Paramount Pictures

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).



A Quiet Place (2018, John Krasinski)

It’d be nice if A Quiet Place were exasperating. If, after seventy or eighty minutes of building tension, the finale somehow disappointed. It doesn’t. It’s not exactly predictable, but by the time it arrives, it’s been obvious for a while the movie’s not really going anywhere. The film’s split into three days. The first day is the prologue, about four months into some kind of invasion of Earth by giant monsters. Not like Godzilla giant monsters, but like fifteen foot tall giant monsters. Who apparently eat people? Doesn’t matter. They can’t see. They hunt by hearing. They kind of look like giant walking bats but without wings and Alien heads. The prologue introduces the film’s big device–no talking, no noise. The cast moves through the world, desperately trying not to make any noise. They’ve got to get some medicine for a sick child.

There’s dad John Krasinski, mom Emily Blunt, daughter Millicent Simmonds (who’s deaf), older son (Noah Jupe)–he’s the sick one, and younger son Cade Woodward. The prologue serves to showcase how important it is the be quiet and to give the characters some angst for later.

Fast forward sixteen months and the family is living in a farmhouse. There’s a new baby on the way, because even though Krasinski is dutifully trying to communicate via shortwave and he’s got the farm wired with closed circuit monitors and he’s working on a hearing device for Simmonds (teaching himself engineering), it apparently never occurred to him to rubberband his gonads. No worries though, because while Krasinski is working on his electronics stuff, Blunt’s making a covered baby crib complete with an oxygen tank for when the little tyke arrives, which is weeks off.

After that catchup with the family, the film cuts to another day. The cuts to days all have title cards giving the day. Except it’s just the next day. Most of the movie takes place on this third day, the day after the second day, when it becomes clear most of the time since the prologue hasn’t been making sure they’re prepared. Not for the baby, not for the monsters. As the film progresses, it just becomes more and more obvious–even though Krasinski is supposedly super-prepared, he’s really not. Sure, Woodward’s like three or something, but Jupe and Simmonds are tweens. And Krasinski has never come up with a plan for if they’re separated on the property?

The film gets away with not having much exposition–the family talks, with rare exception, entirely in American Sign Language (presumably they know it because of Simmonds) and rarely does it give the actors much emoting to do while signing. Outside Simmonds. It’s unfortunate because when Krasinski and Blunt have their first talk, it’s some really trite parenting responsibility nonsense. A Quiet Place has all the depth of a Disney TV movie as far as adult characterization, but without any of the charm. Oddly, the kids are fantastic. Simmonds has to do a bunch on her own, she’s great. Jupe’s the oldest male so he’s got to learn how to be a man in this new world and he’s terrified. He’s great. Simmonds and Jupe together (when they’re in trouble because Krasinski never came up with a plan for them getting across their farm to their house) are truly amazing. And a lot of it is how Krasinski, as director, works with the actors.

It’s kind of inexplicable why he doesn’t apply the same rigor to he and Blunt’s performances.

The script wants to get away with not having any exposition, which is fine. It kind of makes things more horrifying, but not really. The quiet device is about all A Quiet Place has got going for it; the monsters are nowhere near as terrifying as when the family gets into trouble because, usually, they’re exceptionally careless and unprepared for any common life occurrences. Contrivances are forecast–Krasinski’s not a subtle director, which is fine, he’s not trying to be subtle (Quiet Place is most effective in how it works as visual exposition, since no one’s talking the audience has to be able to understand what they’re seeing)–but also cheap. Lots of cheap contrivance. A Quiet Place is a comedy of errors; or a tragedy of them.

Good photography from Charlotte Bruus Christensen. Not bad but not special editing from Christopher Tellefsen. Marco Beltrami’s score is spare and only used–albeit effectively–for the film’s cheapest emotional moments.

Acting wise… Simmonds and Jupe impress. No one else does. Krasinski’s good with the kids. Blunt’s not bad with them but she’s not good with them either. Because of the short present action, she barely gets anything to do with Simmonds and her one big scene with Jupe is overcooked. Not even trying to establish the adults until an hour into the movie hurts; for some reason Krasinski thinks he can get away with them sharing headphones and slow dancing but… no. Especially not since their sole motivation is protecting their kids.

A Quiet Place is strongest in the first act. It declines from there. The film’s at its weakest point as it goes into the third act (at least its weakest point so far). It’s completely lost momentum, splitting between Blunt home alone and the rest of the family off in the world. And then it just keeps slipping.

By the end, A Quiet Place isn’t disappointing, just annoying. The quiet thing works in a horror movie. Who knew. Outside Simmonds and Jupe, there’s nothing to it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Krasinskip; written by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, and Krasinski; based on a story by Woods and Beck; director of photography, Charlotte Bruus Christensen; edited by Christopher Tellefsen; music by Marco Beltrami; production designer, Jeffrey Beecroft; produced by Michael Bay, Andrew Form, and Brad Fuller; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Emily Blunt (Mother), John Krasinski (Father), Millicent Simmonds (Daughter), Noah Jupe (Older son), and Cade Woodward (Younger son).


Super 8 (2011, J.J. Abrams)

Sometimes special effects are just a little too much, especially with CGI composites letting director Abrams set so much of Super 8 in gigantic action sequences. The film’s about a bunch of tweens in 1979 Ohio making a Super 8 zombie movie when they witness a train crash. The train crash, with train cars flying through the air and the kids running through showering debris, is the first time it seems like Abrams might have a little too much confidence in CGI composites. Especially when cinematographer Larry Fong can’t match the kids in the foreground. Actually, other way around, the CGI compositers can’t match Fong’s lighting of the kids pre-composite.

Then Abrams takes a little break from it and concentrates on the story. He’s already got most of the ground situation done. Abrams’s script is real good at brevity when it needs to be (which makes all of Noah Emmerich’s evil Air Force colonel a little much). By the train crash sequence, Abrams has established lead Joel Courtney (his mom has just died), his sidekick Riley Griffiths, the girl they both think is cute (Elle Fanning), and their second tier pals (Ryan Lee is the pyromaniac in training, Gabriel Basso is the scared one, Zach Mills is the one you forget is in the movie). Kyle Chandler plays Courtney’s dad; he’s a sheriff’s deputy who eventually has to take charge in a crisis situation. Abrams spends some time establishing the strain between Chandler and Courtney because the mom died. It’s effective stuff without ever being particularly… good. Both Chandler and Courtney give good man tears.

Fanning’s dad is town drunk Ron Eldard, who Chandler hates. Eldard doesn’t want Courtney around his daughter. Fanning’s outstanding and Courtney’s likable, so their gentle tween friendship stuff is nice. It’s not so deep it should take over the plot, which Abrams lets it for a while, but it’s nice. Abrams and Fong know how to go for emotional gut shots and they deliver, lens flares and all. And the emotional gut shot music from Michael Giacchino is a lot better than his eventual action and thriller music. Giacchino’s score by the third act is like a TV movie version of John Williams. Oh, right–Steven Spielberg is one of Super 8’s producers. The movie plays like an homage to some of his seventies and eighties films, most often Close Encounters.

The homage, while unnecessary, is kind of cute.

Turns out the Air Force is shipping something top secret and monstrous on the train and they come to town trying to reclaim it. Enter evil colonel Emmerich. None of the Air Force guys are good, however. They’re variations of evil.

For a while, the movie’s about Griffiths trying to integrate the train crash into his Super 8 project while Chandler deals with Emmerich. Then dogs start running away and people’s electronics are getting stolen. Then there’s a quarantine–sorry, not a quarantine, an evacuation. Abrams checks way too many homage boxes on his list, letting Super 8 get away from its stronger elements.

The kid stuff is good. Besides Fanning, not of the performances are great–Courtney’s good, but he’s got fairly predicable narrative tropes to work through–and Abrams’s banter material is what makes Griffiths and Lee’s performances.

Chandler’s investigation stuff is okay, not great, but it mostly runs concurrent to the better kid stuff. Their Super 8 movie, which runs over the end credits, is awesome.

When the evacuation hits, however, is when Super 8 slips. Abrams’s direction is all right just never quite good enough to get the action stuff done. Especially not with all the composited action nonsense going on around the kids. Everyone has a somewhat chill reaction to misfiring tanks, broken legs, and giant monsters, kids, adults, and soldiers alike. There’s this tedious crashed bus sequence at the beginning of the third act; it ought to be excellent, instead it’s artless. There’s no choreography to the frantic action, just CG tying everything together.

Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey’s editing, seemingly to keep things as PG–13 as possible, doesn’t help in that one bus sequence. They’re choppy instead of frantic. Otherwise the editing is undistinguished, sort of like Fong’s photography, or–at its best–Giacchino’s score. The film’s technically competent without ever excelling at anything. Abrams doesn’t need anyone to excel to get Super 8 done.

The finale is a little long, with Abrams going from set piece to set piece to set piece–not forgetting to tug at the heartstrings when he can. The heartstring tugging is the most effective–next to the humor–because the cast is so strong. Super 8’s biggest problem is Abrams not being able to balance between the characters and the plot. It’s too bad.

But Super 8’s still pretty good. It’s just nothing special… which Abrams seems to understand. His enthusiasm, for something he’s writing, directing, and co-producing, is a tad too muted.

Artificial lens flares aren’t enough.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by J.J. Abrams; director of photography, Larry Fong; edited by Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Martin Whist; produced by Abrams, Bryan Burk, and Steven Spielberg; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Joel Courtney (Joe Lamb), Kyle Chandler (Deputy Jackson Lamb), Elle Fanning (Alice Dainard), Noah Emmerich (Colonel Nelec), Ron Eldard (Louis Dainard), Riley Griffiths (Charles Kaznyk), Ryan Lee (Cary), Gabriel Basso (Martin), Zach Mills (Preston), David Gallagher (Donny), and Glynn Turman (Dr. Woodward).


The Phantom (1996, Simon Wincer)

The Phantom has three distinct visual spaces, more or less corresponding to the three acts. First act is in the remote jungle, second act is modern age–New York City–third act is evil villain pirate stronghold. Underground evil villain pirate stronghold. The last half hour of the movie is the cast running around a “slightly better than dinner theatre” pirate set, not a great way to go out.

Because The Phantom does have some excellent actions sequences, usually involving horses, sometimes involving wolves and horses communicating. The Phantom works best when it’s just going with the absurdity. Director Wincer has no sense of humor, which explains James Remar’s performance, but also very little sense with his actors, which explains Kristy Swanson’s. Wincer just wants to do the action, everything else is treading water.

So there are a couple fine action sequences, nicely cut by editors O. Nicholas Brown and Bryan H. Carroll, who don’t really impress at all otherwise. They improve–the first act has some jagged cuts–but they don’t impress other than the two horse sequences.

After the second horse sequence, when it seems like there might not be anything to match in absurdity, Treat Williams finally just becomes utterly consumable by the material and transfixes. Even when the film can’t keep up–either in terms of Wincer or just the special effects budget–Williams just barrels on. He gets The Phantom to the third act; the film then ingloriously dumps him until the last fight.

The terrible last fight on an underground pirate ship. It looks like a theme restaurant. Paul Peters’s production design is always a little questionable in the jungle sequence, but it’s supposed to be too much. The pirate ship isn’t too much, it’s way too little. The New York stuff is all interesting and sometimes successful. The budget gets in the way, but Peters and Wincer try to work it.

The music doesn’t help. Let’s just get the music out of the way. David Newman’s score is shockingly tepid. There’s no more lukewarm music for a dressed-in-purple bodysuit thirties adventurer picture than Newman’s score. It’s not even exciting enough for a movie trailer.

The film does have a good “star” in Billy Zane. Wincer doesn’t really want to use him–The Phantom is the star of the movie. It’s a bad move, hiding what an asset Zane’s likability is going to be, particularly since the only initial time Zane gets out of mask is bickering with ghost dad Patrick McGoohan. But after it becomes clear Swanson is a wash–and before Williams steps up–Zane’s strange, sweet, goof makes it all work. It does start when he’s in costume, however; he flirts with Swanson after rescuing her. Swanson doesn’t give much back, but Zane’s showing off, trying to hold The Phantom together. He’s the hero of the movie not just because of the purple tights.

Catherine Zeta-Jones is great as one of Williams’s cronies. It ends up being a better part than Swanson’s would-be adventurer, partially because Swanson doesn’t have the skills or enthusiasm, but also because Swanson’s part sucks. She starts out playing second-fiddle to crusading newspaper uncle Bill Smitrovich and annoying admirer Jon Tenney. And Smitrovich is badly presented–the script, the direction–but Tenney’s almost all right. He’s cloying but he’s trying hard. Swanson doesn’t take advantage of any of it and Wincer’s not paying attention. He’s not doing thirties screwball, he’s doing thirties serial.

McGoohan’s annoying, but it might not be his fault. Regardless, he’s entirely miscast. John Capodice is good though. Casey Siemaszko’s not. David Proval’s almost good half the time; script gets him good in the end.

The Phantom is a competently executed, poorly conceived mess of a motion picture. Though Williams, Zeta-Jones, and Zane certainly deserve some kudos.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Simon Wincer; screenplay by Jeffrey Boam, based on the comic strip by Lee Falk; director of photography, David Burr; edited by O. Nicholas Brown and Bryan H. Carroll; music by David Newman; production designer, Paul Peters; produced by Robert Evans and Alan Ladd Jr.; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Billy Zane (The Phantom), Kristy Swanson (Diana Palmer), Treat Williams (Xander Drax), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Sala), James Remar (Quill), Jon Tenney (Jimmy Wells), Robert Coleby (Capt. Philip Horton), David Proval (Charlie), Bill Smitrovich (Uncle Dave Palmer), Patrick McGoohan (Phantom’s Dad), and John Capodice (Al the Cabby).


Star Trek Beyond (2016, Justin Lin)

I want to like Star Trek Beyond more than I do. I want to be able to look past its problems. It has a whole lot of problems. Michael Giacchino’s music is awful. Stephen F. Windon’s photography is lame. The four editors don’t do any particularly good work, though they’re not working with the best footage. Because the real problem with Beyond is director Lin. All of the action in the first two-thirds is weak. The set pieces are undercooked, with one set at night and visually opaque, and Lin’s no good with directing the comedy. Oh, right, the script. The script is another problem.

No, it’s not because Simon Pegg, promoted from supporting cast to supporting cast and top-billed screenwriter (of two), gives himself too much to do as an actor. He and co-writer Doug Jung arguably don’t give Chris Pine enough to do, definitely don’t give Zachary Quinto enough to do and give villain Idris Elba absolutely nothing to do. They waste Idris Elba. Not just them, Lin too. But the narrative isn’t structured well. The humor’s awkward (since Lin can’t direct it) and the narrative is poorly structured. Beyond is choppy in places it shouldn’t be choppy.

Lin’s not good with all the sci-fi backdrops. His sci-fi action is poorly cut, but it’s also very uncomfortably shot. Lin doesn’t know how to establish the sets. It’s like he’s scared of medium shots on the Enterprise. It’d be more awkward if the ship were visible, but Windon’s photography is really bad, like I said.

But at the same time, it’s all right. Pine’s great this time, Quinto and Karl Urban get to banter, Sofia Boutella’s warrior alien is decent. John Cho and Zoe Saldana get almost nothing to do. Saldana least of all. She’s taken a big hit in terms of franchise positioning. Anton Yelchin gets the implication of more to do, ditto Pegg. But it’s almost a misdirect for Pegg. He and Jung don’t really give him more to do.

And then there’s Elba. He turns in a fine enough performance in a bad role, but gets to hint at what he could have done with it if the film were better written. And what it needs is just more depth, a little more thought, nothing amazing, nothing a decent script doctor wouldn’t be able to do.

The problem with Star Trek Beyond is it’s too aware of its marketplace, too self-aware of itself as a “new” Star Trek movie. Pegg and Jung don’t give enough credit to the actors. They’re on their third Trek, they’re older, they’ve developed. It’s kind of what’s awesome about this movie franchise–people age. Pegg and Jung don’t appreciate it enough. They do in moments, but not in the pace of the film overall. Or maybe deemphasizing the characters for the action comes from Lin, except in the last third, he manages character chemistry and good action. Amidst some of the worst production design on a “Star Trek” ever. Thomas E. Sanders is terrible at visualizing these future worlds.

But it’s all right. I wish I could recommend it and, as always, I’m hopeful for the next one. They just need a better director (and I was rooting for Lin based on his supremely well-directed action sequences in Fast 5 and 6). And a better script. And a better composer. And a better cinematographer. And a better production designer. And a better CG team.

And Pine and Quinto get about a half a real scene together. It’s like Pegg and Jung are scared of writing them together. Star Trek Beyond is scared of taking responsibility for itself. Lin just doesn’t have what it takes to make this script work. Though the bad action is all on Lin.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Justin Lin; screenplay by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, based on the television show created by Gene Roddenberry; director of photography, Stephen F. Windon; edited by Greg D’Auria, Dylan Highsmith, Kelly Matsumoto and Steven Sprung; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Thomas E. Sanders; produced by J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk and Roberto Orci; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Chris Pine (Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock), Karl Urban (McCoy), Zoe Saldana (Uhura), Simon Pegg (Scott), John Cho (Sulu), Anton Yelchin (Chekov), Sofia Boutella (Jaylah), Idris Elba (Krall) and Shohreh Aghdashloo (Commodore Paris).


Star Trek: Nemesis (2002, Stuart Baird)

Even though Star Trek: Nemesis is pretty dumb–and it is dumb, not just as a Star Trek movie, but as a movie in and of itself–and it has a lot of problems, the cast gets it through. The cast, the vague “train wreck” quality to some of its missteps (like Jerry Goldsmith either recycling his score from the not “Next Generation” Motion Picture or doing bland action movie music), some surprising pacing competency from otherwise inept director Baird and editor Dallas Puett (Puett’s no good at cutting the action scenes though, which is awkward), it all comes together to be occasionally painful, but ultimately watchable.

The problem with John Logan’s script is the stupidity. There are no good ideas in Nemesis, not Patrick Stewart having a young clone (played, poorly, by Tom Hardy–but, really, he’s acting opposite a bunch of vampires in Dune costume homages), not Brent Spiner discovering a “beta” version of his android character; maybe Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis playing newlyweds is cute, but only because of their chemistry, not because of the writing.

Oddly, Nemesis looks really good. The CG is excellent. Baird’s one attempt at a planetary action sequence–involving dune buggies–is awful, with shockingly bad photography from Jeffrey L. Kimball (who does fine otherwise). The space battle stuff is good. The space establishing shot stuff is terrible.

All the acting is good. From the regular cast, anyway. Stewart’s excellent, Spiner’s good, LeVar Burton’s got a few rather good moments. Even when no one gets anything to do, like Michael Dorn and Gates McFadden. I think Whoopi Goldberg gets more to do in her cameo than McFadden gets to do in the entire picture.

It’s a weird movie, simultaneously hostile to the Star Trek franchise while entirely dependent on the viewer being interested in that franchise (and its characters). And, even though it’s bad, it’s not all bad. Stewart’s perseverance is admirable.

It’d just have been nice if the director had any idea how to shoot any of it, with the exception of the space battles, which were probably all done by the special effects people.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Baird; screenplay by John Logan, based on a story by Logan, Rick Berman and Brent Spiner and on “Star Trek” created by Gene Roddenberry; director of photography, Jeffrey L. Kimball; edited by Dallas Puett; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Herman F. Zimmerman; produced by Berman; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Patrick Stewart (Picard), Jonathan Frakes (Riker), Brent Spiner (Data), LeVar Burton (Geord), Michael Dorn (Worf), Gates McFadden (Beverly), Marina Sirtis (Troi), Tom Hardy (Shinzon), Ron Perlman (Viceroy) and Dina Meyer (Commander Donatra).


Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989, William Shatner)

In some ways, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is an ambitious movie pretending to be popcorn entertainment pretending to be an ambitious movie. There's a lot of nonsense about self-help, not to mention the whole God thing, and none of it works. Partially, it doesn't work because David Loughery's script is too thin, but it also doesn't work because Final Frontier is paced as an action movie, not a self-reflective sci-fi outing.

But there's a definite subtext–not quite subplot, the film ignores any subplots it starts–regarding the continued bond between William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley. About the only thing the movie does really well is the character stuff, not just for those three principals (it's often a comedy showcase for Kelley), but also for the rest of the regular cast. Of course, the script forgets about developing these good character moments, but they're nice to have around.

There's also a good performance from Laurence Luckinbill as the film's de facto antagonist. The handling of his character is another positive about the film. He gets more of a character arc than any of the regular cast.

As far as directing, Shatner does a fine enough job. The action's fast-paced, with excellent editing from Peter E. Berger. Andrew Laszlo's photography is decent too. A lot of the special effects are fantastic. Except the end when it really needs them.

The Jerry Goldsmith score's trying.

The Final Frontier's about as good as any "Star Trek finds God" picture could be.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by William Shatner; screenplay by David Loughery, based on a story by Shatner, Harve Bennett and Loughery and the television series created by Gene Roddenberry; director of photography, Andrew Laszlo; edited by Peter S. Berger; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Herman F. Zimmerman; produced by Bennett; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Shatner (Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Spock), DeForest Kelley (McCoy), James Doohan (Scotty), Walter Koenig (Chekov), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), George Takei (Sulu), Laurence Luckinbill (Sybok), Charles Cooper (Korrd), Cynthia Gouw (Caithlin Dar), Spice Williams-Crosby (Vixis), Todd Bryant (Captain Klaa) and David Warner (St. John Talbot).


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