Paramount Pictures

Annihilation (2018, Alex Garland)

The two most bewildering things about Annihilation are director Garland’s inability to frame for Panavision aspect ratio—did cinematographer Rob Hardy just not want to tell him he was reusing the same three close-up shots, with his subject on one side of the frame, looking off, the other three-quarters empty, or did Hardy not see a problem with it (given the amount of post-production filtering and CG enhancing, it’s hard to guess what they actually shot)—and Jennifer Jason Leigh being a supporting player and not the lead.

Natalie Portman is the lead of Annihilation. She’s a Johns Hopkins professor, married to a special forces guy (Oscar Isaac), who has been dead for a year. We know he’s been dead for a year because Garland (as screenwriter, adapting a novel) has a whole bunch of exposition dumps in the film. We’ve already seen a meteor (or something) crash into the planet Earth, targeting a lighthouse because… V’Ger had a series of romance novel covers on it too and then Portman in an isolation room, with a fantastic Benedict Wong interrogating her, then we flashback to before the isolation room, after the meteor. Isaac’s been dead a year, Portman’s friend at work, David Gyasi, invites her to a barbecue but she can’t because it’s finally time to paint she and Isaac’s bedroom.

Cue flashbacks of Portman and Isaac’s idyllic, playful sex life.

We’ll soon find out—because Isaac interrupts her painting the bedroom—he hasn’t been dead, he’s just been missing. In fact, the Army hasn’t even officially classified him M.I.A.—though Annihilation plays real loose with what one might consider military protocol, there are Chuck Norris movies with a heck of a lot more reasonable verisimilitude as far as military operations go. But something’s obviously wrong with Isaac, even before he starts bleeding uncontrollably. When Portman tries to take him to the hospital, a bunch of stormtroopers intercept the ambulance and kidnap them.

She wakes up in what seems like a hospital room, talking to a psychiatrist (Leigh), and quickly learns Isaac had been missing because he went inside the strange, growing zone of something or other around the lighthouse where the meteor (or whatever) hit in the opening. It’s been three years, this zone, called the Shimmer, has increased exponentially in size and overtaken the towns, military bases, shacks, and who knows what else. No one has ever come back from the Shimmer, except Isaac (and Portman, as the frequent flash forwards to the interrogation remind—it’s not a bookend device, but a narration one)—and, well, Leigh’s putting the next team together.

Leigh, secretly dying of cancer, is sick of sending men to their apparent deaths and is going to go in now. It’s going to be an all-female team; her, paramedic Gina Rodriguez, scientist Tuva Novotny, other scientist Tessa Thompson. And wouldn’t Portman make a great fifth, being a not just a Johns Hopkins biologist, but also a former soldier. There’s a (bewildering) scene where Novotny asks Portman about her CV and Portman says she was in the military so Novotny can ask which branch so Garland can kill another fifteen or thirty seconds of the runtime, which is supposedly okay because the mise en scène of life in the Shimmer—a Florida swamp with lots of colorful plant mutations–not to mention Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s emotive score, is so compelling.

Is the Shimmer visually compelling? Sure? Garland’s not great at establishing shots. Annihilation feels very much like someone aping Terrence Malick aping 2001 but without the commitment to either. Mark Digby’s production design is good enough it’s too bad Garland’s not patient enough to explore it. Whether Digby is a Vertigo Swamp Thing fan or it just happens to always looks like panels (or covers) from that series aside… it’s a great proof of concept for an adaptation of the comic because a bunch of it is straight from those comics. But Garland avoids visualizing too much, instead sticking close to Portman’s perception of things unless he’s got to manipulate the audience to make the next narrative twist work.

At a certain point, Annihilation peaks and then plateaus. The thirty minutes (it runs just under two hours) before they get into the Shimmer isn’t great, especially since Portman’s protagonist is flat. We keep learning more and more about her and Isaac throughout and all of it’s boring. Same goes for the rest of the team (save Leigh, who gets so little onscreen character development it does gin up curiosity). But Novotny, Rodriguez, and Thompson? They’re shadows of caricatures, Rodriguez and Thompson the most. Maybe Garland couldn’t figure out how to write them in a reality where no one in the world noticed a whole section of Florida disappear, which would be visible from space. Maybe he really thought Portman was somehow the most compelling.

Doesn’t matter. Like his framing, like his downgrading of Leigh’s character, like his choice of composers… he was just wrong and it doesn’t work.

Kind of like Oscar Issac doing a Southern accent. No matter how much CGI you throw at it, no matter how much scary gross you make it, somethings just aren’t going to work.

Annihilation desperately wants to be heady, lush, hard sci-fi and is willing to sacrifice everything else to get there.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Alex Garland; screenplay by Alex Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer; director of photography, Rob Hardy; edited by Barney Pilling; music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury; production designer, Mark Digby; costume designer, Sammy Sheldon; produced by Eli Bush, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Natalie Portman (Lena), Oscar Isaac (Kane), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Dr. Ventress), Gina Rodriguez (Anya Thorensen), Tuva Novotny (Cass Sheppard), Tessa Thompson (Josie Radek), David Gyasi (Daniel), and Benedict Wong (Lomax).


Congo (1995, Frank Marshall)

At the end of Congo, after the heroes have found the lost expedition, the lost city, and the laser-pure diamonds but also run afoul of said lost city’s super-ape protectors and happened to find this place during a volcanic eruption, some of the super-apes jump into the lava flow. It’s a somewhat lengthy sequence, which with a better film might suggest the director was inviting contemplation but Congo’s direction is so bewilderingly bad it’s obviously not; it’s hard not to see the apes, the whole point of Congo, the pay-off to almost ninety minutes of globe-trotting nonsense… it’s hard not them seeing want to vaporize themselves to escape. The film’s an embarrassment for them.

The movie starts with a diamond-seeking expedition to the Congo going wrong. Bruce Campbell and Taylor Nichols, who aren’t in the movie enough, call home to their company, which is a communications company not a diamond company, and where their remote project supervisor is Laura Linney and the big boss is Joe Don Baker, who’s also Campbell’s dad. Oh, and Campbell used to be engaged to Linney. But he wanted to impress his dad too much so Linney dumped him. There’s a good movie in Congo, if someone else had written the script. John Patrick Shanley’s script is really bad. And since Linney’s the lead, though sometimes ostensibly and sometimes de facto, she loses the most potential from the script. She’s got to go to Africa to save Campbell after an unknown something attacks the camp. Thankfully it’s the movies so she’s able to find an expedition already going to Congo, even though it was thrown together immediately following Linney’s dramatic prologue.

Because the script’s dumb. Like, some of Congo’s big problems are just… well, the script’s dumb. Tim Curry’s absurd diamond hunter? Curry reins it in. The movie could handle him camping it up a whole lot more and Curry resists. He’s not good, because it’s a dumb part, but he’s nowhere near as bad as he could be. He gets sympathy. Linney gets sympathy. Male lead Dylan Walsh however… he doesn’t get much sympathy. Because Walsh isn’t even trying. Or, if he’s trying, he’s not trying as hard as uncredited cameo players (Delroy Lindo as an African military commander), much less main supporting player Ernie Hudson, who’s committed to running with it no matter where it takes him. It’s a great showcase for Hudson’s potential in the right role; that potential qualifier is because this role sure ain’t it.

Walsh is a primatologist who’s taught a gorilla to sign and then gotten her a souped up power glove; the glove “speaks” her signs aloud. Shayna Fox does the computer’s voice, the Stan Winston studio does the facial expressions and costume, two different women are in the suit at different times (Lola Noh and Misty Rosas). Is the gorilla, named Amy, successful? I mean, she’s a better character than Walsh, which isn’t saying much, but… the gorilla could be a lot worse. The gorilla could be a whole lot better—the whole hook of Congo, lost super-apes in a lost city of diamonds or whatever, hinges on the gorillas being impressive.

The gorillas are not impressive. The film manages to gin up sympathy for Amy, enough to overlook the technical limitations, but when the super-apes don’t pay off? It’s all over.

Though, really, the writing’s been on the wall for a while. Bad composite shots, the lost city sets being rather small-scale and wanting, the movie itself not being good; Congo’s not got much potential, but it does sort of assure it’s going to pull off the killer gorillas. It does not. Would it have been able to pull them off—same effects crew—if Marshall’s direction weren’t so tepid? Maybe? Possibly. Marshall pushes for as much gore as the PG-13 will let him get away with, but he doesn’t push for any actual suspense, much less horror, much less terror.

Eh photography from Allen Daviau, always at least competent editing from Anne V. Coates, plus a mediocre Jerry Goldsmith score. If it weren’t so blandly bad, Congo might be able to get by on solid technicals… it’s just Marshall. He’s particularly bad at directing this particular film. He’s obviously lost and completely unwilling to stop and ask for directions.

Joe Don Baker’s bad, Grant Heslov’s pointless as Walsh’s sidekick, Mary Ellen Trainor and Stuart Pankin get close-ups during the first act and some lines for absolutely no reason, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s good. You’re never happy to see Tim Curry, but he could be worse. The uncredited Delroy Lindo cameo is excellent Delroy Lindo cameoing. Linney and Walsh are both wanting, in different ways, Walsh much more. Hudson’s at least having a great time and working his butt off. Nice someone could bother in Congo.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Marshall; screenplay by John Patrick Shanley, based on the novel by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Allen Daviau; edited by Anne V. Coates; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, J. Michael Riva; costume designer, Marilyn Matthews; produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Sam Mercer; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Laura Linney (Dr. Karen Ross), Dylan Walsh (Dr. Peter Elliot), Ernie Hudson (Captain Monroe Kelly), Tim Curry (Herkermer Homolka), Lola Noh & Misty Rosas & Shayna Fox (Amy the Gorilla), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Kahega), Joe Pantoliano (Eddie Ventro), Grant Heslov (Richard), Delroy Lindo (Captain Wanta), Joe Don Baker (R.B. Travis), Taylor Nichols (Jeffrey Weems), John Hawkes (Bob Driscoll), and Bruce Campbell (Charles Travis).


Timeline (2003, Richard Donner)

Timeline is really bad. The opening sequence starts Donner regular Steve Kahan in a terrible bit part but at least there’s the stunt casting; the rest of the poorly edited sequence has ER doctors and anonymous law enforcement looking into the mysterious death of a man who appeared in the middle of the highway for Kahan to almost hit. Of course, we the viewers know he’s somehow travelled through time because we see a knight on horseback about chop him down before cutting to Kahan in the desert.

That opening shot of the knight cutting down the time traveller should be a trailer shot, should have some kind of major visceral impact… it’s got squat. The shot’s boringly composed—somehow Donner manages to suck all the life out of his wide Panavision frame, ably assisted—unfortunately—by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who’s never got any interesting or thoughtful lighting. Timeline looks boring, with its “renaissance village at a Six Flags” not even a Medieval Times, much less renaissance faire production design or the laughably bad costumes. The knights all look like they belong on a White Castle commercial and the time traveling heroes look like they’re trying to prove cosplay can be macho. Gerard Butler’s outfit is something else.

Though Butler is something else too. Donner apparently gave Butler two directions—make it more Scottish and play it like 80s Mel Gibson. Shirt off, hair wild, soulfully love the ladies (in this case, Anna Friel, who manages to be the only person outside Billy Connolly, who’s exempt, not to embarrass or humiliate themselves it some point during Timeline).

See, Timeline, which is about locable eccentric old archeologist Connolly going back in time through Michael Crichton-stereotype modern megalomaniacal rich recluse scientist David Thewlis’s time machine. Only he gets stuck back in time and so his team—Butler, Frances O’Connor, plus Connolly’s son, bro Paul Walker, who’s around the dig site because he’s got the hots for O’Connor and trying to tempt her away from her work to apparently quit her job and marry him and pump out babies. O’Connor’s real bad in Timeline, which sucks because O’Connor’s great, and it’s not all Donner’s fault, it’s not all the script’s fault—okay, a lot of it’s both Donner and the script’s fault, like, wow, terrible character. But O’Connor’s still bad. She’s not as bad as Walker, but she’s close, although bad in an entirely different way. If the film embraced its spoof potential—bro Walker going back in time to save his dad, Indiana Jones wannabe Butler, the silly battles, Thewlis’s mad scientist–it might’ve been… good. I was going to say amusing, but I really think about the only way you could make Timeline work is to do it as a comedy of itself. Albeit with a different script, cast, director, composer, cinematographer, production designer, and costume designer. Anna Friel and Billy Connolly can stay too if they want, Friel because she’s got the ability to—if not rise above—at lease not drown. Connolly because it’s Billy Connolly, who cares if he’s any good.

At the beginning, when Connolly’s lecturing, for a moment I thought he got the part because it was going to be “Head of the Class,” which too might’ve saved Timeline, if it were actually a “Head of the Class” spin-off. But no, then Butler’s Scottish burr dominates and it seems like it’s been dubbed it’s so over the top and you don’t realize yet what you’re in for with Butler. Even when Butler’s not particularly bad he’s disappointing because of how the film positions him. It keeps giving him chances to “breakout” and Butler never takes them. O’Connor seems to understand what a mistake she’s making, Walker can’t be bothered to care, they literally have him bro-hugging fifteenth century knights and whatnot, everyone else seems to at least get they’re in trouble. But Butler keeps it together throughout. He’s a trooper.

Who gives a risible performance.

Some spectacularly bad acting from Matt Craven and Ethan Embry. Neal McDonough is quite bad. He’s the ex-Marine security guy who takes the dreamy nerds back in time and immediately loses his cool and they have to compensate. Michael Sheen’s the evil English lord. He’s bad. He’s funny but he’s bad. Sheen might get to stay for the spoof, but only if his already hilariously big armor gets bigger.

Marton Csokas is the evil guard with a secret who becomes everyone’s nemesis at one point or another. He’s awful. He and Butler’s big fight scene actually gets put on pause—with the guys passing out stunned—so the movie can catch up with Walker and O’Connor, who get paired together for a third act mission where Walker’s got to trust the smart woman and it turns out to be a bad idea because she’s just an emotional silly. Truly bad part for O’Connor, can’t emphasis it enough. Especially for 2003 or whatever. There are better female parts in male-targeted medieval action movies from the 1950s and 1960s. I’m not sure how many because it’s not a good genre, but there are at least a few. Because it’s really bad for O’Connor here.

It doesn’t help she and Walker’s romantic chemistry is at the visibly uncomfortably disinterested miscasting error level. Though Butler and Friel’s rapport isn’t much better. It’s just not as bad in such bad ways.

There is one “must be seen to be believed” sequence in Timeline. When they travel back in time, for about fifteen seconds all the actors have to make faces to show brief, unimaginably intense pain. It’s horrible but wonderfully so.

Otherwise… I mean, I knew better than to watch Timeline. It’s on me. But did those involved in its production also now better than to be involved with it; most of the experience of watching Timeline is wondering who the hell thought this something or that something was a good idea when said somethings are so obviously terrible.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Donner; screenplay by Jeff Maguire and George Nolfi, based on the novel by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Caleb Deschanel; edited by Richard Marks; music by Brian Tyler; production designer, Daniel T. Dorrance; costume designer, Jenny Beavan; produced by Lauren Shuler Donner, Richard Donner, and Jim Van Wyck; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Gerard Butler (Andre Marek), Frances O’Connor (Kate Ericson), Paul Walker (Chris Johnston), Neal McDonough (Frank Gordon), Rossif Sutherland (François Dontelle), Anna Friel (Lady Claire), Michael Sheen (Lord Oliver), David Thewlis (Robert Doniger), Matt Craven (Steven Kramer), Ethan Embry (Josh Stern), Lambert Wilson (Lord Arnaut), Marton Csokas (Sir William De Kere), and Billy Connolly (Professor Johnston).


Terminator: Dark Fate (2019, Tim Miller)

Terminator: Dark Fate is the fourth irrelevant Terminator 2 sequel. It’s not the worst of them, it’s not the best of them. But the poor rights owners just can’t seem to figure out how to franchise and Arnold Schwarzenegger just can’t say no. If there’s a Terminator 7 in a couple years… Arnold will be in it if they ask him. It’s not so much he’s shameless, though he’s obviously shameless, it’s about perspective. From Arnold’s perspective, Dark Fate might work. He’s funny in it. Not sure if he’s good. Not sure if Dark Fate would know what to do with actual acting, though there are hints at it occasionally. Well, in the first act. Other than Gabriel Luna doing a really good evil Terminator, none of the performances are really impressive in anyway. Many could be worse.

Even Linda Hamilton’s, even if I can’t imagine how. Not as a dig, just her obvious discomfort acting in the film and the clearly zero direction from Miller—who’s just does a really bad job; full stop, Dark Fate is stupid, but if Miller’s direction were better, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as bad.

Hamilton gets all these terribly written speeches—David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray do some putrid work (outside the opening in Mexico with Natalia Reyes, brother Diego Boneta, and their sick father, Enrique Arce, which is forced but at least there’s some effort involved)—and she can’t deliver them, partially because Miller can’t figure out how to compose the shot or pace the scene, much less block her. Watching Dark Fate—when it’s not over-homaging previous entries; the sequel slash relaunch slash reboot is positively bored as it rehashes something previously rehashed in three of the previous Terminator 3s. Dark Fate, technically, is rather disappointing. Miller’s bad, sure, but Ken Seng’s photography clashes on all the CG composite shots, making Dark Fate feel even more obviously over-produced. Hero Terminator (or Hero Terminator stand-in) Mackenzie Davis fights at high speed, so does Luna. Dark Fate leans in all the way with the CGI-assisted fight scenes, even though they’ve got no resonance, narrative or emotional. The script spreads out the reveals about the new doomed future—while it feels almost like they’re begging for a Matrix tie-in, it looks exactly like Edge of Tomorrow; Dark Fate’s nothing if not original. But the future stuff’s dumb and obvious. The way they get Hamilton back is stupid and sensational and then never pays off because she’s not good. Like, she’s bad. They needed to do something about the performance. It makes the movie seem desperate in additional to obvious in additional to silly. Dark Fate feels more thrown together than rushed.

What else… oh, Arnold. He’s fun. He’s funny. For about fifteen seconds as they homage Hamilton not being about to play well with others in Terminator 2, you can appreciate how well Arnold works with other actors, contrasting his megastar days. He’s comfortable sitting and playing out a scene with emotion. It’s a nice thing to see. Even if it took decades and the movie isn’t any good.

One funny thing about Dark Fate is how bad it tries to feign woke and gin up some controversy. There’s a whole thing about the Border Patrol, getting snuck in from Mexico, how “Thank You For Your Service” is a dangerous platitude, not to mention the movie having a nice working class Mexican family as protagonists and the first act mostly in Spanish with subtitles. Dark Fate, in all the wrong ways, tries to… I don’t know, strut. It tries to distinguish itself. Actually, thinking about the screenwriters… did they bring in Billy Ray to politicize it a little lefty. Though nothing about Dark Fate suggests anyone involved with the film at any stage of production actually focus tested the film. Dark Fate is very sure of itself, it’s very committed to itself, to its twists and its turns and its terrible third act.

It’s a bummer. Definite bummer. Definite, desperate bummer.

Worse served are Davis and Reyes, who could’ve had—if not a franchise—a good buddy flick. Then maybe Luna, who’s actually good but it makes absolutely no different. Then Arnold, who showed up ready to work and no one put him to work. And, finally, Hamilton, who didn’t need her career-defining role, no question about it, tarnished in such a blah effort.

Poorly plotted script and so on. It’s clearly an ill-advised production, but it could’ve been a far more entertaining and competent one with a different script but mostly a different director. Miller hasn’t got a single good instinct. The way he fades the expository talking head scenes is bewildering. He doesn’t want the movie to show the actors acting. Though

I mean, after all, there’s no Dark Fate but what we make for ourselves.

And the Junkie XL score is godawful.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Tim Miller; screenplay by David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray, based on a story by James Cameron, Charles H. Eglee, Josh Friedman, Goyer, and Rhodes and characters created by Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd; director of photography, Ken Seng; edited by Julian Clarke; music by Junkie XL; production designer, Sonja Klaus; costume designer, Ngila Dickson; produced by Cameron and David Ellison; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Mackenzie Davis (Grace), Natalia Reyes (Dani), Linda Hamilton (Sarah), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Carl), Gabriel Luna (Gabriel), Diego Boneta (Diego), and Enrique Arce (Vicente).


48 Hrs. (1982, Walter Hill)

About seventy minutes into 48 Hrs., Nick Nolte apologizes to Eddie Murphy for the racial slurs he’s been calling him since Murphy showed up in the movie. Nolte’s just doing his job, he explains, “keeping him down,” which is an unintentionally honest moment about cops and Black men. Murphy nods to it, but says, “that doesn’t explain all of it,” and Nolte sadly agrees. He’s just a racist White cop. There’s only so much he can do.

At this point in the film, Nolte and Murphy are buddies. 48 Hrs. is an eighties buddy cop movie after all. Even if the first act is a bad but mildly amusing riff on a Dirty Harry movie, introducing hard-living rogue copper Nolte, who just happens to have a sophisticated girlfriend, Annette O’Toole. O’Toole’s pointless in the film, which ends up being fine because the movie’s literally got nothing for her. She gets maybe one good line—which isn’t bad for the supporting cast; outside Nolte and Murphy, not many good lines in the film… you’d think with four screenwriters on it and at least three of them desperate to be iconic, there’d be some good lines thrown around.

Not really. In fact, when O’Toole gets hers’, it’s a surprise because it’s on the end of a bad conversation. The writing on O’Toole and Nolte is awful. Somehow they’re likable together, but not because of anything in the dialogue. Or maybe the scene where much shorter than Nolte O’Toole follows him down the hallway and it’s cute is an accident. 48 Hrs. is not successfully directed, so it’s hard to give Hill much credit other than keeping the trains running on time. Even if it does start really dragging at the end of the first hour, after Nolte and Murphy have just had a fistfight to kill time, followed by the threat of another fistfight.

So the movie opens with Sonny Landham breaking James Remar out of prison. He’s on a chain gang. Hill gets to pretend it’s Cool Hand Luke for a shot or two and the James Horner music is really, really good, but then things start to fall apart once Remar escapes and leaves a guard behind to call it in. The calling it in is a bunch of expository nonsense; 48 Hrs. frequently reminds of plot points in the first hour. It’s like the screenwriters were leaving notes for each other where to pick up. Not a smooth script. Not good dialogue script, not a smoothly paced script. Thank goodness for Eddie Murphy and Horner and cinematographer Ric Waite.

Nolte tags along on a routine call with Jonathan Banks, who’s great and sets a way too high standard for the cop acting in the movie, only they’re not prepared for Remar and Landham and Remar ends up with Nolte’s gun. So Nolte has to go get Eddie Murphy out of jail—Murphy and Remar used to do jobs together—so Murphy can help Nolte find Remar. That sequence of the film, outside Murphy’s introduction, isn’t good. It’s way too perfunctory and doesn’t do anything to transition affable tough jerk Nolte from the opening to the cruel racist who’s going to be berating Murphy for the next thirty or so minutes. If the film had just stuck to its convictions and had Nolte be as vocally racist as he appeared… it’d be taking a position on something. But those are questions for non-buddy cop movies so you get the laughs you can. The first turn for Nolte comes during Murphy’s big set piece in a redneck bar. It makes it seem like 48 Hrs. has its set pieces down… but then the fistfight in the streets because the guys are tired is a few scenes later and it’s clear the movie’s got no idea.

The second act ends with a bad chase sequence in a subway station, but at least Hill’s got to try because there’s so much going on, followed by a song montage with Murphy dancing with a girl and Nolte driving through San Francisco to meet him to kick off the third act, which quickly leads to a stole bus sequence, then there’s the big Chinatown finale. So much action. And all of it middling or worse.

During the Chinatown chase sequence, it’s obviously not the three editors’ fault—though earlier some things are definitely their faults—it’s Hill not knowing how to direct the sequence.

Hill’s… a peculiar director for the film. He’s humorless, he’s got terrible instincts with performances: Nolte’s never good, just more mediocre at times than bad, Remar’s disappointing, David Patrick Kelly’s annoying, Brion James’s annoying–Frank McRae’s yelling police captain is worth walking out of the movie on—other than Murphy… nobody’s actually good. McRae and James aren’t in the movie very much and shouldn’t able to mess it up, but they do. Banks and O’Toole get off easy with “too small” roles.

The James Horner score keeps it interesting for the first forty or so minutes, until the way the movie positions Murphy and Nolte gets a little more tolerable, Ric Waite’s photography is good enough in the first act you wonder what happened later on. There are a lot of obvious insert shots in 48 Hrs.—McRae doesn’t even appear to be in the same room with the other actors in his big scene—and they never match. Technically, 48 Hrs. asks for a lot of indulgence. The music’s not good enough to cover it all.

I mean, the San Francisco scenery does do quite a bit of the lifting. I’m not sure the movie could get away being so thin anywhere else.

It’s ostensibly a Nolte vehicle, which starts as a fine one, turns into a terrible one, but then turns into an adequate one for Murphy. Not all of Murphy’s scenes are good. Maybe a quarter of them fail. But the successful ones are big hits.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Walter Hill; written by Roger Spottiswoode, Hill, Larry Gross, and Steven E. de Souza; director of photography, Ric Waite; edited by Freeman A. Davies, Mark Warner, and Billy Weber; music by James Horner; production designer, John Vallone; costume designer, Marilyn Vance; produced by Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Nick Nolte (Jack Cates), Eddie Murphy (Reggie Hammond), James Remar (Ganz), Sonny Landham (Billy Bear), Annette O’Toole (Elaine), Olivia Brown (Candy), David Patrick Kelly (Luther), Brion James (Kehoe), Jonathan Banks (Algren), James Keane (Vanzant), and Frank McRae (Haden).


Twilight (1998, Robert Benton)

Unfortunate bit of trivia to start us off—Twilight is supposed to be called The Magic Hour, but just around the time of release, Magic Johnson’s high profile (and quickly cancelled) TV show had the same title and they changed the movie’s title. Titles are both important and not. They definitely establish a work’s intention—you may know nothing about something but once you see the title, you ostensibly know something. The problem with Twilight’s title change is two-fold. While, sure, Twilight is The Magic Hour as far as a time of day when Los Angeles looks particularly hot and haunting, but Twilight also carries with it some implications given the film’s all about being old and dying. Whereas The Magic Hour does not carry those similar implications.

So about a hundred and fifty words to say, you most likely know it as Twilight, but it will always be The Magic Hour to me.

Twilight opens with Paul Newman having a beer at a Mexican resort, then another. He’s on the trail of seventeen year-old Reese Witherspoon; she’s run away with inappropriate older boyfriend Liev Schreiber. We get a little of the Newman charm as he extricates Witherspoon from Schreiber, but things soon go wrong; Newman’s passive gender expectations get him shot.

Fast forward two years and Newman’s living above the garage of seventies Hollywood stars Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon. Newman does odd jobs around the house, plays cards with Hackman, flirts with Sarandon, bickers with their daughter… Witherspoon. Hackman felt bad for wounded Newman and gave him a place to stay. Then Hackman got sick and they needed Newman around. The inciting action is Hackman asking Newman to run an errand… which may or may not have something to do with Hackman’s simultaneous news—his cancer is back and he’s not going to be doing anymore treatment, which is pissing off Sarandon.

What unfolds is a mess of dreams and nightmares. Newman’s got his own dreams and nightmares, but he’s wading through everyone else’s. There are the older folks’—retired ex-cops James Garner and M. Emmet Walsh, who’ve gone on to the private sector with differing results; Newman’s old cop partner, Stockard Channing, who’s got commonalities with the old ex-cops but very different dreams; Giancarlo Esposito’s Newman’s de facto old partner from private investigating days, still starstruck at the possible glamour of the profession. You’re in Hollywood, even if you avoid it, it’s a magical place where dreams come true. Even the obvious villains—Margo Martindale’s blackmailer, for instance, or Schreiber—are just mired in the cultural magical thinking. The script—by director Benton and Richard Russo—does an exceptional job layering in all that subtext. Essential in getting that subtext across is Piotr Sobocinski’s lush, deliberate photography, Elmer Bernstein’s lush, deliberate score, Carol Littleton’s lush, deliberate editing, and David Gropman’s… no, not lush and deliberate, but sharp yet functional production design. Twilight is very much about people in their chosen environments. The difference between locations speak volumes about the characters who live in them, who visit them, as well as the setting in general.

Because Twilight is exceptionally smart.

And should’ve gotten whatever title it wanted.

(The Magic Hour).

Anyway. Great performances. Benton and Russo’s script provides just the right amount of foundation, Benton’s direction stretches the canvas—all the mixed metaphors—and the actors then inhabit and expand. Should’ve gone with some kind of sculpture thing.

The best performance, just in terms of pure unadulterated success, is Martindale. She’s magnificent. But the most successful with the least is Esposito, who seems to be taking what ought to be a caricature and turning it into the film’s realest person. Witherspoon’s got some really good moments, ditto Schreiber. But it’s all about the older adults—though Newman, Hackman, and Garner are a decade and a half (at least) older than Sarandon. It’s all about the complicated relationships Newman’s forged with Hackman, Garner, and Sarandon; as the film progresses, we find out more and more about Newman before the opening mishap in Mexico. Twilight’s a Raymond Chandler story about seventies Hollywood done twenty years later with Hollywood stars playing type and against but also a character study. Kind of more a character story. It’s not really an L.A. movie only because Benton doesn’t dwell. He’s all about the locations, but showcasing the action occurring in them.

Because even though Benton does a great job with the supporting actors—Sarandon the most-it’s all about Newman. It’s not clear in the first scene—the Mexico flashback—because Newman’s got on sunglasses, but the film’s all about his performance. About how the events wear on him, how he reacts to them. Benton makes his cast sit in their emotional states—freezing them, just for a second or two—and shows how the pressure is crushing them. Not the pressure of their failures or successes, but the Hollywood dreams.

Again, should’ve been called The Magic Hour. Or something else entirely.

Hackman and Sarandon are both great. Garner’s got this wonderful flashy ex-cop turned studio security turned old codger part. He’s really enthusiastic about taking that extra reaction time. Hackman seems used to it, Sarandon’s different—but Garner’s visibly (albeit reservedly) jazzed; the performance does a lot to establish Garner’s place in the story, which is more often than not offscreen. Hackman and Sarandon, Garner, they’re places Newman visits. Sometimes for a long time, but he’s always a guest in those places. It’s very a Chandler-esque narrative.

Because Twilight is very much within the genre constraints of a mystery, which is the only thing wrong with it—Russo and Benton are careful never to strain said constraints too hard; they’re too respectful of genre. But what they do—what the film does—is magical enough.

Because it should’ve been called the damn Magic Hour.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Benton; written by Benton and Richard Russo; director of photography, Piotr Sobocinski; edited by Carol Littleton; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, David Gropman; costume designer, Joseph G. Aulisi; produced by Arlene Donovan and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Harry Ross), Susan Sarandon (Catherine Ames), Gene Hackman (Jack Ames), Reese Witherspoon (Mel Ames), Stockard Channing (Lt. Verna Hollander), James Garner (Raymond Hope), Giancarlo Esposito (Reuben Escobar), Liev Schreiber (Jeff Willis), Margo Martindale (Gloria Lamar), John Spencer (Capt. Phil Egan), and M. Emmet Walsh (Lester Ivar).



The Princess Comes Across (1936, William K. Howard)

The Princess Comes Across is an uneven mix of comedy and mystery. Too much mystery, too little comedy, noticeable lack of romance. The romance is an awkward afterthought in Walter DeLeon, Francis Martin, Don Hartman, and Frank Butler’s script (four screenwriters is probably too much even in 1936; definitely for this kind of picture), which is weird since it’s the initial setup.

The film takes place on a passenger liner going from England to the United States. Starts with the passengers boarding, ends with them getting off. The script’s very hands off with the trip. When band leader Fred MacMurray says he and the band aren’t just rehearsing (in his room, which ought to be a comic bit but isn’t because the film’s never inventive, in script or direction), but getting ready to play for the ship, you wonder why it was never mentioned before. It’s not even clear the rest of the band’s onboard until that moment. Not for sure; you could assume it, but you could also not, it wouldn’t matter for how the film played. Princess is creatively sparse; its logic is fine (even, possibly, with the romance stuff), but the film never seems to be enjoying itself.

Maybe because MacMurray and top-billed Carole Lombard never get to be funny together. They get their not really cute cute meeting. MacMurray and sidekick William Frawley, who was already bald in 1936, booked the royal suite and are getting booted because Swedish princess Lombard is on board. MacMurray’s initially a jerk about it, then gets a look at Lombard and immediately changes his tune. So while Lombard and attendant Alison Skipworth (who gives the film’s most entertaining performance by far) try to get situated, MacMurray keeps annoying them. And it’s not cute. Especially since MacMurray plays more off Skipworth than Lombard; there’s a reason for it, as the punchline reveals, but… it could’ve been done better. Director Howard doesn’t seem to know how to showcase Lombard even when she’s not running a scene. Ted Tetzlaff’s photography doesn’t help. Tetzlaff’s lighting a thriller and even when Princess is full-on mystery, it’s never a thriller. It’s not just too much mystery in a comedy, it’s also way too light of mystery in a comedy.

The film sets up the mystery not to kick off a suspense thriller, but some kind of screwball gag. There are five police detectives onboard, all from different countries, headed to a conference. The captain (a somewhat underused George Barbier) complains about them in exposition, which seems like it’s going to lead somewhere with ex-con MacMurray or secretive royal Lombard, but instead has the five detectives chasing stowaway Bradley Page. Sure, Page’s a convicted multiple murderer on the lamb but… even when the detectives are talking about dire outcomes, it’s all light. Howard’s just can’t bring any gravitas.

Maybe because all five detectives are basically played as comic relief. The straightest edge is Tetsu Komai as the Japanese detective but only because the movie’s othering him to create suspicion. Douglass Dumbrille’s the French guy; he’s a bit stuck-up but all right. Lumsden Hare’s the British one. He’s not memorable even though he’s got a lot to do third act. But Sig Ruman (as the German) and Mischa Auer (as the Russian)? They’re awesome. It’s like, Ruman and Auer make it seem like Princess knows what its got possibility-wise so it can’t possibly waste it.

Then it wastes all the possibility.

Notice I haven’t mentioned top-billed Lombard and MacMurray in a while? It’s because all they end up doing is reacting to the mystery with Page. And then scuz blackmailer Porter Hall bothering MacMurray and trying to get a pay-off, which ends up involving Lombard too because they’re cabins are next to each other… Sure, Lombard and MacMurray don’t really have story arcs of their own (he’s a successful band leader, she’s about to be successful as a movie star, they don’t get anything else but… vague ambition); they just react when the mystery spills over to their screen time.

They’re both fine. Absolutely no heavy lifting for either. They do have fun in the far too infrequent wordplay scenes. Frawley’s fine. He gets a beret arc, which is more than Lombard or MacMurray get. And more than Skipworth, who doesn’t even get a beret. Again, she’s awesome. Hall’s great too. Ruman, Auer. The cast is good, the film just doesn’t have anything for them to do.

Princess is cute. Ish.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by William K. Howard; screenplay by Walter DeLeon, Francis Martin, Don Hartman, and Frank Butlerz, based on a story by Philip MacDonald and a novel by Louis Lucien Rogger; director of photography, Ted Tetzlaff; edited by Paul Weatherwax; costume designer, Travis Banton; produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr.; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Carole Lombard (Princess Olga), Fred MacMurray (King Mantell), Alison Skipworth (Lady Gertrude), William Frawley (Benton), Porter Hall (Darcy), Douglass Dumbrille (Lorel), Lumsden Hare (Cragg), Sig Ruman (Steindorf), Mischa Auer (Morevitch), Bradley Page (Merko), Tetsu Komai (Kawati), and George Barbier (Captain Nicholls).



Becket (1964, Peter Glenville)

Becket has some genre constraints. Significant ones. It’s a king-sized 70mm Panavision English history epic only it doesn’t feature any big battles. In fact, it goes out of its way not to show battles. It’s also an early sixties historical epic and it’s trying to be a little edgy in how it shows the relationship between King of England Peter O’Toole and his friend and advisor Richard Burton, the title character. Burton doesn’t just help O’Toole drink and carouse, he also advises him with matters of state, giving better advice than anyone else. Are they lovers? Queen Pamela Brown certainly implies it, but she’s also a shrieking evil harpy of a royal who wants to infest the kingdom with her idiot sons. Becket’s real clear—O’Toole might be a tyrant and a rapist, but his wife is even worse; England would be worse off with her having a say.

The film’s a toxically masculine take on certain aspects of toxic masculinity but not others. If O’Toole and Burton were lovers in the film, it’d probably make them more likable. Without, the film just implies Burton helps O’Toole rape comely subjects, sometimes taking part, sometimes not. O’Toole, being a Norman, doesn’t look on the Saxon peasants as human beings—but, you know, does and chooses not to so he can abuse them—and Burton, the only good Saxon in all England, helps him along. See, Burton’s an amoral collaborator. Being amoral and without honor means he can collaborate with a free heart, making him a great sidekick for O’Toole, both socially and politically. The scenes where Burton debates the Church on O’Toole’s behalf—the film’s set in the 12th century, before England split from the Roman Catholic Church—are fantastic. 1160 is about the last time a bunch of ignorant White men debating each other had much purpose and it’s great material for Burton. He excels at being intellectually superior. While O’Toole excels at having fun. Unfortunately, Burton’s arc takes into spiritual superiority, which Becket avoids almost as much as it avoids whether or not Burton and O’Toole got horizontal. O’Toole goes from having funny to being a maniacal, drunken jerk… O’Toole excels at it as well; the second half of Becket is all about the response to the title character, not about the title character’s experiences.

To stop having trouble with the Church, O’Toole—and the actual, you know, King Henry II—gives Burton—Becket—the job of Archbishop of Canterbury, making him the head of the Church in England. O’Toole assumes Burton’s going to be his old self, Burton instead decides he’s got to do it legit and devout. He doesn’t so much find God—or at least not in an overt way, Becket’s not getting into that part—as he finds a moral center. Is he arguing one amoral, exploitative system against another? Sure, but he’s ignorant of the Church’s crimes while party to the State’s. It gives Burton a great part—for a while—because he can sell the heck out of holier than thou; intellectually so, then spirituality so. Shame the movie dumps him in the last third or so.

It’s obviously going to happen—the movie opens with O’Toole talking to Burton’s coffin (spoiler alert)—but when the movie shifts focus from Burton to O’Toole, while introducing nagging wife Brown and nagging mother Martita Hunt, not to mention awful royal sons, it’s clear early on we’re never really getting back to Burton. His experience—in the film named after his character—isn’t important. He goes off and does monk-y things. Even when he’s convinced of his inevitable martyrdom, it comes at the literal end. Nothing of his experience of living with it. Becket, Becket decides, is a mystery. Even if Burton was doing a perfectly good job of explaining him.

It’s like the film doesn’t want to think too hard about anything. Other than giving its stars some good scenes. It’s a historical epic, after all. Director Glenville’s pretty plain, direction-wise; when he does have a really good shot, it’s a surprise. Geoffrey Unsworth’s photography is solid, but for an epic, not a character drama. Glenville’s not directing a character drama, but the stars are acting in one. The film, based on a stage play, never feels stagy enough. Good epic music from Laurence Rosenthal. Becket’s an event instead of an achievement, leveraging Burton and O’Toole without ever facilitating them.

John Gielgud’s awesome as the King of France. Otherwise no one in the supporting cast is really up to Burton or O’Toole’s level. Definitely not Burton’s monk sidekick David Weston, who’s… fine. Fine for a not entirely unsuccessful historical epic.

Burton and O’Toole could do more with more. They do quite well with what they have but Burton getting the second-half shaft causes unsurmountable damage.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Glenville; screenplay by Edward Anhalt, based on Lucienne Hill’s translation of the play by Jean Anouilh; director of photography, Geoffrey Unsworth; edited by Anne V. Coates; music by Laurence Rosenthal; production designer, John Bryan; costume designer, Margaret Furse; produced by Hal B. Wallis; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Peter O’Toole (King Henry II), Richard Burton (Thomas Becket), David Weston (Brother John), Donald Wolfit (Bishop Folliot), Martita Hunt (Empress Matilda), Pamela Brown (Queen Eleanor), Siân Phillips (Gwendolen), Gino Cervi (Cardinal Zambelli), Paolo Stoppa (Pope Alexander III), and John Gielgud (King Louis VII).


Nobody’s Fool (1994, Robert Benton)

Nobody’s Fool takes place during a particularly busy December for protagonist Paul Newman. He’s got a lot going on all at once, but mostly the reappearance of son Dylan Walsh and family. They’re in town at the beginning for Thanksgiving, but Walsh’s marriage is in a troubled state—we’re never privy to the exact details, as Walsh remains something of a mystery throughout—and eventually wife Catherine Dent leaves (taking the astoundingly annoying younger son Carl J. Matusovich, leaving older, shy son Alexander Goodwin with Walsh). So Newman, who walked out on Walsh before he turned one, all of a sudden finds himself playing grandfather. Even more surprising… he likes it.

The film also never gets into the specifics of Newman’s failed coupling with (uncredited) Elizabeth Wilson, but Wilson doesn’t fit into Newman’s lifestyle. Even though her husband, Richard Mawe, thinks Newman’s a riot. We get to see more of Mawe and Newman than Wilson and Newman, which seems a little strange until you realize how little that history means to Newman. He’s a child growing older at sixty, still treading water on life, daydreaming about escaping to paradises with boss’s wife, Melanie Griffith. Griffith’s married to jackass Bruce Willis, who spends his night out with other women and his days running his inherited construction company if not into the ground then a lot closer to it than it ought to be. The film opens with Newman trying to sue Willis on a worker’s comp claim and Willis wiggling his way out. Though it doesn’t help Newman’s lawyer, Gene Saks, seems to view the case as a way to keep busy more than a potential success. While the inciting incident of the film is Walsh and family showing up, Newman’s in a new place now thanks to his bum knee. His steady, sturdy life has a major kink in it now—especially since with the lawsuit he can’t really be working for Willis any more and Willis is the only game in town.

Willis and Newman’s relationship in the film is probably its most interesting, because Newman can’t stand Willis but he’s also constantly disappointed in him. He’s never hopeful for him, because—even though Newman’s genial—he doesn’t seem to accept optimism as a rational life outlook. Even small things. Newman’s a medieval serf whose life is mostly unchanging, through entropy is breaking down some of the things around him. Particularly his truck. Whereas Willis is secure enough not to worry about change or the lack of it. Willis takes everything for granted in a detached, positive way, Newman takes everything for granted in a negative way. Yet Newman’s protective of Willis, even as Willis holds power over Newman. Not to mention Newman can’t stand Willis for cheating on Griffith.

Nobody’s Fool isn’t trying to be subtle. It’s a very deliberate character study of Newman, watching him interact with the various folks in his life, like landlady Jessica Tandy or now jealous of Walsh sidekick Pruitt Taylor Vince. Oh, and of course zealous idiot cop Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman and Newman are hilarious in the film. Director Benton goes for laughs all the time. He goes for smiles a lot of the time and laughs all of the time. Newman’s always got something to say, usually the wrong thing, which is a tried and true comedy formula. Nobody’s Fool packages it a little differently—Newman doesn’t just give a strong lead performance, he makes Nobody’s Fool feel very serious, even as it stays genial, even as it goes for laughs. Newman anchors it.

Good performances from everyone. Newman in particular, Vince—Josef Sommer’s awesome as Tandy’s creep bank guy who Newman wants to punch out but can never find the right opportunity. Great supporting cast too—Jay Patterson, Alice Drummond, Margo Martindale. Ellen Chenoweth’s casting is excellent. Walsh is fine but could be better. He needs to be at least as good as Willis and he’s not. Grandson Goodwin is fine, even if he does disappear for a long stretch from second act to third. Nobody’s Fool has that limited present action—Thanksgiving to Christmas—but Benton never relies on it, instead establishing an easy going pace, never rushing things even though logically these events are occurring in what must be rapid succession. Especially with Griffith’s martial troubles; she’s going through a whole lot but we only see her during her respites where she gets to pal around with Newman.

What ends up happening is the supporting cast can’t compete with the film’s momentum—if they’re hands off, like Willis (who’s in the film a lot but treated like a cameo) or Tandy, it works. In fact Tandy’s subplot with son Sommer gets some scenes without Newman; no one else does. But if they’re more directly involved with Newman—so Vince, Walsh, Griffith—it feels like there’s something missing. Not so much with Vince, who’s a combination of comic relief and gentle heart, but definitely with Walsh and Griffith. Especially Walsh. Griffith’s got a more functional part in the story, whereas Walsh is basically the inciting incident personified. His presence kicks off Newman’s self-discovery. Or is at least the final straw to kick it off.

Excellent production—great photography from John Bailey and production design from David Gropman—and sure-footed direction from Benton. Lovely, omnipresent score from Howard Shore does a lot of the heavy lifting. If Newman’s not doing it, the music’s doing it. But it’s all very safe, like Benton’s goal really is to show how deadbeat dads would maybe be a lot worse if they’d stuck around and they’re worth a second chance once they hit sixty. Newman’s able to get a lot of mileage out of the part, but he’s staying on the track, just racking up laps.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Benton; screenplay by Benton, based on the novel by Richard Russo; director of photography, John Bailey; edited by John Bloom; music by Howard Shore; production designer, David Gropman; produced by Scott Rudin and Arlene Donovan; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Sully), Jessica Tandy (Miss Beryl), Bruce Willis (Carl), Melanie Griffith (Toby), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Rub), Dylan Walsh (Peter), Alexander Goodwin (Will), Gene Saks (Wirf), Josef Sommer (Clive Jr.), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Officer Raymer), Philip Bosco (Judge Flatt), Catherine Dent (Charlotte), Carl J. Matusovich (Wacker), Jay Patterson (Jocko), Jerry Mayer (Ollie), Margo Martindale (Birdy), Angelica Page (Ruby), Elizabeth Wilson (Vera), Richard Mawe (Ralph), and Alice Drummond (Hattie).


The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954, Mark Robson)

With the exception of Grace Kelly (the only significant female character in the film), none of Bridges at Toko-Ri’s main characters are ever explicitly scrutable. Even when the admiral, Fredric March, muses about the nature of war and the men who wage it, the film’s already established March’s thoughts don’t betray him. He’s not cagey; if anything, he’s a conversational duelist, on the offensive. It’s a very interesting development on the character, who’s initially set up as a sad old man with a dead son who latches onto those officers with similar demographics in his command, in Toko-Ri’s case it’s William Holden. Holden’s a disgruntled lawyer from Denver, Colorado who got called up ahead of activist reservists because of his WWII experience. He’s got Kelly and two daughters at home; he’s miserable at war, living on the carrier, flying missions; he’s trying to grow a drinking problem and he’s thought through faking mental issues to get out of flying those missions.

And he’s not quiet about it either.

One of the strangest things about Toko-Ri’s script, other than it really being a grim, tense, terse war movie with a bunch of character drama shoehorned in to utter perfection, is how little the film is concerned with establishing Holden’s character. The movie opens with March, then goes to Mickey Rooney, who’s fourth lead in the first half, third in the second… maybe second in the second. March is the admiral, Rooney’s the rescue helicopter pilot (Earl Holliman is Rooney’s sidekick), Holden’s the pilot, Kelly’s the wife. Holden never gets a scene to himself until into the second half of the movie, after he’s been introduced through Rooney’s lens, March’s lens… maybe not Kelly’s lens. She doesn’t really get a lens. She gets the dramatic music and she gets to speak plainly about her feelings, though she’s also adorably small c conservative—the one full, sweet scene we get with Holden, Kelly, and the daughters is when they’re in their Japanese hotel and they go to the steam baths and there’s a Japanese family there too. It’s cute but not pandering; mostly thanks to Robson’s direction and Holden but also editor Alma Macrorie, who’s just as good doing the comedy as the fighter jets.

The movie opens with Holden crashing into the ocean, Rooney saving him, March bonding with Holden and telling him Kelly and the daughters are waiting for them in Japan. Then it’s three days ahead and we only get hints of how they passed from Holden’s expressions and how he interacts with the other guys on the ship. The point of that very soft character development technique becomes clear later, in the second half of the film, when it’s just Holden shutting all the guys out on the ship after they’re back to sea, headed to a dangerous mission. Bridges gives its characters their own politics, identifying most with Holden—who’s slowly buying into March’s take, but March also just sees Korea as a diversion from Soviet Russia… but for progressive reasons. Sort of. Kelly’s living “Donna Reed Goes to War.” Rooney’s a sociopath we find out. A lovable one, but a complete sociopath.

The film is character studies but fits them into the epical war drama frame. While mostly being tense action and preparation for action. Valentine Davies writes a really tight script; Bridges is based on a James Michener so who knows where that efficiency is from. Because there’s also Robson. He opens the movie with this very practical look at the way aircraft carriers work. The film opens with a thanks to the U.S. Navy for their participation, but it’s not clear how much participation Bridges is going to get. It gets a whole lot. There are big action set pieces, both in and out of fighter jets. Macrorie and whoever did the miniature effects startlingly match the actual jets. It’s a beautifully edited film.

Including on the opening “welcome to an aircraft carrier” montage sequence. It fits into the narrative eventually, but for a while it’s just Robson displaying this world. Very quickly the grandiosity of the carrier becomes mundane. Very quickly. In fact, I think Robson just cuts away from the carrier setup and never comes back to it. So he truncates it, because Robson keeps a brisk pace through the Japan sequence. Yeah, there’s the cutesy bathhouse scene but there’s nothing else. Otherwise the film’s always working toward the second half, where it slows down and puts Holden through a wringer and the audience never really gets to understand exactly what’s going on with him. Because even though the narrative distance is fairly firm on being about what happens to Holden and around Holden, it also seems like it could toggle over to being about what Holden’s going to do, which would change reads on how previous events unfolded. The Bridges at Toko-Ri doesn’t tell the audience what kind of the film they’re actually watching until around the third act; from the start, it promises to tell them, then keeps building to it. For at least an hour. It’s kind of breathtaking how well Robson and Davies pull it off. They don’t do it for the benefit of the genre—the early lefty-ish war movie—but for the film’s. Instead of going big, Robson and Davies keep it about the four main characters. It’s a tricky finish and the film’s very nimble in the execution.

The best performances are Holden and March. Not to knock Kelly or Rooney, they just don’t get the parts. Holden doesn’t really get to talk about his and March doesn’t talk about his when he’s talking about his. Robson cuts to their close-ups and waits for their reaction, in expression or dialogue, the film unable to continue until they’ve had their moment. Bridges hinges on them. Kelly and Rooney are both excellent, but the film doesn’t hinge on them in the same way. Because Kelly does get to talk about her experience; arguably her learning to speak up for herself is the film’s only traditionally successful character arc. She doesn’t suffer in silence or obfuscation. Rooney’s an entirely different case, initially set up as comic relief (or near to it) he’s actually something quite different. While still retaining some of the comic quality. But just as tragic as everyone else in their mutual delusions.

The Bridges at Toko-Ri takes the pieces of a war action movie and a war melodrama and assembles them into something very special. Great work from Robson, Davies, Holden, March, Kelly, Rooney, editor Macrorie, and photographer Loyal Griffs (save a rear screen projection shot here and there). It’s a phenomenal piece of work.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Robson; screenplay by Valentine Davies, based on the novel by James A. Michener; director of photography, Loyal Griggs; edited by Alma Macrorie; music by Lyn Murray; produced by William Perlberg and George Seaton; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Holden (Lt. Harry Brubaker), Fredric March (Rear Adm. George Tarrant), Grace Kelly (Nancy Brubaker), Mickey Rooney (Mike Forney), Earl Holliman (Nestor Gamidge), Charles McGraw (Cmdr. Wayne Lee), Keiko Awaji (Kimiko), and Robert Strauss (Beer Barrel).



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