large cast of characters (since it’s not a biopic, it takes the time to tell its story in scenes, not summary). While Gérard Depardieu appears in the first scene, he doesn’t do anything for the first twenty minutes or so. Depardieu is excellent as Danton, charming and resigned at the same time. Wojciech Pszoniak is better (which is hard, Depardieu’s real good) as Robespierre. The rest of the cast is fine, but since the film’s about those two men, they leave the impression.

I brought up Kubrick earlier because the director seems to have seen a few of his films, particularly Paths of Glory. Danton is good throughout, but it becomes excellent at the end, when it becomes fully filmic. Previously, the viewer could see right and wrong being done (by both the bad guys and the good), but at the end, director Wajda goes all out. There are hints something is going on earlier, a scene at the Convention when Robespierre speaks (no trapeze though) gets quiet when it should get loud. Reality takes a backseat for cinematic storytelling. The end of the film, however, embraces the medium to an extent I didn’t think possible in the film. In the last fifteen minutes, Wajda goes beyond–in terms of quality storytelling–what he’d set up in the previous 115 minutes. The end is devastating.

My fiancée said a history professor of ours said it was the finest film about the French Revolution. He’s probably right (I don’t remember if I’ve ever seen any other films about the French Revolution). In the American critical expectation, there seems to be the need for a film about the French Revolution to teach the audience something about said Revolution. Danton didn’t teach me much (except to check out more of Wajda’s films and Pszoniak’s too). It was concerned with being a fine film, not being a teaching experience… and it worked out really well for it.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Andrzej Wajda; screenplay by Jean-Claude Carrière, Wajda, Boleslaw Michalek, Agnieszka Holland and Jacek Gasiorowski, based on a play by Stanislawa Przybyszewska; director of photography, Igor Luther; edited by Halina Prugar-Ketling; music by Jean Prodromides; produced by Margaret Menegoz; released by Gaumont.

Starring Gérard Depardieu (Danton), Wojciech Pszoniak (Robespierre), Anne Alvaro (Eleonore Duplay), Roland Blanche (Lacroix), Patrice Chereau (Camille Desmoulins), Emmanuelle Debever (Louison Danton), Krzysztof Globisz (Amar), Ronald Guttman (Herman), Gerard Hardy (Tallien), Tadeusz Huk (Couthon), Stephane Jobert (Panis), Marian Kociniak (Lindet), Marek Kondrat (Barere de Vieuzac) and Boguslaw Linda (Saint Just).


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