20th Century Fox

Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974, John Hough)

I’m not sure how Dirty Mary Crazy Larry played on its original release—like, did audiences actually sympathize with “leads” Peter Fonda and Susan George—but whatever shine time has scrubbed off it has left something of an endurance test. Fonda and Adam Roarke (who’s more the protagonist than Fonda and often more than George) are a would-be NASCAR team. Fonda’s the driver, Roarke’s his mechanic. There’s not a lot about their history but basically Roarke’s a drunk and Fonda’s just never had a good enough car. Fonda’s got the driving skills to be a champion driver, which are more potential than realized given they drive around a mostly empty Central Valley California and there’s only like two actual chase sequences, albeit decent ones. He just can’t get the speed.

So he and Roarke decide they’re going to rob a supermarket of its cash delivery… by taking the store manager’s wife and daughter hostage and forcing him to open the safe. Roarke is the hostage-taker. He’s really good at being scary. Fonda’s in charge of getting the manager (an uncredited but rather good considering the performance calibers Roddy McDowell) to open the safe. Fonda’s not good at it. The film never explains how they come up with the plan (or target); as grocery store cash delivery robberies go, it’s not the worst plan but… Fonda and Roarke don’t seem to have any concept of possible consequences. Roarke maybe, he just stays quiet about his concerns; Fonda’s an idiot.

George is the local woman he hooks up with the night before the robbery. She tracks him down and refuses to get out of the getaway car and then outsmarts Fonda whenever he tries to ditch her. We later find out she’s an ex-con (serial shoplifting) with nothing better to do than hang with Fonda. When she first ambushes him, she goes on a little about how he’s just afraid because of their great connection the night before… but given the utter lack of chemistry between Fonda and George (and her best line being about his romantic failings)… well, it’s not like Leigh Chapman and Antonio Santea’s screenplay contributes much to the film. In fact, when it’s more surprising when it’s not terrible than when it has the occasional funny line. Deputy Eugene Daniels, who does one of the two chase scenes, is occasionally hilarious but it’s a combination of the bad script, Hough’s inept direction of his actors, and Daniels’s wanting acting chops.

Both Fonda and George are awful. George manages to be more likable because Fonda’s so unlikable, but she’s still terrible. Fonda often acts with his sunglasses on, obscuring his expressiveness… which might be a plus given the film.

Hough’s direction is occasionally incompetent—he and cinematographer Michael D. Marguiles lean into shaky camera work sometimes to the point it’s impossible to see follow a scene—but then he (and Marguiles) will have these great, elaborate long shots of the vehicular mayhem. They work at the vehicular mayhem. Nothing else. Though there’s this one strange perspective shot at the beginning with a car going down a hill where it seems like Hough’s going to try some things.

Even when the film looks good, it’s not trying anything.

The supporting cast lacks goodness but is occasionally mediocre. Kenneth Tobey mildly embarrasses himself as a blowhard sheriff guy. Vic Morrow is an iconoclast captain in the sheriff’s department (it’s unclear if Tobey’s boss or what); Morrow doesn’t carry a badge or a gun or wear any kind of uniform, he’s just a hardworking Cali farmer guy who takes the robbery personally. Apparently because of the kind of car Fonda and Roarke have. It seems like it’s going to mean something. It doesn’t. Nothing means anything in Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, including the title, which seems to be slut-shaming George (or not) and Fonda’s not crazy, he’s just a sociopathic jackass.

But it’s only ninety minutes, moves well, has the occasional good vehicular mayhem sequence, and has one hell of an ending. And Roarke’s often really good. Roarke deserves a better script, director, and so on. Fonda and George? They’re right at home in the dismal.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by John Hough; screenplay by Leigh Chapman and Antonio Santean, based on a novel by Richard Unekis; director of photography, Michael D. Margulies; edited by Christopher Holmes; music by Jimmie Haskell; production designer, Philip Leonard; produced by Norman T. Herman; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Peter Fonda (Larry), Susan George (Mary Coombs), Adam Roarke (Deke), Vic Morrow (Capt. Everett Franklin), Eugene Daniels (Hank), Kenneth Tobey (Carl Donahue), Lynn Borden (Evelyn Stanton), Adrianne Herman (Cindy Stanton), Janear Hines (Millie), Elizabeth James (Dispatcher), T.J. Castronovo (Steve), James W. Gavin (Helicopter Pilot), and Roddy McDowall (George Stanton).


Bad Dreams (1988, Andrew Fleming)

At the end of Bad Dreams, as GNR’s Sweet Child of Mine starts up over the end credits… I thought, at least director (and co-writer) Fleming has good taste in music. Turns out he didn’t want the song and a studio exec with a better ear put it in the film.

Bummer. It would’ve been nice to be able to pay the film a complement, even if it was a backhanded one. Bad Dreams is a crappy horror movie. There are more offscreen peculiars one could discuss but I’m going to skip them because it’s not a worthwhile rabbit hole. Though maybe it’d be a good inclusion in a piece about late eighties movies, including critical response, cable, home video, whatever.

But I’m not interested enough. I suffered through it real-time. Just like I suffered through Bad Dreams real-time.

The film is not about bad dreams, though we occasionally get to see some bad dreams so Fleming can “reveal” the story back a few minutes and a character here and there reincarnated. It the first shock death didn’t happen… well, Bad Dreams might have had an entertainingly wacky third act. Good thing Fleming turns back the clock so as to avert that possibility. Wouldn’t want Bad Dreams to be entertaining. At all.

There are a lot of problems with the film and most of them involve Fleming, either in the writing, in how he composes shots (safe for pan and scan and home video), in how he doesn’t direct the actors. Top-billed Jennifer Rubin ought to be able to get something out of the part—she’s a coma patient, awake thirteen years after her seventies cult (led by a bad, but appropriately creepy Richard Lynch—the nose hairs alone are blood-curdling) did the mass suicide thing. Only it’s apparently supposed to be a secret lost to time. The police couldn’t confirm any gas cans so they thought the house just exploded on its own, even though there were apparently documentaries about the cult where they talk about how they all want to die. I mean, Sy Richardson is godawful as the cop, but it doesn’t seem like he’s supposed to be any stupider than anyone else in Bad Dreams. The film’s characters are really dumb, with the supposedly smart ones (shrinks Harris Yulin and Bruce Abbott the stupidest of all), but… the mass suicide thing isn’t a stretch. Yet Fleming treats its reveal like a big deal. Or as big of a deal as you can when you’re shooting scenes soap operas would be embarrassed about.

I occasionally wondered if Bad Dreams started its life as some kind of TV movie—it has a lot of supporting characters, who are all one shade of bad (Susan Ruttan’s pretty awful, Elizabeth Daily’s not good, Dean Cameron tries hard and fails) but some of it’s obviously Fleming’s fault. It couldn’t make it as a TV movie, not in acting, directing, writing. Not even in the eighties. Though the terrible costumes definitely make it in the eighties. Young empathetic but clearly incompetent doctor Abbott—who doesn’t think Rubin needs any mental health care after waking up from the coma because he wants to romance her and tells her about it frequently in the second act—wears his denim collared shirt with a tie. The scariest thing in Bad Dreams is Abbott’s wardrobe.

The plot has Rubin in a mental hospital because they can’t find her family so she doesn’t get to leave. They don’t address the aging in the coma thing, from tween to twenty-something. The film’s got zero curiosity about its characters. Cameron, Daily, Ruttan, they’re all in group with Rubin; Abbott runs the group (badly), falls for endlessly traumatized Rubin. The film’s characterization of people getting mental health treatment is real bad. Real bad. Even if you factor in its the eighties, Abbott and Harris don’t even worry about people around the hospital dying until at least four in. Bad Dreams exists in the universe where lawsuits haven’t been discovered yet.

Technically, everything’s pretty bad, quite frankly. Alexander Gruszynski’s isn’t as incompetent as Jeff Freeman’s editing. Jay Ferguson’s music? Bad. The film also loads up The Chambers Brothers’s Time Has Come Today whenever there’s a flashback, which feels often. Fleming’s not just inept, he’s also obvious. His filmmaking is unpleasant to watch. And the cover of My Way when Cameron has his big—and terribly directed—freakout set piece? Icky bad.

Bad Dreams, in general, is icky bad. It’s got nothing going for it. Not even the eighty minute runtime. It’s too dumb even for eighty minutes.

And I didn’t even get into the lousy Bates house knock-off, which ends up being there for Fleming to pretend he’s Andrew Wyeth. Fleming does such a bad job of it, you forget he’s showing an actual ambition for once.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Andrew Fleming; screenplay by Fleming and Steven E. de Souza, based on a story by Fleming, Michael Dick, P.J. Pettiette, and Yuri Zeltser; director of photography, Alexander Gruszynski; edited by Jeff Freeman; music by Jay Ferguson; production designer, Ivo Cristante; costume designers, Deborah Everton, Ronald Leamon, and Patricia Norris; produced by Gale Anne Hurd; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Jennifer Rubin (Cynthia), Bruce Abbott (Dr. Alex Karmen), Richard Lynch (Harris), Harris Yulin (Dr. Berrisford), Sy Richardson (Detective Wasserman), Dean Cameron (Ralph), Susan Ruttan (Miriam), Susan Barnes (Connie), Louis Giambalvo (Ed), Elizabeth Daily (Lana), Damita Jo Freeman (Gilda), and Charles Fleischer (Ron the Pharmacist).


Niagara (1953, Henry Hathaway)

Niagara has some noir-ish elements to it—femme fatale wife Marilyn Monroe stepping out on war veteran husband Joseph Cotten—but it’s not about the darkness, it’s about the light. And its location shooting. Niagara takes full advantage of the falls, not just for scenery but for multiple story elements (we find out Monroe’s stepping out because she heads to the falls to meet up with her much younger, prettier, and presumably not PTSD-suffering lover, Richard Allan). Director Hathaway and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald basically do an exceptionally good commercial for the possibilities of Technicolor (and location shooting). Hathaway and MacDonald show it can do noir, it can do suspense, it can do action, it can do drama, it can ogle Monroe. The first act of the film, in addition to introducing the cast and setup, is all about ogling Monroe. Sometimes as a plot point—when Monroe’s turning heads—other times just because. The film also comes up with a really creative way for her to get to do a song, like they want to remind everyone she sings too.

The film opens with Cotten stumbling back to their motel in the early morning, narrating about existence. There’s no further narration in the film and it just sets up Cotten’s character for when he disappears for a spell to introduce the film’s protagonist, Jean Peters, which happens after he gets home to Monroe and passes out. The film’s got a fantastic screenplay (from producer Charles Brackett, Walter Resich, and Richard L. Breen), both in terms of plotting and dialogue. Everything contributes to the character development and the reveals until it’s time for the action finale to take over. Great action finale. Oh, and also the obvious but Code acceptable sexuality of the characters.

Anyway, Peters and her husband Max Showalter are on a delayed honeymoon. Showalter works for a breakfast cereal company in marketing and is all about climbing the corporate ladder. Showalter’s annoying as hell and not very good, which almost doesn’t matter as part of the film hinges on him dismissing Peters’s concerns about neighbors Cotten and Monroe (to the point he stops cop Denis O’Dea from interviewing Peters about something important because Showalter’s done hearing about it); unfortunately he never learns from the experience of the film’s events, presumably consigning Peters to living under his dimwitted wanna-be alpha male nonsense for the rest of her life. If Showalter were good or the part was self-aware, Niagara might be a lot better.

But it’s still really good. Peters is a great protagonist, even if she’s rarely the lead—after Monroe’s introduction at the beginning, things shift to Peters and Showalter, then back to Cotten, then Monroe, then Cotten, then Monroe. The third act is a little more even but it’s so action-packed, there’s not much for Peters to do. She shows empathy for Cotten in the first act, getting involved in he and Monroe’s unhealthy—but not initially clear how unhealthy—relationship so even though she’s the protagonist, it’s all about her perspective on them. As for her and Showalter and their delayed honeymoon, outside him being a dipshit in general, he doesn’t show any interest in anything until he gets to suck up to a local Shredded Wheat vice president, a perfectly obnoxious Don Wilson. Wilson and wife Lurene Tuttle are another of Niagara’s small successes, both in terms of writing and performance. They’re great accessories for Peters and Showalter as Peters comes to understand the thriller she’s found herself in.

Lots of gorgeous filmmaking. Hathaway’s got a great feel for the locations, both the town and the falls; he, MacDonald, editor Barbara McLean, and composer Sol Kaplan do fantastic work. McLean’s cutting gets more impressive than the still wondrous photography in the second half, as the thriller aspect replaces the Monroe ogling.

Monroe’s really good, Peters is really good, Cotten’s real, real good. They more than make up for Showalter being, at best, wishy-washy. O’Dea’s fine as the cop. Allan’s effective as the beefcake boy toy. Russell Collins is the motel owner and he’s very distinctive. He’s fine—he doesn’t have much to do—but Hathaway treats him like there’s always something more to his story. It provides some nice texture.

Niagara only runs ninety minutes and every one of them is effectively used. It’s a very substantial ninety minutes. The only thing wrong in it is Showalter, for multiple reasons, but the film successfully works around him (at one point it feels like everyone’s just ignoring him). It’s an excellent showcase for its leads, the filmmakers, and the Technicolor process.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Henry Hathaway; written by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and Richard L. Breen; director of photography, Joseph MacDonald; edited by Barbara McLean; music by Sol Kaplan; costume designer, Dorothy Jeakins; produced by Brackett; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Marilyn Monroe (Rose Loomis), Joseph Cotten (George Loomis), Jean Peters (Polly Cutler), Max Showalter (Ray Cutler), Denis O’Dea (Inspector Starkey), Richard Allan (Patrick), Don Wilson (Mr. J.C. Kettering), Lurene Tuttle (Mrs. Kettering), and Russell Collins (Mr. Qua).


Bigger Than Life (1956, Nicholas Ray)

Despite producing the film himself, top-billed James Mason doesn’t have the best part in Bigger Than Life. Instead, Barbara Rush–as his suffering wife–gets it. Mason’s a man with a life threatening chronic illness who has to take special medication. Slowly–though not too slowly–that medication starts making him psychotic. Rush is the faithful wife who ignores advice and sticks by Mason’s side, even before she finds out it’s an increasingly known side effect of the medication. After she does make that discovery, it’s basically a rush to the finish with the danger being how far is Mason going to go.

And, actually, he doesn’t go anywhere near as far as one might assume. There’s a bit of restraint, because the movie never wants to make Mason too much the villain. He can be psychologically abusive to son Christopher Olsen, but it takes Olsen a really long time to break down and tell mom Rush how he hates Msaon now. And even after family friend Walter Matthau counsels Rush to call Mason’s doctor–little does she know Mason’s actively deceiving doctor (Robert F. Simon) and has been since his first night home from the hospital. The screenplay–credited to Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, but with some uncredited help–gives Rush a range of fantastic scenes as she copes with Mason’s awful behavior, without ever really giving her a great role. She’s just dutiful wife. Of course she’s going to stand by her man, why wouldn’t she?

Though I suppose Mason’s lack of actual dangerous outbursts, just psychological torture of his family, do play a part. Though it’s not like Rush gets to react to them after the fact. She doesn’t get much in the way of character development. No one does. Not even Matthau, who’s third-billed but an overblown cameo by the second half. In the first act, he’s Mason’s best pal–Mason’s a school teacher, Matthau’s the gym teacher–and essential support to the family. Once Mason’s out of the hospital, the film forgets about him until they need an exposition dump. He’s the one who tells Rush about the drug’s side effects, as well as informs on Mason after Mason loses it at a school open house.

The scene where Mason faces repercussions for the behavior at the open house is entirely missing, as principal Rusty Lane–another pal of Mason’s early on–fades away. The more the story focuses in on just Mason, Rush, and Olsen the more unreasonable the plotting becomes. Director Ray is able to get some real tension in the third act, but it’s almost out of nowhere. The family goes to church, which sets Mason off in unexpected ways. Not at church, however, once they’re home, which makes Mason’s earlier public out burst a little nonsensical. His behavior’s predictable to some degree–he’s abusive at home–but only because home is the only place where the action takes place. Presumably he’s still going to work, but there are no further scenes there after a point, which makes the film more and more Rush’s, which is fine. She’s great. But the narrative’s lacking.

Bigger Than Life does only run ninety-five minutes, however, so there’s only so much it can do. Kipp Hamilton, as one of Mason and Matthau’s coworkers (who Rush suspects is having an affair with Mason at one point), completely disappears after Mason’s first day out of the hospital. She’s there long enough to stir up some masculine pride in his wife’s figure (Hamilton is a snazzier dresser than Rush) so Mason decides to bankrupt the family to get Rush a fancy dress. See, the erratic behavior starts right away, when theoretically Mason is taking his prescribed dose… his abuse gets worse as the film goes along, increasing as his mental problems increase, but there’s no direct narrative connection between the two threads. They’re parallel, understood to be causal, but unexplored.

Instead Mason just gets on this kick where he’s going to save the world from the stupid kids of modernity through a return to classical teaching. It’s not explored much more than that description. The script avoids a lot.

But until the third act, the movie basically holds it all together. It’s not until Rush has a last minute monologue explaining herself, which doesn’t actually explain any of her behavior on screen–the dialogue doesn’t jibe with her performance to this point–it seems like no one really knows how to end the movie. Then the movie sets a goal for how it can succeed and… doesn’t. What should be a great acting opportunity for Mason turns into some schmaltz. Not even enthusiastic schmaltz, much lses sincere.

There’s great photography from Joseph MacDonald, good direction from Ray–who has that wide Cinemascope frame but still manages to confine his actors in it, particularly in the tense home scenes, which are the film’s main type of scene–and some fine production values. Ray doesn’t have quite the handle on the school scenes, particularly not as far as tension goes, but they’re pretty sparse once things get going. One of the best sequences, Mason and Olsen playing football and Mason getting progressively more abusive, seems like it’s out of another film entirely, Ray’s style is so different and MacDonald shooting exteriors is such a visual shift.

The film acknowledges quite a bit about toxic masculinity, though nowhere near all the toxic masculinity it ends up visualizing–and Rush’s eventual capitulation to it–which makes things interesting. It’s another of the film’s little disappointments. The hasty finish keeps everyone aware from any self-examination.

Besides the great performances from Rush and Mason, Olsen’s good as the kid, Matthau’s likable in his part, Simon’s good as the doctor. If Ray gave the entire film as much subtlety as the doctors standing around silently regarding Mason, well, it’d be a much different picture. Though, given the way the script works, maybe not a better one. It’s just a bunch of different style choices in a relatively short amount of time. Even the finale is a style choice. Ray’s great at implementing those styles, just not at making them matter.

Bigger Than Life is pretty good, but cast and crew deserve more.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Nicholas Ray; screenplay by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, based on an article by Burton Roueche; director of photography, Joseph MacDonald; edited by Louis R. Loeffler; music by David Raksin; produced by James Mason; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring James Mason (Ed Avery), Barbara Rush (Lou Avery), Christopher Olsen (Richie Avery), Walter Matthau (Wally Gibbs), Robert F. Simon (Dr. Norton), Kipp Hamilton (Pat Wade), Roland Winters (Dr. Ruric), and Rusty Lane (Bob LaPorte).



Deadpool (2016, Tim Miller)

Deadpool never gets to be too much. The film quickly goes into flashback–narrated by lead Ryan Reynolds–but not before going through an elaborate, effects and humor filled action sequence. Maybe even two. But I think one.

It takes Deadpool over an hour to get the viewer caught up on Reynolds’s origins as a superpowered, red spandex wearing former mercenary on a mission to fix himself. Literally. Villain Ed Skrein has turned Reynolds into the super-antihero and only he can turn him back. Reynolds’s transformation severely scars him, which is why he can’t go back to girlfriend Morena Baccarin, instead leaving her available to become a damsel in distress.

And screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick actually do make an effort to give Baccarin more depth, but it doesn’t work out. She’s amiable but without enough personality to make an impression. It also doesn’t help director Miller doesn’t care. He cares about making all the gimmicks palpable, then promptly ignores them for the rest of the film. Because Deadpool doesn’t build in any intensity. It’s always exactly the same. The special effects are always great, Reynolds is always sort of likable, but the movie doesn’t move. It plods along with bursts of effects at predictable intervals.

Of course, flashbacks don’t equal character development. In fact, they sort of kill it and spending more than half your runtime on setting up what amounts to a lifelessly directed superhero action finale. It’s a long 108 minutes, especially since no one ever pays off. There just isn’t any payoff in the script–Deadpool has American Pie-style humor in a graphically violent comic book movie. But it’s more. It’s Miller and it’s the cast.

Everyone’s a caricature, which might work if Reynolds wasn’t, but he’s a cartoon character who wants to be a caricature. The cast lacks any personality–Skein is shaved head British villain, Gina Carano is his super-strong sidekick who doesn’t talk, T.J. Miller is an exceptionally unfunny sidekick for Reynolds. None of them are likable. Skein and Carano’s villains are empty characterization. Director Miller apparently told actor Miller to be a lifeless tool.

There’s some life once Leslie Uggams shows up as Reynolds’s old blind lady roommate. Those scenes are at least played for fun. There’s no fun in the rest of it after a point. Some funny superhero movie jokes but nothing fun. Not even Stefan Kapičić’s obnoxiously by the book Russian X-Man (Kapičić just does the voice, the excellent CGI occupies frame), is ever any fun. Because Reese and Wernick beat the same notes on the same drum. Over and over again.

Deadpool is exactly the same at the end as it is in the beginning, as it is in the middle, just without Miller making any effort to do anything with the project. He shows off a bunch of toys, then puts them away to turn a generic finish.

Also, just like flashbacks don’t mean character development, violence doesn’t mean dangerous. Reynolds is in no life threatening danger throughout the present action. He’s more under threat of inconvenience, which the film uses to some success (and failure) with limb regeneration. But Miller (the director) doesn’t acknowledge the particulars in plotting out fight scenes. Skrein and Reynolds’s face off, for instance, is rote.

All Deadpool needs is a little momentum, a little sense of urgency. Miller doesn’t create any, Reynolds doesn’t either, and the script is a champion lollygagger. Instead, Deadpool just moves amiably along, walking a slow march on a broad path, trying not to even make eye contact with edgier possibilities.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Tim Miller; screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, based on the Marvel Comics character created by Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefeld; director of photography, Ken Seng; edited by Julian Clarke; music by Junkie XL; production designer, Sean Haworth; produced by Simon Kinberg, Ryan Reynolds, and Lauren Shuler Donner; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool), Morena Baccarin (Vanessa), Ed Skrein (Ajax), T.J. Miller (Weasel), Gina Carano (Angel Dust), Leslie Uggams (Blind Al), Brianna Hildebrand (Negasonic Teenage Warhead), and Stefan Kapicic (Colossus).


Logan (2017, James Mangold)

The strangest thing about Logan, at least in terms of the plotting, is how director Mangold is desperate to reference a film classic–one with a plot perfectly suited to what he’s purportedly trying to do with Logan–and he doesn’t follow it through. In any of the neat ways he could. Instead, he goes for obvious and superficial.

Mangold is not Logan’s worst enemy, however. He certainly doesn’t help matters, but the script–which he did cowrite–is the big problem. It’s entirely wrapped up in itself; Logan has a long list of contrivances (mostly with the ground situation but also with plot developments and revelations) and, for whatever reason, the script wants to get into all of them. And all the explanations are lame.

Even still, the film would be able to survive if it weren’t for a nightmare third act when the film tries to get away without a protagonist for a while. It’s called Logan, of course, so one would think it’d always be about Hugh Jackman’s aged mutant killing machine who just wants to chill out and live in hiding. He’s got a big secret to keep–one of the ground situation contrivances the film cops out on dealing with entirely–not just from the audience, but from his sidekicks too. See, in retirement from mutant killing machining, Jackman has become a limo driver. He works long hours and then goes home to Patrick Stewart and Stephen Merchant. Stewart’s sick and Merchant’s the live-in nurse and maid, basically. There’s more to it, but not enough. Because there’s never enough in Logan. Everything is supposed to be implied.

Jackman suffers the worst for all those implications. Mangold’s constantly letting other people take the scene in Logan, whether it’s Stewart (who doesn’t exactly steal the show, but only because the script fails him miserably too) or tough guy villain Boyd Holbrook or even pointless cameoing Eriq La Salle. The script demotes Jackman, Mangold does too.

Logan wants to be a lot of things. It wants to be a family bonding movie–not a family movie about bonding, but a movie about family bonding–it wants to be future commentary (Mangold’s weakly executed future setting is another of Logan’s many painfully obvious problems), it wants to be a tough action movie, it wants to be deep. It really, really, really, really wants to be deep. Mangold loves the symbolism here; sadly he can’t decide on how he wants to convey it, so it’s another thing Logan could’ve done and doesn’t.

Even so, Jackman and Stewart are showing up to do the work. They’re trying to deliver that really, really, really, really deep movie. Dafne Keen–as the young mutant Jackman and Stewart are protecting–is pretty good for most of the movie. When she runs into problems, it’s because the script veers into its crappiest.

It’s a lazy script. It’s a weak and lazy script; Mangold doesn’t have the chops to make it work. He’s never distracted, he’s never interested, he’s always detached, always professional. Logan completely lacks personality. The fight scenes are lame, especially when they should be great. Mangold’s got no rhythm to them. John Mathieson’s capably bland photography doesn’t help, neither does the editing–Michael McCusker and Dirk Westervelt are capably bland. Marco Beltrami’s score is one of his best and it too… bland. François Audouy’s production design–his vision of this mutant-free 2029–isn’t capably bland. It’s just weak.

Jackman’s got enough of a presence to get the film to the finish line. Unfortunately, there’s no one waiting there to finish the movie for him. And Stewart’s fun. Shame the script wasn’t there. Shame Mangold couldn’t bring it together. Logan wants to be anything but mediocre and it ends up being nothing but.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by James Mangold; screenplay by Scott Frank, Mangold, and Michael Green, based on a story by Mangold; director of photography, John Mathieson; edited by Michael McCusker and Dirk Westervelt; music by Marco Beltrami; production designer, François Audouy; produced by Simon Kinberg, Hutch Parker, and Lauren Shuler Donner; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Hugh Jackman (Logan), Patrick Stewart (Charles), Dafne Keen (Laura), Boyd Holbrook (Pierce), Stephen Merchant (Caliban), Elizabeth Rodriguez (Gabriela), and Richard E. Grant (Dr. Rice).


Hidden Figures (2016, Theodore Melfi)

In the first scene of Hidden Figures, the film makes it immediately clear there’s going to be quite a bit of self-awareness. The film is based on the true story of three black women who were instrumental to NASA’s–and the space program’s–success. They’re working at NASA in the early sixties, during segregation, doing harder jobs better than the white guys working at NASA. And there’s an awareness. Janelle Monáe, in the flashiest lead role, gets the least to do, but she does get tasked with offering commentary on the situations at hand.

Director Melfi, who co-wrote the screenplay with Allison Schroeder, depends a lot on his cast. Nothing in his direction gets any of the scenes done. For example, Melfi underplays it with Taraji P. Henson, who’s the closest thing the film’s got to a protagonist (but the film doesn’t want to have one, which gets to be a problem in the third act). While Monáe, albeit outside work, gets to have a developed relationship with Aldis Hodge (as her less than supportive husband) and second-billed Octavia Spencer gets to have this workplace unpleasantness with Kirsten Dunst, Henson’s got supportive boss Kevin Costner, who she never gets to have a moment with. She’s got wormy supervisor Jim Parsons, who she never gets to have a moment with. There are fill-in moments, but none suggesting Parsons and Costner are people and not caricatures.

It’d be fine if they were caricatures, maybe even appropriate (though Costner’s not–he gets a movie star scene in the film), but if they are caricatures, giving them their little unspoken courtesies to Henson is even more problematic.

Hidden Figures weathers those problems with some very reliable materials–the history is on the film’s side and all three lead performances are great. While Monáe gets to be showy for most of the film, only having to move aside towards the end, when it tries to become a special effects extravaganza thriller just to find a finish, and Spencer’s part is underwritten but convinces the viewer it isn’t, Henson gets the big stuff. And the script, even though she’s got a romance going on outside her saving Costner and Parsons’s butts with math, doesn’t like letting Henson do anything. Monáe does things, Spencer does things, Henson quietly does the math. And she’s exceptional doing the math. Melfi’s best direction is with Henson, simply because he’s just letting the camera watch her performance too.

Technically, the film’s solid without being exceptional. Mandy Walker’s photography is fine, but Melfi’s not ambitious. Maybe the score gets a little much at the end, when Melfi’s tackling the special effects extravaganza with absolutely no personality. Despite some gorgeous production design (courtesy Wynn Thomas), Hidden Figures is oddly absent mise-en-scène.

The ambition is instead with the film itself, presenting these three women completely aware of their exploitation, completely aware of their constraints, and excelling regardless. The sad part of Henson not getting resolution is how well Spencer and Monáe make out with it. Spencer and Dunst’s arc is an uncomfortable, angering one. But it’s a mature way of handling it. The script’s got a narrative arc for that subplot. For Henson? Well, it’s got the Friendship 7.

Not to rag on Melfi too much more, but there’s a difference between acknowledging other films’ handling of the same material without just giving up and pretending to be Apollo 13 for fifteen minutes. It’s his lack of personality. Even Costner’s got some personality, even if it’s nonsensically only for Parsons’s benefit, as they have a moment together.

Hidden Figures is a movie fully aware white guys don’t have to be the leads but it’s the white guys who get that learning moment together. And let’s not even touch on the problematic nature of superhero John Glenn (Glen Powell is fine, it’s just a bland part).

But once you get through the problems and appreciate the film’s accomplishments–and those lead performances–it’s clear Hidden Figures’s success isn’t contingent on a flawless narrative structure. It’s historical, after all, and a positive “real life” moment is hard to resist, but it does distract from its characters. Because even if what was happening in reality was important, in Hidden Figures, it’s Henson, Spencer, and Monáe who are important and deserve the time.

Melfi just doesn’t know how to build tension. Thank goodness he’s got actors who know how to essay it however.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Theodore Melfi; screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Melfi, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly; director of photography, Mandy Walker; edited by Peter Teschner; music by Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, and Benjamin Wallfisch; production designer, Wynn Thomas; produced by Peter Chernin, Donna Gigliotti, Melfi, Jenno Topping, and Williams; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Taraji P. Henson (Katherine Goble), Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughan), Janelle Monáe (Mary Jackson), Kevin Costner (Al Harrison), Kirsten Dunst (Mrs. Mitchell), Jim Parsons (Paul Stafford), Mahershala Ali (Colonel Jim Johnson), Aldis Hodge (Levi Jackson), and Glen Powell (John Glenn).


Batman: The Movie (1966, Leslie H. Martinson)

Burt Ward is really bad in Batman: The Movie. Sure, he’s just around to parrot Adam West, who’s a horny, kind of dumb, know-it-all. The problem is it doesn’t seem like anyone else is in on the joke because director Martinson does such a bad job. There are some okay scenes in Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s script–none for West and Ward but, they’re still okay scenes. And Martinson screws them up. Yes, Howard Schwartz’s cinematography is bland but why bother with anything given Martinson never does anything.

Until the big fight scene at the end. The big fight scene at the end has the potential to be a farcical masterpiece. It could even be one subtly. But Martinson. And editor Harry W. Gerstad. He cuts the action too long; it gives more time to the actors, which they don’t need given the scale of the action. It’s too bad. Some gem in Batman: The Movie would be nice to find.

At best, the film has an amusing moment for Alan Napier (as Alfred), who apparently wants to perve on West romancing Lee Meriwether and Ward has to shut it down. Ward’s Robin is an obnoxious little yes boy, spouting off stupid ideas. It’s like West isn’t even letting Ward in on the joke.

Meriwether’s Catwoman is bad. She’s kind of likable, but only because West’s such a dumb horny guy around her and she gets it. So she’s in on the joke. But she’s not good at all.

Burgess Meredith has some moments. Less than if Martinson and Gerstad cut his close-ups better. The composition is a mess. Martinson’s framing for The Movie is way too much like a TV show (shocker) and it needs to be more open. Just enough for headroom in some cases.

Frank Gorshin’s okay. You know, he’s okay. He’s weird. It works. A lot better than Cesar Romero’s Cowardly Lion Joker character. But Romero’s kind of likable. You feel a little bad for him. You don’t feel bad for the scenes of West and Ward acting like clowns. Batman: The Movie is most engaging when the lack of awareness about the absurdity–the complete lack of verisimilitude, if you would–makes it an unbearable experience.

And what’s up with the music? Nelson Riddle has some pretty decent music and then some awful music. It’s a toss-up. It’s probably the best thing about the movie–except the opening titles. They’re actually pretty darn cool.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Leslie H. Martinson; screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr., based on characters created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger; director of photography, Howard Schwartz; edited by Harry W. Gerstad; music by Nelson Riddle; produced by William Dozier; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Adam West (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Burt Ward (Robin / Dick Grayson), Lee Meriwether (The Catwoman), Cesar Romero (The Joker), Burgess Meredith (The Penguin), Frank Gorshin (The Riddler), Alan Napier (Alfred), Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon), Stafford Repp (Chief O’Hara), Madge Blake (Aunt Harriet Cooper) and Reginald Denny (Commodore Schmidlapp).


X-Men: Apocalypse (2016, Bryan Singer)

X-Men: Apocalypse runs over two hours, which is surprising because–while the movie does plod along–I didn’t realize it plodded along for quite so long. I guess the first act is more successful in hindsight than while it plays out.

This entry takes place, pointlessly, in the early 1980s. Oscar Isaac is the blue mutant Mummy, back from the dead to take over the world. He enlists four people to help him. One of those people is Michael Fassbender. He’s got a wife and kid since the last movie. Seeing Fassbender’s retired mutant terrorist now a doting dad somewhere in the Soviet Bloc is kind of neat. Fassbender’s exhausted this time around. Playing second fiddle to Isaac, most of Fassbender’s eventual performance consists of reaction shots. At least during the first act, he gets something to do.

But I got sidetracked. I wanted to count the characters. We’re up to seven. Yes, seven. Bad guys and people related to the bad guys. Isaac’s other lackeys get even less to do than Fassbender, though Alexandra Shipp does get a couple scenes to act in. She’s good. Olivia Munn has maybe two scenes with acting and she seems like she’s good. Shipp at least gets an arc, Munn doesn’t. Ben Hardy’s the other lackey. He’s awful. Luckily, he has even less to do than Munn.

But there are also a lot of good guys. Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy and Nicholas Hoult are all back. Each is good in parts, none of them has a good part in the script, none of them has a character arc. Evan Peters is back, Rose Byrne is back. Byrne has nothing to do. But she manages. Peters has a bunch; he’s great. Kodi Smit-McPhee is another new addition. He’s actually great, which is a surprise in this film. Other new additions Sophie Turner and Tye Sheridan are both bad, with Sheridan being infinitely worse than Turner. And she’s still pretty dang bad.

Great photography from Newton Thomas Sigel. Tired music from John Ottman. Tired direction from Singer. Apocalypse doesn’t really have a story for Isaac outside lame world domination, so screenwriter Simon Kinberg and Singer just pack it with characters.

See, I forgot. I was supposed to be counting. It’s something like fifteen characters. It’s way too many. If the acting were better, they might carry it, but it’s not. And even though Turner and Sheridan, as good guys, get more to do than Munn and Shipp, it’s not character stuff.

X-Men: Apocalypse is a lame, by the numbers superhero event picture. Fassbender looks painfully contractually obligated to participate, with McAvoy and Lawrence hiding it a little better. Hoult is the most enthusiastic and, when one gets bored watching the film, he does imply seeing these characters together should be special. It isn’t, but what if it were?

Oh, and Isaac. He’s actually good. His part is terribly written, terribly directed, with dumb audio effects in post, but he’s scary as an immortal, evil smurf.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Bryan Singer; screenplay by Simon Kinberg, based on a story by Singer, Kinberg, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by Michael Louis Hill and John Ottman; music by Ottman; production designer, Grant Major; produced by Kinberg, Singer and Lauren Shuler Donner; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring James McAvoy (Professor Charles Xavier), Michael Fassbender (Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto), Jennifer Lawrence (Raven / Mystique), Nicholas Hoult (Hank McCoy / Beast), Oscar Isaac (En Sabah Nur / Apocalypse), Rose Byrne (Moira Mactaggert), Evan Peters (Peter Maximoff / Quicksilver), Josh Helman (Col. William Stryker), Sophie Turner (Jean Grey), Tye Sheridan (Scott Summers / Cyclops), Lucas Till (Alex Summers / Havok), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Kurt Wagner / Nightcrawler), Ben Hardy (Angel), Alexandra Shipp (Ororo Munroe / Storm), Lana Condor (Jubilee), Olivia Munn (Psylocke) and Hugh Jackman (Man in Cage).


Daredevil (2003, Mark Steven Johnson)

I like Ben Affleck. Even his early phase–the self-aware, “Bruce Willis doing a Harrison Ford” impression thing actually worked out on occasion. It helped he kept the persona between pictures. Of course, Daredevil comes after Affleck decided to do his own thing. He gets an incomplete in Daredevil. You couldn’t hate watch it for his lousy essaying of the role of blind, gymnastic ninja lawyer but you also can’t say he came anywhere near making it work. It’s not his fault, it’s a terrible script, terrible direction, terrible everything, but he still didn’t make it work.

So while I can hope Affleck doesn’t embarrass himself, Daredevil is another story. Watching the film, for long, boring portions, there’s nothing to do but hope for it to fail a little bit more. Just to make things interesting. Director Johnson tries to do Batman meets Spider-Man meets The Matrix meets “extreme sports.” It’s awful. Though it does look a lot like a low budget, serious attempt at Joel Schumacher Batman movie. Even the crappy Graeme Revell music fits that vibe. It’s got enough budget to attempt effects sequences, but no idea what to do with them. It gets outrageous enough, it seems like Daredevil is actually going to break into absurdity. Little CGI Ben Affleck chasing little CGI Colin Farrell. Like they’ll stop and ask the audience how they can be believing anything so silly.

Farrell gives the most forgivable performance. Not even Joe Pantoliano (I miss Joe Pantoliano’s “stunt casting” phase) does well. No one does well. Jennifer Garner manages to adequate but unlikable. She’s even sympathetic during the cheesy romance montages, which Johnson certainly shows more aptitude for directing than anything else in the film.

However, the third act has a surprisingly decent pace. Daredevil overstays its welcome, but seems to realize it and make reasonable amends. Until the idiotic epilogue sequence, which has way too much CGI and way too little imagination. Oh, look, I unintentionally ended on a metaphor for the whole movie.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Steven Johnson; screenplay by Johnson, based on characters created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett; director of photography, Ericson Core; edited by Dennis Virkler and Armen Minasian; music by Graeme Revell; production designer, Barry Chusid; produced by Gary Foster, Arnon Milchan and Avi Arad; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Ben Affleck (Matt Murdock), Jennifer Garner (Elektra Natchios), Colin Farrell (Bullseye), Michael Clarke Duncan (Wilson Fisk), Jon Favreau (Foggy Nelson), Scott Terra (Young Matt), Joe Pantoliano (Ben Urich), Leland Orser (Wesley Owen Welch), Erick Avari (Nikolas Natchios), Derrick O’Connor (Father Everett) and David Keith (Jack Murdock).


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