Columbia Pictures

It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955, Robert Gordon)

I finished watching It Came from Beneath the Sea, which I regret, particularly because the whole reason I didn’t shut it down was for the big special effects finale, when the giant radioactive octopus finally attacks a city. Incidentally, it’s San Francisco, which doesn’t turn out to be anywhere near as cool looking as I had hoped.

The film dashes hopes early on, so when you’re sitting through the second act slog, you know there’s no good reason to be doing it, just that expectation the grand finale is going to be worth it. Ray Harryhausen’s special effects work is, after all, objectively stellar.

Sadly, not much of that quality is on display in Beneath. When we finally get to the giant octopus making landfall and giant tentacling the city… the detail’s not good. Because Beneath is way too cheap. It’s been way too cheap and you can kind of get yourself enthused by convincing yourself the cheap for the human science thriller is so there’s enough money for the finish and then… turns out no. It’s just too cheap.

Too cheap, too poorly directed, too poorly written, too poorly acted. And whoever did the light matching on rear screen projection—photographer Henry Freulich, whoever—might be so bad they’re incompetent at it. There’s no reason it should always look so bad, especially when there’s so much of it. There’s a particularly bad scene with the heroes in a beachfront restaurant where you have to remind yourself to pretend the background is supposed to represent something real to the characters.

Of course… maybe if the acting weren’t terrible. So I guess let’s get into how the acting, directing, and writing all congeal into a toxic slop.

From the first scene—well, actually earlier because the opening text crawl is poorly written and then the narration is not a good choice—but from the first live action scene, it’s clear Beneath is going to have some major acting and directing issues. What isn’t clear, from that first scene, is how bad Kenneth Tobey is going to get; he plays a submarine commander who comes across the giant octopus but doesn’t know what it is. Chuck Griffiths is his XO. Griffiths gives such a terrible performance you can’t see anything else. Time stops for Griffiths’s awfulness. It’s incredible.

Somehow, even though it’s not obvious Tobey’s going to be bad, Gordon’s direction is clearly at fault for some of Griffiths. Because Gordon’s directs all the other actors on the submarine terribly as well. Lots of quite bad acting from a variety of actors, which is going to all change when Tobey gets back to the Nazy and off the ship.

Because then it’s going to be creepy sexual innuendo with Tobey and two scientists working on a lab to discover what he found out at sea. Presumably through tissue tests but the science is never explained because George Worthing Yates and Harold Jacob Smith’s script is dumb.

It’s also extraordinarily sexist. Like, unpacking everything up with Beneath and its single woman—marine biologist Faith Domergue (doing a dinner theatre Marilyn Monroe impression)—would deserve thorough scholarly research if the movie weren’t just a fifties monster movie.

So in the lab it’s Tobey, Domergue, and Donald Curtis. Curtis and Domergue are not hooking up but Tobey thinks they’re hooking up because if he were Curtis, he’d be hooking up with Domergue. Domergue doesn’t seem to have considered hooking up with Curtis, but then starts to make bedroom eyes at him… after having an extremely suggestive clutch with Tobey out of sight from Curtis.

During this scene, while Tobey explains he wants to hook up and fast, Domergue picks up graduated cylinder and strokes it with her hand the rest of the scene.

Later we find out Domergue’s from a “whole new breed of woman,” they think they’re just as smart and just as brave as the men, which is why Domergue doesn’t know consent is bad—Tobey tells her Navy men take, don’t ask—and if she enjoys a kiss, she has to marry that guy.

I can’t remember if that scene is before or after the Navy sends Domergue into debrief a sailor who has seen the giant octopus and she has to seduce him to do it.

I think after.

So, yeah, It Came from Beneath the Sea is a shit show of misogyny, sexism, and male gaze (Tobey and Domergue are also apparently into each other because they’re exhibitionists; while waiting for Curtis to show up later in the movie they’ve been From Here to Eternitying it on the beach with a local cop hanging around nearby). It’s also a bad movie, with bad direction, bad acting (Curtis is somehow worse than Domergue, who’s somehow worse than Tobey, even though she’s his victim), bad writing, and not worth the wait special effects.

There are like two good effects shots in the movie. But it seems like it’s because they didn’t have money to let Harryhausen do a grander finale. The eventual shots of the octopus on land, tentacles going through the streets, are the good ones. They’re just aren’t good enough to make up for the rest. It’d be impossible to make up for the rest. Because the rest isn’t just bad, it’s icky. And bad.

Icky bad.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Gordon; screenplay by George Worthing Yates and Harold Jacob Smith, based on a story by Worthing Yates; director of photography, Henry Freulich; edited by Jerome Thoms; produced by Charles H. Schneer; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Kenneth Tobey (Cmdr. Pete Mathews), Faith Domergue (Prof. Lesley Joyce), Donald Curtis (Dr. John Carter), and Chuck Griffiths (Lt. Griff, USN).


Roxanne (1987, Fred Schepisi)

Roxanne is a charming romantic comedy. Wait, I think it might need an additional qualifier—it’s a charming romantic situational comedy. I’m not one to sit around and debate stakes with romantic comedies, but even for a romantic comedy… Roxanne’s got some low stakes. Maybe because of how closely screenwriter (and leading man) Steve Martin followed his adaptation of the source play (Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac) but also maybe not.

Martin is a small ski resort town’s fire chief. His department is made up almost exclusively of volunteers, all of whom seem really bad at their jobs at the fire department and—possibly—even worse at their day jobs. Mayor Fred Willard, for example, has no apparent skills as a firefighter but he’s a terrible mayor. Though good looking enough compared to the other men of the town he can still hang a couple ski bunnies off his arms. Then there’s stereotypical eighties pig John Kapelos, whose best pick-up line involves confusing his target with a recent Playmate because his worst pick-up lines involve his dead animal shop. Martin would be a major catch if it just weren’t for his abnormally large nose, which makes him the target of ridicule—leading to fistfights, which are always a mistake for the teasers because Martin’s a badass—as well as some sympathy. God-sister Shelley Duvall is his only real friend, but more because all the guys are varying degrees of idiot. It’s unclear how the town functioned with the untrained fire department before the film starts, which, again, doesn’t really matter because… situational comedy. There’s a very low bar for reality. Like how the town doesn’t have any sort of law enforcement; even if Martin kicking his teasers’ asses up and down the picturesque streets is self-defense, you’d think there’d at least be a police report. Or hospital visits.

Everything changes with the summer arrival of Daryl Hannah, who all the guys lust after but only Martin really loves for her insides; she’s a smart, accomplished astronomer. They have a cute, funny meeting where Hannah’s locked out of her house and Martin helps her get the door unlocked. Only Hannah’s managed to lock herself out in the nude (thanks to a wonderfully shitty cat—Roxanne knows its cats). Charming. Situational. Comedy.

Simultaneous to Hannah showing up in town (she’s renting from Duvall, who’s apparently an exploitative landlord, something the film doesn’t dwell on but does establish) is professional firefighter Rick Rossovich starting with the fire department. He’s there to help Martin whip them into shape, so it’s unclear why it takes so long for Rossovich and Martin to actually meet. Like, who’s supervising him his first three days. Rossovich lives in the firehouse, how does Martin keep missing him. Oh, wait, doesn’t matter. Situational comedy.

Turns out Hannah’s on the rebound and looking for an easy summer lay and hunk Rossovich is just what she wants. And Rossovich is all about Hannah because… well, she’s blonde and has legs. Actually, her being blonde might not even figure in. The legs get talked about. I’m assuming on the blonde. Only Rossovich has severe social anxiety. He’s also a himbo. And he’s also a slut. But Martin likes Hannah enough he agrees to encourage Rossovich on her behalf, which leads to him writing Hannah love letters ostensibly from Rossovich but really from him. Because romantic comedy.

After the first act, Hannah’s just around as romantic conquest, but she’s still really likable. Martin’s great. He’s got occasional comedic set pieces, which usually work. Rossovich is… low okay. The part doesn’t require much and Rossovich doesn’t bring much. He’s also got a decided lack of chemistry with Hannah. It’s not clear from the start—since their relationship is so complicated—but once he starts flirting with bimbo cocktail waitress Shandra Beri, who he does have chemistry with… well, it’s a ding.

Though director Schepisi relies on his cast to do their own acting. Especially the firefighters. None of them are as funny as they ought to be, especially Michael J. Pollard. Though it could also be John Scott’s editing. There’s something off with the film’s cuts. Schepisi shoots it wide Panavision, which works well for the medium to long shots and not so well on the close-ups. Again, might be Scott’s cutting.

Roxanne is funny and cute. Could it be more? Maybe? It’s hard to imagine it with Martin, Hannah, or Rossovich having any more depth though. Martin and Hannah certainly seem capable of essaying that potential depth… Rossovich not so much.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Fred Schepisi; screenplay by Steve Martin, based on a play by Edmond Rostand; director of photography, Ian Baker; edited by John Scott; music by Bruce Smeaton; production designer, Jackson De Govia; produced by Daniel Melnick and Michael Rachmil; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Steve Martin (C.D. Bales), Daryl Hannah (Roxanne), Rick Rossovich (Chris), Shelley Duvall (Dixie), Shandra Beri (Sandy), John Kapelos (Chuck), Fred Willard (Mayor Deebs), and Michael J. Pollard (Andy).


A Man for All Seasons (1966, Fred Zinnemann)

What’s so incredible about A Man for All Seasons is how big director Zinnemann makes it while keeping it small while keeping it big. The settings are big—palaces, estates, and so on—but Zinnemann keeps the set pieces small. He and cinematographer Ted Moore will do big establishing shots, but only after they’ve gotten into the details of the places. They incorporate the technique into the opening titles, then keep going with it throughout the film. The film’s all about the small actions and pettiness of important men, those establishing montages bring them down to Earth. Or at least establish a grounded Earth in which to play.

Georges Delerue’s regal but also demure score perfectly accompanies.

The film’s about Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield in a singular performance); he refuses to publicly support King Henry VIII’s first divorce. Robert Shaw plays the King; he’s great too. Only in it for a couple scenes, but great. And a grandiose enough performance to cast a shadow on the film after he’s established. You’ve got to believe Shaw can be so petty about Scofield not supporting him, without ever establishing Shaw’s regard for Scofield. At least, not until after Scofield’s pissed him off. Man for All Seasons has a wonderful sense of how to elucidate history—writer Robert Bolt (adapting his play) does “pepper” the exposition with historical detail, but only ever for the characters’ edification, not the audience’s. And when doing historical exposition, Bolt’s default is for the common man—or at least the more common man, let’s say still identifiable if not sympathetic upper middle class—not the nationstate politics. Yes, Scofield toggles between kingmakers and kings like Orson Welles and Shaw, but he also deals with ambitious bureaucrats like Leo McKern (and unambitious de facto ones like Nigel Davenport). His would-be protege, John Hurt, is just a man trying to make something of himself out of university and Scofield tries hard to protect him for the realities of corruption. For Scofield’s More, the corruption tends to have a religious bent but the film never particularly gets into the religiosity. Bolt, Zinnemann, and Scofield examine More’s actions and how his beliefs chart those actions, not the content of the beliefs. They’re kind of lucky to have More as the subject, as him not voicing any opinion whatsoever is what gets him into trouble. A man keeps his thoughts his own when in Tudor England, something Scofield tries to impart on friend and foe alike, which leads to some wonderful moments.

Scofield’s family also plays a big part. There’s wife Wendy Hiller, who doesn’t get much to do but is good, daughter Susannah York, who’s awesome and gets lots to do—sometimes just reacting; the film sets her up as Scofield’s intellectual heir, if she weren’t a girl anyway, and so her perception of the events and behaviors she experiences are another storytelling slate for Zinnemann and Bolt. Man for All Seasons is very quiet, very simple, very complicated. The film deliberates, even when it doesn’t have enough information (usually because Scofield’s keeping his mouth shut about it).

Scofield’s the protagonist; his actions and reactions drive the plot. A constant undercurrent is the story of ambitious, not entirely dim-witted, but morally corruptible Hurt, who ends up finding a mentor in McKern. Only McKern’s a jackass, power hungry bureaucrat jealous of Scofield’s intellectual powers (no matter what McKern accomplishes, Shaw’s never going to love him for his mind whereas Scofield manages to disrespect the King and maintain the intellectual regard). And Hurt’s aware he’s going to the Dark Side, providing yet another storytelling slate. Man for All Seasons never feels stagy, never feels like its a series of vignettes whether the most character development happens off screen, yet it is that series of vignettes. Zinnemann, Moore, Delerue, and editor Ralph Kemplen just make sure it never feels like one. Zinnemann maintains the importance of the film’s visual style even when the dramatics are center stage (Moore’s beautiful “natural” lighting helps), which allows for nimble style changes. It’s magnificently executed. Zinnemann’s direction is assured but never showy, confident but ambitious; the chances the film takes are almost exclusively on the actors—at least into the second act—and Zinnemann facilitates the performances, but the actors are the ones who have to nail the moment, which seems like it should lead to at least the acknowledgement of the stage adaptation but it never does. Because the film’s limited world is so big.

All of the acting is great. Some of the cast get to have more fun—Welles gets to have a lot of fun, McKern’s a delightful weasel—but the ones who have major constraints (Hurt’s weasel-in-training, Corin Redgrave’s obnoxiously Lutheran Lutheran who’s courting York) are still excellent. York, Davenport, and Hiller all deliver in some hard scenes; York and Davenport get the bigger ones, but Hiller’s got to do a lot in short amounts of time. The film often uses Hiller to establish character stuff for Scofield. She’s part of his ground situation, revealing more as the film progresses, without ever doing exposition dumps. Far from it. Hiller’s concise.

As for Scofield… the story’s about people wanting to hear what Scofield’s going to say next and the film’s about staring at Scofield and waiting to see what it’ll be. He’s in the spotlight the entire film. Great direction, great script, great supporting cast, but Man for All Seasons is Scofield’s performance. And it’s an exceptional one.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Fred Zinnemann; screenplay by Robert Bolt, based on his play; director of photography, Ted Moore; edited by Ralph Kemplen; music by Georges Delerue; production designer, John Box; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Paul Scofield (Thomas More), Susannah York (Margaret), Wendy Hiller (Alice), Leo McKern (Cromwell), John Hurt (Rich), Nigel Davenport (Duke of Norfolk), Corin Redgrave (Roper), Orson Welles (Cardinal Wolsey), and Robert Shaw (Henry VIII).


Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, Francis Ford Coppola)

On one hand, with the Wojciech Kilar score, Bram Stoker’s Dracula can get away with just about anything. On the other, with Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves playing leads… well, it needs something to help it get away with anything.

It helps neither Ryder or Reeves are the actual star of the film. Neither is top-billed Gary Oldman (as the Count). The star is director Coppola and his crew—cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, production designer Thomas E. Sanders, costume designer Eiko Ishioka (for better and worse), editors Anne Goursaud, Glen Scantlebury, and Nicholas C. Smith. And Kilar, of course. And whoever did all the amazing practical special effects; Bram Stoker’s is a very audiovisual experience. As the story itself belies reality, why should the film itself be any different an experience. Lots of inventive transitions, lots of creative composite shots to show Oldman’s faraway yet so close impact on the world of his victims. Shame James V. Hart’s screenplay isn’t anywhere near as experimental or imaginative. The script’s big deviation from the novel—in addition to Anthony Hopkins’s Van Helsing being crude—is Ryder falling in love with Oldman because she’s his reincarnated fifteenth century wife, who killed herself thinking he’d died in battle, which caused him to renounce God and become… a vampire.

The most interesting thing about Bram Stoker’s is how any of it would make sense. Like, Oldman’s castle is full of paintings done after Ryder’s death—Ryder the queen, not the young British woman with the questionable accent. Did he pay the painters or eat them? Because even though the film “humanizes” Oldman a little, it never makes him particularly reasonable as a character. Why, for instance, does he regrow a mustache when he de-ages himself and then shed it when he gets old again. Also, why does he get old again so often. Why did he get old in the first place? Wasn’t he eating enough villager? Seems like he was eating plenty of them.

Anyway.

None of those details matter because Bram Stoker’s looks great and has that Kilar score. Ryder can be bombing a questionably written scene—though, to be fair, it’s not like there are any strong performances in the film. Oldman’s got a few strong moments, a lot of okay ones, and some piddly ones too. But Kilar’s score can save the heck out of a scene. Given the lack of chemistry from Oldman towards Ryder and the lack of chemistry, accent, and acting from Ryder towards… everyone (save, maybe, best friend Sadie Frost), the melodramatic nineteenth century romance but kind of saucy scenes where Oldman has to remind himself to keep the fangs in are all mesmerizing thanks to how the music compliments the image. Bram Stoker’s is masterfully made. It’s far from a cinematic masterpiece, but Coppola does provide a solid facsimile of one. As long as you ignore the acting and the writing.

Whether Ryder would be better if the character were better—she falls in love with Oldman while fiancé Reeves is being held captive in faraway Oldman’s castle (it’s kind of hilarious how easily Reeves slips her mind—the film utilizes the novel’s epistolary format, turning the diary entries into narration from cast so we know she’s not thinking about Reeves); the falling in love while the dude’s away is literally her only thing. Ryder’s not even worried about Frost, who Oldman’s attacking every night because she’s slutty and Ryder’s virginal. Or something. It’s unclear why Oldman targets Frost in the first place, though maybe there was a scene explaining it… along with his London base being right next door to Richard E. Grant’s sanitarium, which is important but not really thanks to Hart’s script. It’s like Coppola came up with all the visual machinations to distract from Hart not having the best narrative.

Of course, it’d be disingenuous to the source material if Bram Stoker’s had a solid narrative.

And at least Ryder and Reeves are failing with questionable (at best) accents. Actual Brits Grant, Frost, and Cary Elwes all have extremely bad moments where you wish they’d just be screwing up accents. Grant can’t seem to take the thing seriously, Frost is out of her depth, and Elwes always seems like he’s just coming into the film for the first time, scene after scene. He makes no impression. Neither does Billy Campbell (as a very Texan Texan). In an extremely odd case of stunt-casting, Tom Waits disappoints as Oldman’s first solicitor, who’s gone mad and been committed and now eats bugs. Waits’s eccentric take seems more appropriate for a TV commercial than drama.

As for Hopkins… he could be worse. He’s not good, he doesn’t take the part seriously (how could he), but he could be worse.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a gorgeous exercise in technical filmmaking. And not much else.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola; screenplay by James V. Hart, based on the novel by Bram Stoker; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Anne Goursaud, Glen Scantlebury, and Nicholas C. Smith; music by Wojciech Kilar; production designer, Thomas E. Sanders; produced by Coppola, Fred Fuchs, and Charles Mulvehill; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Gary Oldman (Dracula), Winona Ryder (Mina), Anthony Hopkins (Van Helsing), Keanu Reeves (Harker), Richard E. Grant (Seward), Cary Elwes (Holmwood), Billy Campbell (Morris), Sadie Frost (Lucy), and Tom Waits (Renfield).


Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019, Jon Watts)

Spider-Man: Far From Home spends so much of its runtime being a constant delight, the first sign of trouble passes. Something where director Watts needs to connect doesn’t connect, only it doesn’t really matter because it doesn’t seem like it needs to connect too hard. Then the third act is this massive, impersonal action sequence where the sidekicks get a better action finale than the hero and the mid-credits sequence entirely changes the stakes of the film. And then the post-credits sequence entirely changes how the film plays. It’s like there’s a surprise ending then there’s a twist ending but the twist should’ve come in the regular ending… It’s also too bad because neither of the additional endings let lead Tom Holland act.

And Far From Home is usually really good about letting Holland act. He’s great, even when he’s going through the same hero arc he went through in his last solo outing. Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers’s script has a lot of good jokes and nice moments for Holland (his romance arc is at least different this time) and his costars—as well as an almost great scenery chewing part for Jake Gyllenhaal—but it’s fairly thin. The film’s able to deliver some real emotion, not just from the film’s events but also from all the weight hanging over the world post Avengers 4, which seems kind of light actually but it’s set at least nine months after that film so maybe people are just emotionally fast healers and whatnot. Plus Holland and romantic interest Zendaya have oodles of chemistry so their high school romance but with overachievers on a school trip to Europe arc is wonderful. Lovely even, which is why its treatment in the additional endings is such a boondoggle.

Enough about the endings. I think.

The film has Holland and his high school classmates touring Europe while Samuel L. Jackson (in a shockingly humorless turn; not bad, just shockingly humorless) tries to get him to help save the world. Jackson’s got a new hero—Gyllenhaal, who’s from an alternate Earth and has ill-defined magical powers—but he wants Holland along for some reason. It makes even less sense once the film gets through the main plot twists, not to mention the additional end ones. See, I’m still on the endings. Sorry.

The reasons don’t matter because Gyllenhaal is really good. He’s earnest but mysterious. He and Holland have a good rapport, though it might be nice to see Holland not desperately needing a mentor. Or at least getting a funny one; Martin Starr and J.B. Smoove are comic relief as the high school teachers. Might not have hurt to give them something more to do. Far From Home has an excess of talent and doesn’t utilize enough of it. But, again, it doesn’t matter during the smooth sailing period of the film because just so long as nothing goes too wrong, nothing can screw it up. Cue ginormous third act action finale. The bad guys in the movie are these giant weather monsters (sans Flint Marko) so all the action is big. Great combination of action and landmark destruction (the monsters go after all the big European cities). There’s no way the film can top it for the finale and instead just puts more people in imminent danger. The film closes on iffy ground and then the additional endings—even if the post-credits sequence is inessential (it isn’t), the mid-credits one is the whole show—just cement the problems.

It’s a bummer because Holland, Gyllenhaal, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, and Jon Favreau are all great. Watts does a fine job directing. Europe looks great. Fun soundtrack. Competent if impersonal score from Michael Giacchino. Matthew J. Lloyd’s photography seems a little rushed on composite shots but whatever. Dan Lebental and Leigh Folsom Boyd’s is a little rushed though, especially during the exterior night sequences, which are already problem spots for Lloyd and Watts.

Speaking of Watts, despite that fine directing he does, he’s got no interest in the special effects visuals. He’s got no time for them. It’s okay for the giant weather monster fights because it keeps the focus on Holland. But when the film’s got this lengthy hallucination sequence? It’s okay. It gets the character from point A to point B, but the character doesn’t have any reaction to what they’ve seen. It’s a terribly missed opportunity. In so many ways. Including a great Empire Strikes Back reference.

Oh. Marisa Tomei.

The movie completely wastes her, while still managing to celebrate her awesomeness in the role and her chemistry with Holland.

For a while, Far From Home is such a grand European (superhero action) adventure with a wonderful—and likable—cast and fun attitude, it seems like there’s nothing it can’t get away with. The movie’s self-assured and justifiably so for most of the runtime, but those two additional endings just make it seem like… it was all bravado and not actual confidence. Hence a bummer. A weird one, wonderfully acted one.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jon Watts; screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; director of photography, Matthew J. Lloyd; edited by Dan Lebental and Leigh Folsom Boyd; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Claude Paré; produced by Amy Pascal and Kevin Feige; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Zendaya (MJ), Jacob Batalon (Ned), Jake Gyllenhaal (Beck), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan), Tony Revolori (Flash), Angourie Rice (Betty), Remy Hii (Brad Davis), Martin Starr (Mr. Harrington), J.B. Smoove (Mr. Dell), Marisa Tomei (May), Cobie Smulders (Hill), and Samuel L. Jackson (Fury).


The Mind of Mr. Soames (1970, Alan Cooke)

The Mind of Mr. Soames is preternaturally gentle (which, getting ahead of myself, is kind of the point) but it’s always a surprise how much more gentle it can get. The film doesn’t forebode or foreshadow, even though doing either wouldn’t just be predictable, it might even be appropriate given the subject matter.

The film opens at a private British medical institute, where everyone is very excited because they’re going to operate on star patient Mr. Soames (played by Terence Stamp). Stamp was born comatose due to a super-rare condition in his brain stem and this institute has kept him alive for thirty years. They’ve been waiting for medical science to get to a place where it can help Stamp. And it has. American surgeon Robert Vaughan (sporting a very cool beard) crosses the pond to do it. He’s not interested in Stamp’s recovery process, just the surgery.

At least, not until he realizes Davenport wants to train Stamp like a pet, not raise him like a child. Because even though Stamp’s got an adult brain, he’s pristine tabula rasa.

Also in the mix is scuzzy TV journalist Christian Roberts. He’s got Davenport’s permission to turn Stamp’s “childhood” into a documentary series. Part of the film’s gentle is how much the filmmakers trust the audience. The script trusts them to keep up, director Cooke trusts them to keep up—a big thing in the first act is American doctor Vaughan realizing British doctor Davenport is less concerned with Stamp recovering than with him making the Institute famous. But it never comes up. The whole arc of the film turns out to involve Donal Donnelly as Davenport’s underling, who gradually learns how to be a good doctor. Vaughan’s a big influence on him, but so’s Stamp.

Even though it’s almost a spoiler how much agency Stamp gets in the film given he starts it inanimate, kept alive by a roomful of machines. When Mind starts, it’s a split between Vaughan, Davenport, and Roberts, with Donnelly bouncing between Vaughan and Davenport. But once Stamp wakes up, the film starts its gradual transition into being his story.

It’s a great film, but it’s very hard to imagine it being able to do any more than it already does. Stamp eventually encounters all sorts of other people—most importantly kindly (potentially too kindly) miserable housewife Judy Parfitt—and Mind treats them as caricatures. Only Stamp, with this necessarily reduced agency and potential of it, gets to be a full-fledged character. These people he encounters are caricatures from his perspective, but from the film’s, which I guess is where the only real problems (outside the wrong closing music) occur. Everyone relies on Stamp to handle his perspective, which is understandable, he’s phenomenal. But if the film adjusted the narrative distance to track Stamp more closely, it’d necessarily lose the doctors.

Mind of Mr. Soames can’t be a character study, but it also can’t be a medical thriller because it can’t maintain the medical procedural. It also can’t do straight drama because it’s got a speculative air to it. Director Cooke does that gentle thing instead of trying to hit various intensities. It’s never calm, it’s never placid, it’s just gentle. Mind is based on a novel and there’s definitely the potential for some sort of comparison to Frankenstein, maybe with the book but definitely with the film; whether or not Stamp is going to go Frankenstein is one of the film’s many questions, but never one of Stamp’s and it’s Stamp’s film.

The film doesn’t exactly have charm—it’s too intense, stakes-wise—and it’s never overly stylish, but the deliberate but still surprising way the narrative unfolds is rather agreeable. Mind of Mr. Soames does a lot, provides its cast a lot of great scenes, and it’s not an easy story to do. So when it works out so well… not charming, but nice.

It’s a story very well told.

Outside the occasionally too obviously shot in the studio night time exteriors, Billy Williams’s photography is always good. The actual exterior shooting—when Stamp and the film get outside his “playroom”—is excellent. Really strong direction from Cooke, both with the actors and the composition. The film seems to get a certain patience from Cooke, while it gets a different one from John Hale and Edward Simpson’s script; the story’s about agitated people but the story’s never agitated.

Pretty good music from Michael Dress (except the closing track, which is fine but not good enough for what the film has just accomplished).

Great performance from Stamp (you can’t imagine anyone else in the role after he does it). Excellent support from Vaughan, Davenport, and Donnelly. They’re ahead the other caricatures because, well, they get enough time not to be caricatures.

Stamp, Cooke, and everyone else make something special with The Mind of Mr. Soames.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Alan Cooke; screenplay by John Hale and Edward Simpson, based on the novel by Charles Eric Maine; lighting cameraman, Billy Williams; edited by Bill Blunden; music by Michael Dress; production designer, Bill Constable; produced by Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Terence Stamp (John Soames), Robert Vaughn (Dr. Bergen), Nigel Davenport (Dr. Maitland), Christian Roberts (Thomas Fleming), Donal Donnelly (Joe Allan), Norman Jones (Davis), Dan Jackson (Nicholls), and Judy Parfitt (Jenny Bannerman).



Picnic (1955, Joshua Logan)

Picnic is all about sex. It can never talk about being all about sex because it’s from 1955 and it’s set in small-town Kansas anyway and no one in small-town Kansas was going to be talking about sex. Not when schoolteachers like Rosalind Russell are trying to ban books for even hinting at sex.

But it’s all about sex.

Mostly it’s about women wanting to have sex with William Holden, who’s a drifter come to town looking to get a job as an executive from his old college buddy Cliff Robertson. Holden was thirty-seven in Picnic and, regardless of his beefcake factor, looks at least thirty-seven. Robertson was thirty-two. He looks about twenty-seven. It’s never clear how much time has passed since they were in college together though when Russell finally loses it and dresses Holden down for, basically, rejecting her drunken advances, she brings up the age thing. So are they supposed to be mid-thirties? They’re at least old enough Kim Novak ought to be rethinking her de facto engagement to Robertson.

Novak is nineteen. Her mom, Betty Field, wants her to marry Robertson before he gets tired of waiting for sex. Novak just wants men to stop objectifying her. Field says it’s all she’s got going for her so she better use it to get a ring on it ASAP. Couple years, she’ll be way too old to catch a good rich man. I guess the “good” thing about Field utterly devaluing her daughter’s worth is she’s not greedy about it? Field doesn’t want Robertson and Novak to take care of her, she just wants Novak taken care of. She’s selfless. Field doesn’t like Holden strutting around with his shirt off—her sexagenarian neighbor, kindly Verna Felton gets Holden out of his shirt as fast as she can—but Field doesn’t like it. Because it’s catching Novak’s eye and if Novak decides she might want to have sex with some guy instead of just doing it out of duty, well, she’s going down the wrong path.

Field’s got another daughter, a younger one, Susan Strasberg. Strasberg is a bit of a tomboy, super-smart (there’s some throwaway line in the first act, which is full of throwaway lines, about Strasberg having a four year scholarship except then she goes back to high school), and she too takes notice of Holden. Not in an inappropriate way but in the same way Felton notices Holden; they understand he’s a foxy man and there ain’t no other foxy men in Kansas. But they don’t lust after him in the same way as… oh, Russell, who gets drunker and drunker as the day progresses and finally gets so touchy-feely with Holden she tears off half his shirt. Got to let the beefcake out!

Russell’s all about the sex; even as she describes herself as the “old maid schoolteacher” what she really means is she hooks up with hot younger dudes out of town then brags about it to her friends at work. In town she’s stuck with decidedly not sexy, not younger Arthur O’Connell. He’s a local shop-owner, a bachelor stuck in his ways. Who, sure, gets hammered and talks Russell into going off after the picnic to “drive” in his car. There’s a great line from Felton about how everyone disappears after a picnic—Field is wondering where everyone went because she’s forgotten what it’s like to want sex—but Felton remembers. And she’s like, “They’re all off having sex.” And you’d think Field would remember because she told Novak to go off with Robertson and give him some play so he stays interested.

Now, Novak’s a good girl, from a good family, she’s just not a rich girl. Or a smart girl. She’s quiet and a little sad. Being socialized to accept paper boy Nick Adams hitting on her every morning no doubt has something to do with that sadness.

She just wants someone to take her seriously. And not because of how she looks.

So when she and Holden have this super-charged sexy dance at the Picnic, which sets off Strasberg’s jealousy and resentment as well as Russell’s beefcake lust, well… is it different when Holden ogles her? Because it’s William Holden and not Nick Adams or Cliff Robertson.

Or, in the film’s grossest revelation, Arthur O’Connell. Who goes over to visit Russell (who lodges with Field and daughters) and ogles Novak.

O’Connell recovers from that moment, mostly because he’s got Russell holding up their scenes, but… yuck.

If Picnic could talk about sex, would it be better? Well, not if it still had such unbridled passion for patriarchal relationships. Novak and Holden have zero chemistry, which would be a bigger problem if the script ever needed them to have any. But Novak’s written so thin—she’s constantly asking people to define her character in the first act, which gets tedious fast because the character relationships ring hollow. Director Logan, who directed the original play on Broadway, has no patience or regard for his actors. He’s always in a hurry, always shooting in these boring long shots (though James Wong Howe’s photography is fantastic). Often there will be some terrible cut; editors William A. Lyon and Charles Nelson shockingly won an Oscar for the film, which is something since there’s not a single smooth transition between long shot and close-up in the entire film.

While I’m talking about the crew, might as well get George Duning’s score out of the way. It’s too loud, too bombastic, too obvious, too melodramatic. Jo Mielziner’s production design is excellent though. It’s a shame Logan doesn’t have better shots for it. He’s got some really awkwardly pedestrian shots, like he’s scared of cranes or something. The film’s wide Cinemascope aspect ratio is another problem. It opens the film up too much and Logan rarely can compose for it.

The big dance scene is about the only intentionally well-directed sequence in the film, though there are occasional unintentional good shots.

It’s never incompetent, it’s just never anything but competent.

The film peaks somewhere in the second act, during the picnic. Regardless of all the problems, Picnic has a great pace. At least until the third act, when it starts to drag on and on, introducing these juxtapositions between Novak and Russell, O’Connell and Holden. Only none of the characters do enough for the juxtapositions to make any narrative sense, much less drum up any dramatic effect.

Great performance from Russell, really good ones from O’Connell and Felton. Okay—all things considered—one from Holden. He’s pretty good in the first act. By the last act you wish he’d rethought agreeing to the film (given he was worried he was too old for the part he’s obviously too old to play). Novak’s… she could be worse. Same goes for Field, though she’s immediately grating. Strasberg’s great, but the part’s crap. Worse, it’s a big part. It’s just a big, crappy part. If the movie were actually about her and Novak, it’d be something. If the movie were about Novak, it’d be something. If it were about any of its characters, it’d be something. But the smorgasbord approach? Doesn’t work. No one gets enough time or space.

Though it probably wouldn’t matter because they still couldn’t talk about sex. Picnic is fixated on it. Even if all of its ideas about it are at least bad, sometimes icky, sometimes much, much worse.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Joshua Logan; screenplay by Daniel Taradash, based on the play by William Inge; director of photography, James Wong Howe; edited by William A. Lyon and Charles Nelson; music by George Duding; production designer, Jo Mielziner; produced by Fred Kohlmar; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring William Holden (Hal Carter), Kim Novak (Madge Owens), Susan Strasberg (Millie Owens), Rosalind Russell (Miss Rosemary Sydney), Arthur O’Connell (Howard Bevans), Cliff Robertson (Alan Benson), Betty Field (Flo Owens), Nick Adams (Bomber), and Verna Felton (Helen Potts).



Venom (2018, Ruben Fleischer)

For most of the movie, Venom’s greatest strength is its potential. It certainly seems like lead Tom Hardy can do anything but as things progress, it becomes more and more obvious the potential is an illusion. Director Fleischer just hasn’t done a big action sequence yet, so the movie hasn’t shown its hand–Fleischer’s action sequences are awful–and there’s literally nothing Hardy can do. He’s along for the ride down the proverbial drain.

Of course, even when Venom seems like it might go well–and for a while, it’s shockingly all right–there’s the problem of the villain. Riz Ahmed is a billionaire super-genius who’s funding space exploration to bring organisms back to Earth to try to cure cancer. All of his experiments involve killing San Francisco’s homeless population and Ahmed has one of the worst written god complexes in motion picture history. Venom’s script is frequently bad, but the better actors work through it, as they get no help from Fleischer who’s concentrating on… something. Nothing good, nothing relevant, but presumably something. Ahmed’s terrible though. He’s the worst performance until the “surprise”–but credited–end credits cameo. And Ahmed’s quite bad throughout, so for the surprise cameo to be worse? Well, it’s an achievement of sorts.

The movie starts with a private spaceship crashing in Malaysia. Ahmed’s spaceship. It picked up some alien lifeforms–symbiotes, which are kind of like CGI slime but never green–and one of them escapes. Meanwhile, Hardy is an investigative reporter with his own TV show, which has opening titles where Hardy rides his motorcycle around San Francisco looking tough.

This opening is not where Venom shows potential. It’s all quite awkward and flat, also introducing Michelle Williams as the fiancée Hardy will betray to get dirt of Ahmed and Jenny Slate as one of Ahmed’s scientists. Once Hardy betrays Williams–for nothing, his network fires him for not brown-nosing Ahmed–Venom skips ahead six months. Hardy is now unemployable, broke, living in a bad neighborhood and a gorgeous, enormous San Francisco apartment, and feeling sorry for himself. And even though he says he’s given up on helping people, he’s really nice to his new supporting cast, primarily homeless lady Melora Walters and convenience store owner Peggy Lu.

It has somehow taken that escaped alien in Malaysia six months to get to an airport, but it’s finally on its way to Frisco to confront Ahmed, which has been its plan since… the second or third scene in the movie. Again, bad script.

Like when Hardy meets up again with Williams, who has moved on and is now dating nice guy surgeon Reid Scott. Though she apparently hasn’t gotten a new job. Because in Venom’s San Francisco, you can apparently just not pay rent.

Eventually Hardy breaks into Ahmed’s brodinagian research facility and picks up a symbiote of his own. Shockingly light security–including no security cameras–and the safety protocols for the hostile alien life forms are rather lax as well. Hardy and the alien talk to each other–Hardy, with some modification, also voices the alien (Venom, who comes from a planet where all the creatures were named by eight year-old boys)–before Ahmed sends his private security force (led by paper thin Scott Haze) after the new partners.

There’s also some stuff where Hardy gets help from Scott and Williams for his alien problem, which is where the film’s best. The character drama isn’t well-written or well-directed, but Hardy, Williams, and Scott all give good performances. So they get it through. They’re all likable, all sympathetic, all wasted.

The movie’s got three big action set pieces, four if you count a motorcycle and drone chase through San Francisco. Incidentally, that chase sequence is where it becomes obvious Fleischer’s never going to deliver good action. It just gets worse after that one. When it’s the alien in control–when the alien takes over, he’s like seven feet-tall and eats people’s heads–the film loses the Hardy grounding, which does help it. It can’t save it, but it does help it. Including Hardy’s voiceover talking to the alien always feels forced. Though the talking between Hardy and the alien always feels forced. Even when Hardy’s good. Crappy dialogue. Again, bad script.

Technically, Venom’s perfectly competent. It’s got no personality, but it’s competent. Well, some of the digital mattes are really bad; the digital effects are never great. Fleischer actually seems to get that shortfall. Even after the movie’s done hiding the shark and Venom is out of the water, the alien is a special effect not a character. He’s always turning back into Hardy in between action requirements.

For the first forty-five minutes, I was surprised how… mediocre it seemed like Venom was going to turn out. Then it started getting bad and just kept getting worse.

Given its subject matter and artistic ambitions (wokka wokka), Venom shouldn’t be a disappointment. But thanks to Fleischer and–to a lesser extent Ahmed)–it sure manages to be one.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ruben Fleischer; screenplay by Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, and Kelly Marcel, based on a story by Pinkner and Rosenberg and the Marvel Comics character created by David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane; director of photography, Matthew Libatique; edited by Alan Baumgarten and Maryann Brandon; music by Ludwig Göransson; production designer, Oliver Scholl; produced by Avi Arad, Amy Pascal, and Matt Tolmach; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tom Hardy (Eddie Brock), Riz Ahmed (Carlton Drake), Michelle Williams (Anne Weying), Jenny Slate (Dr. Dora Skirth), Reid Scott (Dr. Dan Lewis), Peggy Lu (Mrs. Chen), Scott Haze (Treece), and Melora Walters (Maria).


Atom Man vs. Superman (1950, Spencer Gordon Bennet)

Lyle Talbot is the best thing about Atom Man vs. Superman. Overall, he might even give the best performance–he flubs some material, but it’s better material than his only serious competitor, Noel Neill, ever gets. There aren’t great performances in Atom Man vs. Superman. The serial wouldn’t know what to do with them.

Talbot is Atom Man. Or Lex Luthor. The serial tries to confuse the good guys by creating two villains, even though it’s pretty obvious from early on Talbot’s both of them. Though it’s actually unresolved; Atom Man might–technically–not be Talbot. Doesn’t matter. A lot of Atom Man vs. Superman doesn’t matter. Like most of the first half of the chapters–it runs fifteen–and the last two. Atom Man isn’t one of those serials where nothing in between the first chapter and the last chapter matter. The last chapter is nowhere near impressive enough to matter.

The serial has a few subplots, like Talbot making artifical kryptonite, Kirk Alyn getting trapped in another dimension (“the empty doom”) while his coworkers wonder what’s happened to Clark Kent, Neill going to work for Talbot. The artificial kryptonite plot line requires a lot of precious metal theft, which means good guys chasing goons and goons kidnapping good guys. Jimmy Olsen Tommy Bond–who starts off the serial in a repeat from the previous one picking on Neill for, you know, being a woman–ends up the most frequent damsel in distress. Neill gets grabbed a couple times, but she at least sticks up for herself. If only then to turn around and beam nonsensically at Alyn when he arrives to save her.

But Neill and Talbot are good adversaries. Neill and Alyn don’t have much chemistry, which seems more the fault of director Bennet and the three screenwriters than anything else. When she’s rescued, she beams at him. When Alyn’s in the Clark Kent spectacles, they bicker without chemistry. They’re both slightly petty towards each other without much cause. Usually because the pettiness just puts them in danger–Neill’s always in the soup because she ignores Alyn (as Superman) warning her about a danger–but the toxic professional environment is a problem. It comes from the top down, of course, with editor Pierre Watkin. He sits at his desk–the strangest thing about Watkin is I think he’s supposed to be gruffly likable and instead he’s just a boob–anyway, he sits at his desk, tells his reporters they’re lying to him, defends super-villain Talbot, has Bond turn on his radio for him. It never gets too bad because Watkin’s part is never so important he’s not dismissible; it’s just another of Atom Man’s easily fixable fails.

Again, director Bennet and the three screenwriters. They do no one any favors.

The serial’s at its best when Neill is working for Talbot. She’s doing on the street interviews for his TV network start-up. Of course, it’s all a front for his robbery ring. Talbot can make robots, flying saucers, earthquake rays, atomic missiles, a teleporter, a spaceship, fake kryptonite, and some other things, but when it comes to fueling his endeavors? Breaking and entering. And when he gets busted, his fallback plan is to literally destroy the planet. Again. Screenwriters not doing anyone any favors. Especially not Talbot.

The three or four chapters with Neill working for Talbot get her out of the Daily Planet newsroom and onto the backlot streets. There are chase scenes, there’s banter with the interviewees, the serial all of a sudden shows some personality. Because when Neill’s playing second-fiddle to Alyn, it has none. She stands, usually silent, staring at him with a beatific smile, and time drags. Usually because it’s just after Alyn–as Superman–has come up with some idiotic plan. The script has zero awareness for Alyn, both as Superman and Clark Kent; at least as Clark Kent, he’s not constantly going into danger and getting in trouble. Plus, Talbot’s teleporter gets the most use getting goons out of trouble so it’s not even like Alyn can catch them. He’s a dunce.

Sadly the script doesn’t give Talbot any material observing Alyn’s constant mistakes; instead, Superman’s supposed to be a worthy foe. Even if he walks into every one of Talbot’s traps with a big grin on his face.

The special effects are another issue. Or lack thereof. Superman flying is, just like in the previous serial, an animated figure over live action footage. At one point, Atom Man vs. Superman does a great sequence–with the little animated Superman–for the flood and it’s awesome. The serial hadn’t suggested it was going to be so ambitious as to use actual miniatures up to that point. It’s never anywhere near as ambitious again. The last two chapters, which kind of should be the big finish, have nothing. Superman versus atomic missile and spaceship and flying saucers ought to be a lot better.

A bigger budget, a better director, a better script, any of these things would help immensely. Because without them, the serial’s something of an incomplete effort. Especially with that lackluster finale. Take Alyn, for example. He does the job the serial asks of him. He has a few good moments throughout the fifteen chapters, but nothing sustained. When Neill is off working for Talbot, Alyn starts ridiculing Bond just because he can. It shouldn’t be a surprise; as Superman, Alyn’s not always concerned with people’s safety or, you know, even their lives. He’ll occasionally let someone die. Or torture out a confession.

Atom Man vs. Superman, despite running over four hours, never gives Alyn any character development. He does go to cover the flood, but it’s just a setup for some Superman. He doesn’t have anything independent of the main story. Even when it seems like he might get something–the kryptonite subplot–the serial just skips away from him. It usually skips away to go back to Talbot, which isn’t terrible, but the slightest semblance of character development might do wonders.

Neill gets the most sympathy in bad scenes. She’s got zip the last two chapters. Her big showdown with Talbot–in her final kidnapping of the serial–doesn’t pay-off.

In the supporting cast, which is practically bit part level of supporting, Don C. Harvey and George Robotham are good. Harvey’s a science goon, Robotham’s Neill’s cameraman. If Jack Ingram–as the chief on-the-street goon–were better, it might help. He’s not terrible, but he’s utterly flat.

Atom Man vs. Superman’s a disappointment to be sure, but more because it doesn’t deliver on the promise of its midsection than the opening. It starts an okay serial (minus Bond being such a dip), gets better (as Bond shuts up), then defaults back to okay (with Bond still keeping the dip to a minimum because he’s barely in it). Neill and Talbot keep it moving, with Alyn a sturdy enough “lead.”

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet; screenplay by George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, and David Matthews, based on characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Earl Turner; produced by Sam Katzman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Kirk Alyn (Superman / Clark Kent), Noel Neill (Lois Lane), Lyle Talbot (Luthor), Tommy Bond (Jimmy Olsen), Pierre Watkin (Perry White), Jack Ingram (Foster), Don C. Harvey (Albor), Paul Stader (Lawson), George Robotham (Earl), and Fred Kelsey (Police Chief Forman).


Atom Man vs. Superman (1950, Spencer Gordon Bennet), Chapter 15: Superman Saves the Universe

There’s more Lyle Talbot dealing with bad employees than anything approaching universe-saving in Superman Saves the Universe. There’s another earthquake sequence, with Kirk Alyn actually on a disaster set saving people, but it’s midway through the chapter and the finale doesn’t top that sequence.

Talbot has decided to destroy the planet Earth from his space ship–mass earthquakes–and takes Noel Neill prisoner. She’s going to be Eve, apparently. Will Superman be able to stop Talbot? Given it’s one of Talbot’s weakest schemes in the serial….

The biggest gaffe–at least in terms of a narrative one–comes at the end, when Neill’s sure she’s figured out Alyn’s secret. There’s a drawing of Clark Kent without glasses–because he’s wearing a tie, not a big red S–and Neill draws glasses on him.

It’s like there was an idea and no one–not the screenwriters, not director Bennet–knew how to pull it off. It’s not hard thing to pull off either, it just needs to make visual sense.

Overall, Universe isn’t a good chapter for anyone. Neill’s material is awful. Talbot’s is a little better but not much. Alyn’s kind of got some good material but Bennet’s direction is weak.

Superman Saves the Universe isn’t just not a satisfying finish to Atom Man vs. Superman, it’s not even a satisfying serial chapter.

CREDITS

Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet; screenplay by George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, and David Matthews, based on characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Earl Turner; produced by Sam Katzman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Kirk Alyn (Superman / Clark Kent), Noel Neill (Lois Lane), Lyle Talbot (Luthor), Tommy Bond (Jimmy Olsen), Pierre Watkin (Perry White), Jack Ingram (Foster), Don C. Harvey (Albor), Paul Stader (Lawson), George Robotham (Earl), and Fred Kelsey (Police Chief Forman).


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