Universal Pictures

The Appaloosa (1966, Sidney J. Furie)

The Appaloosa could be worse. Director Furie apes styles he doesn’t understand how to use—his Leone-esque angles, the Acid Western—with what’s a fairly traditional Western, albeit just with a Mexican supporting cast. Well, okay, so Marlon Brando is the only gringo playing a gringo. All the other White people are supposed to be Mexican. You can tell from their makeup. Even the actual Hispanic actors are wearing a pound of makeup. The scene where Brando tries to darken his skin—it’s not clear he’s trying to actually appear Mexican, it seems like it has more to do with his monologue about his adoptive (Mexican) father and wishing he looked like him or something. But it turns out it’s not. Anyway, in the scene Brando uses coffee grounds to do it and sister-in-law Miriam Colon tells him it doesn’t work; you wish he’d just asked her what she was using.

Colon is married to Rafael Campos, Brando’s adoptive little brother. Or whatever. Campos isn’t good. You feel like it’s not his fault. The whole thing with Campos and Colon’s family is really forced. Maybe because Campos is exaggerating everything—exaggerated Mexican accents are going to be a thing, Appaloosa establishes real early on—but also because Brando’s in this goofy wig, fake beard thing. With the Western hat version of a Robin Hood hat. Brando’s appearance itself is distracting. It takes him a while to clean up too, long enough it seems like he might be in the makeup the whole movie. It’s distracting. You can’t watch him without wondering if they really thought the beard looked real enough.

But he does clean up. Just in time to do a Speedy Gonzales impression. See, it’s not clear Brando’s trying to appear Mexican when he decides to go into Mexico to get his prized horse—the titular Appaloosa—back from bandit leader John Saxon. Not until he’s sitting in a bar and bad guy Alex Montoya forces Brando to drink pulque to show he’s tough enough to be in bar. Montoya comes over to chit chat after Brando shows he’s legit and Brando goes into full Speedy Gonzales. It’s kind of beyond cringe, quickly getting into the “Greatest American Actor” humiliates himself in studio Western territory. Like, Brando wasn’t doing too great to start—the fake beard gets in the way of his mouth and the wig’s goofy—but he wasn’t doing a hideously bad Mexican accent opposite a Hispanic actor also doing an amped up Mexican accent. It’s like exploitation in action.

And it’s also bad. Montoya’s a lousy villain. Though I guess it doesn’t matter because Brando’s a lousy hero, going towards that Acid Western turf; he wants to get his horse back because it’s the key to him finally repaying Campos for everything his father did for Brando and he acts like a badass—he starts the movie confessing to a priest about all the men he’s killed—but it turns out, it’s all talk. Brando’s best scene—maybe only good scene—is when he talks about his inability to accomplish his mission. There’s some halfway good scenes in other parts, but it’s hard because Saxon’s effective without being good and Brando’s good without being effective.

A lot of the problem is the script—by James Bridges and Roland Kibbee–which tries not to be exciting. But then you’ve got Furie trying to bring tension to everything; he and editor Ted J. Kent also don’t know how to time the action for tension. It might just be Brando’s too laidback. The whole thing’s hard to take seriously. Again, if Furie knew why he was using the techniques he was using… it’d be better. The film’s sound design is way too bland. And the inserts in the third act—cutting from medium shots to close-ups—never match. Brando and sidekick Anjanette Comer are in one position in the two shot, in obviously different ones in their close-ups.

Comer’s a whole other thing, playing Saxon’s “wife.” She’s in a pound of brown face, she’s not very good, and her backstory is a mess.

Half okay, half bad music from Frank Skinner.

Good photography from Russell Metty.

The first act has its cringe moments, the second act’s plodding, but the movie does seem like it’s at least going to do something interesting. Then the third act is rushed and the finish itself pointlessly cops out. Unless Brando refused to shoot an actual ending.

But, yeah, could be worse. Probably couldn’t be any better though.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Sidney J. Furie; screenplay by James Bridges and Roland Kibbee, based on the novel by Robert MacLeod; director of photography, Russell Metty; edited by Ted J. Kent; music by Frank Skinner; produced by Allan Miller; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Marlon Brando (Mateo), John Saxon (Chuy), Anjanette Comer (Trini), Miriam Colon (Ana), Rafael Campos (Paco), Emilio Fernández (Lazaro), Alex Montoya (Squint Eye), and Frank Silvera (Ramos).


Elite Squad (2007, José Padilha)

Elite Squad is about how hard it is to be a fascist stormtrooper in Rio de Janeiro, because not only do you have to deal with militarized criminals, corrupt cops, smooth-talking (and sexy) liberals, you also might have a wife who doesn’t like you being a fascist stormtrooper or some dead kid’s mom come ask you to help find his body because you left it, but the worst thing is how you yourself know it’s wrong to be a fascist stormtrooper and you can’t make the shakes go away.

The only way to make them go away is to fully commit and wouldn’t that development be the greatest tragedy, to watch narrator and “Elite Squad” captain Wagner Moura—it’s not called Elite Squad, it’s BOPE (for Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais), it’s like if SWAT were officially supposed to be a hit squad—anyway, wouldn’t it just be so sad to see Moura have to give in and be a BOPE officer forever. Because he wants out, but he couldn’t leave until they take out one last drug dealer (Fábio Lago), even if it costs him his marriage to Maria Ribeiro. Once he gets Lago, Ribeiro will take him back. We don’t know Ribeiro will take him back because she leaves his ass after he sticks his finger in her face and screams at her about being the boss of the house. But, in his narration, Moura seems sure. Because in his narration, Moura sounds like a sociopath, which actually sets him apart from the rest of the BOPE officers, who have maybe one scene with any personality and the rest of the time are just action figures.

Action figures without personality is better than the regular cops, who are either entirely corrupt or just plain psychopaths. You have to be more restrained to be a BOPE, so they can only take the sociopaths.

The movie’s actually the story of best friends, roomies, and rookie cops André Ramiro and Caio Junqueira, who are finding out just how corrupt things are with their fellow brothers in blue. Squad’s at its best when Junqueira’s got his whole odyssey through the cops’ corruption racket, how they’ve split up the city into protection zones and squabble with one another to extort the most money. It’s fascinating and beautifully paced. It helps Junqueira’s guide is dirty cop Milhem Cortaz; Cortaz is great during this part of the film. He falls apart later, when he, Junqueira, and Ramiro end up at the boot camp. The boot camp sequence, with Moura’s omnipresent narration, is… troubling. It’s where the film gradually forgets dehumanized fascist stormtroopers are bad and instead, with the narrator guiding the way, decides maybe they’re really cool. Especially when they’re breaking in the newbies.

Because it turns out the only solution to Rio’s crime problem is these BOPE soldiers. The criminals are militarized and every single one of the ones Moura tortures turns out to be lying to the cops, so you know, it’s the poors in the slums too. The corrupt cops you occasionally get to kill when they’re taking payoffs. The smooth-talking, sexy liberals are a big problem—Ramiro’s got an exhausting subplot about law school and liberal rich girl (Fernanda Machado) who runs an NGO in the slums to help the youths at least stay in school-they’re going to try to seduce you away from the real problem.

And what’s the real problem? Elite Squad isn’t one of those “asks tough questions” pro-fascist stormtrooper movies. It’s not one of those “doesn’t ask tough questions” ones either. It just kind of shrugs. It’s not even committed enough to do the “cops as a gang” thing.

Now, as it turns out, some of that lack of commitment to anything might have to do with co-writer Bráulio Mantovani and director Padilha deciding in post to make the movie about Moura and having him record the omnipresent narration and make some other cuts. I mean, it probably helps a lot—without Moura narrating Junqueira and Ramiro’s stories those portions of the film would be rather rough. Ramiro’s boring (though Machado’s good). Junqueira’s just an unpleasant prick. So even though Moura’s actual omnipresent, past-tense narration is really dumb—it occasionally drops in statements like, “So and so later told me,” and it’s like, sure, Jan—it’s a lot better than the thought of Ramiro and Junqueira unaccompanied.

Good direction from Padilha, great editing from Daniel Rezende, great photography from Lula Carvalho. If something goes wrong with either, it’s because of something Padilha’s doing, not Rezende’s cuts or Carvalho’s lights.

Elite Squad is kind of like a grim and gritty G.I. Joe toy commercial going off the rails when it realizes how messed up to be a fascist stormtrooper, but then somehow goes even more off the rails when it decides the coolness of being a fascist stormtrooper is better, actually.

The best performances are Cortaz, Lago, Machado, and Ribeiro (which is something because Ribeiro’s got a crap part). Ramiro’s less unlikable than Junqueira, but Junqueira’s probably better. Moura’s… fine. His narration performance isn’t great or good or even as fine as his onscreen one. If it were… might be better, might not matter. Padilha and Mantovani seemed to think it made the film better. No reason to assume they were wrong.

Just doesn’t make it good. Elite Squad’s a capable production team in search of a better project… with a better cast.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by José Padilha; screenplay by Bráulio Mantovani, Padilha, and Rodrigo Pimentel, based on the book by André Batista, Pimentel, and Luiz Eduardo Soares; director of photography, Lula Carvalho; edited by Daniel Rezende; music by Pedro Bromfman; production designer, Tulé Peak; costume designer, Cláudia Kopke; produced by Padilha and Marcos Prado; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Wagner Moura (Capitão Nascimento), André Ramiro (Aspirante Matias), Caio Junqueira (Neto), Milhem Cortaz (Capitão Fábio), Fernanda Machado (Maria), Maria Ribeiro (Rosane), and Fábio Lago (‘Baiano’).


Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018, J.A. Bayona)

After a strong dinosaur suspense opening, with some futuristic submersible entering the closed Jurassic World bay to get something off the seafloor, Fallen Kingdom shockingly quickly becomes a remake of the first Jurassic Park sequel, Lost World. Like, so much you wish there were more in it so David Koepp got a credit through forced arbitration or whatever.

This time, there’s a calamity on the island—a volcano—and Bryce Dallas Howard, now a dinosaur rights activist, wants to get them off the island somehow. Snap of the fingers and in comes Rafe Spall (in for Arliss Howard) who works for rich guy and ret-conned in co-father of dinosaur cloning, James Cromwell. As a British guy. Fallen Kingdom will have some amazing casting finds and choices, but obviously American James Cromwell as a British guy. I wonder if they tried for Sean Connery. Fallen Kingdom is a big Spielberg homage, fifteen or so minutes in to finish. Like, a perfect one; Bayona gets how to do the scenes, gets how to direct the action. And Fallen Kingdom has—unbelievably—a great score from Michael Giacchino. Never thought I’d type those words in that order.

It’s a total rip of John Williams, but a brilliant one. Giacchino doesn’t just lift from Jurassic Park, he lifts from everywhere in Williams’s career, which is very good for Chris Pratt, who’s definitely doing an Indiana Jones audition. The first act reuniting with Howard and Pratt is unsteady; they really needed to have the “relationships based on tense experiences never work” conversation onscreen but don’t. Instead they just turn it all into a joke, which ends up working. Most of the jokes don’t land, but the actors seem a lot more comfortable pretending to be ex-dinosaur amusement park employees than current dinosaur amusement park employees. Fallen Kingdom’s light on establishing the ground situation. It doesn’t ask a lot of questions, it doesn’t encourage many, but it keeps a good pace. The film’s lean and nimble when it needs to be—not easy considering editor Bernat Vilaplana has a concerning lack of timing—which helps it get through the major story shift.

See, Fallen Kingdom’s not a remake of Lost World, it’s not a volcano disaster movie with dinosaurs (though it seems like one for about twelve minutes; may haps a nod to Son of Kong or, dare I say it, People That Time Forgot), it’s actually a haunted mansion movie. The thing haunting the mansion just happens to be a genetically modified raptor. Because the real lead of Fallen Kingdom, at least as far as narrative arcs go (or the implication of them), is Isabella Sermon. She’s Cromwell’s treasured granddaughter and she’s suspicious of Spall because Spall’s a creep caricature. He’s occasionally effective, but not after the first half for sure. Once he teams up with an ill-advised Toby Jones, he just gets more obnoxious. Great comeuppance though, with Bayona digging deep into franchise favorites.

But, yeah, it’s all about Sermon solving the mystery of the basement or whatever. Only the film never does any work to establish it; there’s nothing about Sermon being scared of raptors for some reason or being scared of the gargoyles on the giant scary mad scientist mansion where she lives; there’s not even a sequence establishing she scales the exterior walls of the mansion because she’s a badass kid. She’s in the first scene at the mansion–Kingdom doesn’t bring back the kids from the previous movie, like the original Park did because clearly the filmmakers realized no one liked those kids and instead made a great kid character with Sermon.

Bayona directs that section of the film beautifully. It’s terrifying. Excellent photography from Oscar Faura. And all the rest of it, with the dinosaurs getting to civilization finally–seventeen years after III didn’t deliver it—works out. Bayona and Giacchino make you think you’re watching Spielberg figure out how to do a B-movie dinosaur movie for pure fun.

Acting-wise, Pratt and Howard average out to be fine. He’s usually a little better, she’s usually a little worse—once Sermon teams up with Pratt and Howard, Howard takes a back burner to Pratt being the lovable alpha protector of Sermon, so it’s probably not all Howard’s fault. Spall’s low eh. Justice Smith and Daniella Pineda are both fun as the science nerd sidekicks. Ted Levine’s cruel great white hunter guy is a disappointment; he’s not just no Pete Postlethwaite, he’s not even Peter Stormare.

Good small turn from Geraldine Chaplin, good cameo (though nonsensical) from Jeff Goldblum; pretty much no one else makes an impression. The script’s mercilessly efficient and actually rather impressive in how much it gets done in two hours. And Bayona’s good, Giacchino’s good, the photography’s good, the editing’s not. It’s a surprise once Fallen Kingdom starts getting good, but then it’s not a surprise when it stays good. The film inspires confidence in itself and, potentially, the franchise.

It’s a series of Spielberg action homages strung together with some effective screaming dinosaur mauling victims, with a great John Williams score. What could be better.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by J.A. Bayona; written by Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow, based on characters created by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Oscar Faura; edited by Bernat Vilaplana; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Andy Nicholson; costume designer, Sammy Sheldon; produced by Frank Marshall, Patrick Crowley, and Belén Atienza; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bryce Dallas Howard (Claire Dearing), Chris Pratt (Owen Grady), Isabella Sermon (Maisie Lockwood), Rafe Spall (Eli Mills), Justice Smith (Franklin Webb), Daniella Pineda (Zia Rodriguez), Ted Levine (Ken Wheatley), Toby Jones (Mr. Eversoll), Geraldine Chaplin (Iris), James Cromwell (Benjamin Lockwood), and Jeff Goldblum (Ian Malcolm).


Jurassic World (2015, Colin Trevorrow)

If I had to describe a feature of Jurassic World as saddest… I might find myself hard-pressed. There aren’t a lot of possibilities—worst, dumbest, cheapest, silliest, probably some others… but saddest is something different. When the film takes a pointless detour through the original visitor center from Jurassic Park, aged some twenty years and run over with quite a bit of vine growth and so on and I definitely don’t think anyone involved with World has read Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, which discusses how long it will take for nature to reclaim in layperson’s terms. Though production designer Ed Verreaux’s never impresses. Not when it’s the nostalgia trip, not when it’s the amusement park, not when it’s the control center. Of course, Verreaux can’t help with director Trevorrow’s chronic impatience or wanting composition, just like editor Kevin Stitt can’t do anything about Trevorrow’s utter lack of coverage.

Jurassic World is only occasionally bad-looking—Chris Pratt riding on the motorcycle with the velociraptors has some truly embarrassing composites (John Schwartzman’s photography is middling at best)—but it’s never good looking. Not once. Not even when it’s desperately using the original John Williams music. Though the music’s much better when composer Michael Giacchino is just using the Williams because when Giacchino does it himself? There’s better music on almost every television show. It’s terrible music.

But still not the saddest thing about Jurassic World. The saddest thing about Jurassic World is annoying kids Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson aren’t ever going to die. They’re visiting aunt Bryce Dallas Howard, who runs the park and works for owner Irrfan Khan, who only partially owns it and an evil shadow corporation really runs it. A slumming Vincent D'Onofrio (I really hope he bought something nice with the paycheck on this one) is the bad company guy. I got off track. Back to Simpkins and Robinson’s narrative immortality.

They’re visiting the park to give their parents (Judy Greer and Andy Buckley) time to work on their divorce, which younger Simpkins has figured out is incoming thanks to Googling their attorneys’ names while Robinson is just concentrating on getting off to college in a couple years. They both give terrible performances, but it’s not their fault. The writing on their fraternal relationship is truly godawful. Trevorrow’s “direction” of the actors is also godawful, but not worse than the script. The script is really rough on Simpkins and Robinson. But it’s still sad they’re never going to die. They spend… a mildly significant portion of the film running from the dinosaurs and they’re never in any danger whatsoever and it’s obvious.

Actually, Jurassic World is always obvious about its victims. Save Katie McGrath’s torturous death sequence, played for laughs because McGrath’s character is supposed to be so terrible (Jurassic World has some issues with how it characterizes its female characters… like a lot of them for a 2015 movie)–that sequence is a vapid, albeit brutal choice from Trevorrow. He makes very few directorial gestures with the film, anything suggesting a pulse stands out a bit. He and editor Stitt take an hour until they can gin up any actual suspense in the film. The third act’s actually pretty solid with it, but the resolution’s so dumb it erases whatever ground the film’s made back up.

The end involves Trevorrow’s attempts at directing Chris Pratt like he’s Harrison Ford or something. It seems more like Ben Affleck playing Harrison Ford only not unlikable like Affleck would play it. Pratt’s not exactly good, but he’s effective and he’s affable. He’s enthusiastic and it successfully impacts his scenes. If Howard’s ever enthusiastic, either the script or Trevorrow’s direction ruins it. Howard’s never fails but she never succeeds. She’d be a good metaphor for Jurassic World if it weren’t so poorly executed, if Simpkins and Robinson weren’t so pointless, if it didn’t always look just a little too cheap. Trevorrow’s got no idea how to show the money onscreen. As a dinosaur movie, it’s completely indifferent to the dinosaurs, which is a bummer.

Lauren Lapkus and Jake Johnson initially seem like they’re going to be good as the control room flunkies who watch everything go to crap when the genetically modified I-Rex gets loose and starts eating dinosaurs and guests, but their arc sputters, then ends badly. Trevorrow mocks Johnson, while extolling Pratt. It’s very weird how manly Pratt’s supposed to be in the film. They should’ve named him Super-Chad.

Though he’s basically got an early nineties Steven Seagal part, which sounds like an amazing movie.

The special effects are fine. Rarely are the dinosaurs around long enough to admire any sort of creative artistry and there are often bad composite lighting messing things up so why bother looking too much.

Omar Sy’s in it so no one can say there’s not a Black guy. Simpkins and Robinson are the most annoying little White boys too. They’re so bland. BD Wong—the only cast member from the original film returning—is awesome. Shame he’s only in it for four minutes max.

Jurassic World’s much worse than I expected. Though I didn’t dislike Chris Pratt in it, which seems like a whole lot.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Colin Trevorrow; screenplay by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Trevorrow, and Derek Connolly, based on a story by Jaffa and Silver and characters created by Michael Crichton; director of photography, John Schwartzman; edited by Kevin Stitt; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Ed Verreaux; costume designers, April Ferry and Daniel Orlandi; produced by Frank Marshall and Patrick Crowley; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Ty Simpkins (Gray), Nick Robinson (Zach), Bryce Dallas Howard (Claire), Chris Pratt (Owen), Vincent D’Onofrio (Hoskins), Irrfan Khan (Masrani), BD Wong (Dr. Henry Wu), Omar Sy (Barry), Lauren Lapkus (Vivian), Jake Johnson (Lowery), Katie McGrath (Zara), Andy Buckley (Scott), and Judy Greer (Karen).


To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, Robert Mulligan)

During To Kill a Mockingbird’s exceptional opening titles, I wondered how it was possible the film was going to look so amazing yet had no reputation for being some exquisitely, precisely directed piece of cinema. Then up came Stephen Frankfurt’s credit for title design, which kind of dulled my excitement for a moment. Could Mulligan maintain what Frankfurt set up—along with composer Elmer Bernstein, who’s score is essential to the film–with these opening titles?

Short answer, yes. The first hour of Mockingbird is, while obviously not as fastidiously executed as the opening titles (which examine the various contents of a child’s mementos box), is exquisite. Mulligan, Bernstein, cinematographer Russell Harlan–Mockingbird is a gorgeous black and white—screenwriter Horton Foote, and actors Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, and John Megna create this bewitching window into a memory of childhood. An uncredited Kim Stanley narrates from—presumably—the present; she’s grown-up Badham, who’s just about to start school (South in the early thirties, guessing first grade versus kinder); Alford’s her older brother, Megna’s the new kid on the block, an out-of-town visitor. Her dad’s a widower, respected lawyer Gregory Peck. They’re not rich but they’re respected. They’ve got a Black housekeeper (Estelle Evans), who Peck treats with as much respect as if she were his white housekeeper slash babysitter. It’s a progressive block. They’re not country white trash. The first hour has a little about race, but a lot of it is about how tomboy Badham learns about class differences and societal norms.

The first hour is this lovely, mostly lyrical look into Badham and Alford’s childhood. Running through the distant background is Peck’s subplot about defending a Black man accused of rape. The kids aren’t allowed in the courthouse (by Dad Peck); Foote and Mulligan gradually introduce the subplot. And the idea of Peck as the lead. Until the second hour, it’s from Badham and Alford’s perspective. A little bit too much from Alford’s given Badham’s literally the narrator but thanks to Mulligan’s gentle, deliberate direction of the kids’ perceptions of events, Harlan’s great photography (which is even better at night), and Bernstein’s music, it gets a pass; narrative-wise. The film’s got enough going for it, you can give it slack for not sticking close enough to Badham.

In fact, the film’s got so much going for it, you want to give it that slack even after it becomes obvious it’s never looping around to Badham again. Even with further narration breaks, once the film starts straying from Badham’s perspective, it never comes back. It goes to Alford, then Peck—albeit for the continuous second act courtroom sequence—then back to Alford in an almost peculiar way (the film avoids Badham during the court scenes), then to Peck for the finale because he’s got top-billing. Though not in a significant way. Even though he’s top-billed, even though he’s got the lengthy court scene mostly to himself, Peck always feels like a special guest star. “And Gregory Peck as Atticus (Dad).”

Whenever Peck comes into the film in the first act, the kids bring him in somehow. Either they call him into the scene or go find him or call him into the scene… but it starts with the kids. Foote and Mulligan keep that perspective in the second act, just before the trial starts, when the kids go and stand by Peck as he’s standing off against a white trash lynch mob. It’s a good segue to the courtroom and Peck taking over the narrative. It makes sense; his subplot’s been building and the trial is occupying the children’s minds too.

So during the trial—Brock Peters plays the accused, not actually appearing onscreen until his day in court—the kids (Badham, Alford, and Megna) watch from the second floor balcony, where a kindly Black minister (Bill Walker) they know gets room for them. The trial seems to take less than a day. 1930s South. Every once in a while as Peck tries to convince his fellow white people Black people are people too and you can’t frame them for rape just because you’re an asshole, the film cuts up to Alford watching his dad crusade, presumably inspiring him. Megna gets some reaction shots too, which makes it seem like as long as Southern Whites aren’t white trash they won’t be racist but… I don’t know, aspirational 1962 film. The film’s got a few moments of bald-faced white saviorism but since it’s 1962, it’s not like the Black characters appear enough to be shown in specific suffering. It’s a weird way to get a pass but… it works.

But no shots of Badham. Not even after the end of the trial. Not right away. And they’re way overdue. We don’t get any idea how Badham experiences the trial, other than she’s tired when it’s over. It’s all about Alford. And not from Badham’s perspective.

The third act epilogue, which resolves everything and ends in a nice narration bow from Stanley and very deliberate, effective direction from Mulligan, somehow centers on Badham but, again, not her experience of it. Mulligan and Foote commit to one way of doing a big scene, maybe the only way they could do it in 1962, and it’s a well-executed scene with some great filmmaking… but it doesn’t do anything for Badham or give her much to do. Then it tries to wrap it up with Peck and it’s… awkward. Not even because of the narration.

Lots of great performances but the kids are where it’s at. Badham and Alford are phenomenal. Megna’s really good too but he’s more functional. The film takes its time with Badham and Alford’s character development, showcasing it, which just makes downgrading them in the second half even worse. Evans is good (there’s a film in her perspective of the events), Peters is excellent, Frank Overton’s good as the police chief. James Anderson’s terrifying though a little thinly written, which is weird given how the film goes out of its way to empathize with “redeemably racist” white men, as the victim’s father. Collin Wilcox Paxton is okay as the victim. If the film ended strong for Badham, she’d get a pass… but she’s another example of how Foote and Mulligan try to avoid giving the female characters too much focus.

To Kill a Mockingbird is an excellent film. But there are some asterisks after that positive adjective.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Mulligan; screenplay by Horton Foote, based on the novel by Harper Lee; director of photography, Russell Harlan; edited by Aaron Stell; music by Elmer Bernstein; produced by Alan J. Pakula; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Mary Badham (Scout), Phillip Alford (Jem), Gregory Peck (Atticus), Estelle Evans (Calpurnia), John Megna (Dill Harris), Brock Peters (Tom Robinson), Frank Overton (Sheriff Heck Tate), Rosemary Murphy (Maudie Atkinson), Collin Wilcox Paxton (Mayella Violet Ewell), James Anderson (Bob Ewell), Ruth White (Mrs. Dubose), Robert Duvall (Arthur Radley), Richard Hale (Nathan Radley), Steve Condit (Walter Cunningham Jr.), Crahan Denton (Walter Cunningham Sr.), Bill Walker (Reverend Sykes), and Paul Fix (Judge Taylor); narrated by Mary Stanley.


Hobbs & Shaw (2019, David Leitch)

Hobbs & Shaw is a tad too aware of how little it needs to try to succeed. Like it knows it doesn't just have Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, it's got him giving a downright good performance in an energy drink version of a James Bond movie. Sure, Jason Statham–Shaw to Johnson’s Hobbs—doesn’t really work out, but Vanessa Kirby makes up for him as his fugitive secret agent sister. Rounding out the leads is Idris Elba as the villain. He’s basically a Bond henchman but well-acted (one wonders how Elba kept a straight face during some of the exposition); he’s got an unseen boss with an electronically disguised voice so they can wait for the sequel to cast him. So Elba’s stuff when he’s talking to the unseen Big Bad is silly but Elba still keeps it going. If Statham were better and the script weren’t insipid, the movie might have more of a chance. And if the second act weren’t such a slog.

But the first act and the third are really solid, mostly because of Kirby in the third and Johnson in the first. Despite being a Fast and Furious spin-off, the movie’s got no attachment to its parent franchise other than Johnson, Statham, Johnson having a kid (Eliana Sua), and Statham having a criminal Helen Mirren for a mum. Mirren’s got a fine cameo, but given how much she’s holding Statham up for it, it should’ve been a sign he was going to run out of energy. But he actually never gets it. Kirby’s got it, Johnson’s got it, Elba’s got it. But not Statham. He never does anything wrong in a scene, but he never tries either. The scenes where he and Johnson banter back and forth, Johnson’s carrying Statham and the scene. Same goes for Kirby. Maybe they cut out Statham’s subplot because the movie’s already two hours and seventeen minutes and it’s incredibly bloated in the second act.

Or maybe Statham just isn’t enthusiastic enough for the movie. Hobbs & Shaw, in general, confuses bombast for enthusiasm. Statham has neither. Johnson’s got enough to share, so it works out.

There are also the silly cameos, which are funnier than they ought to be because their inclusion is so desperate. Because the biggest one is for Johnson, who doesn’t need the help; unless the Helen Mirren scene with Statham is supposed to count but it doesn’t. For a movie with endless exposition, somehow Hobbs & Shaw is always missing the right exposition. Instead it’s nonsense about cyborg supermen, human evolution, and programmable viruses. It’s cartoon blather but the film knows it doesn’t have to do better because Johnson’s charming and is about to have a decent action sequence—albeit one with lousy digital background composites, a problem plaguing the film and its action—so it doesn’t try. It doesn’t make Statham do better, it doesn’t worry about the messy second act.

It’s not wrong about it’s ability to land the proverbial plane despite the turbulence. The film finds a way to get sillier but also more human, becoming cartoonish in a good way, and the third act is good. The sequel set up is obnoxious but as long as Kirby’s back, it’d be worth it.

Also perfectly good in the supporting cast are Eddie Marsan and Cliff Curtis. Marsan’s a little rocky at the start, but he finds the film’s rhythm. Curtis is so sturdy you wish he’d had a bigger part.

Hobbs & Shaw is stupid, fun, and funny. The soundtrack is loud and omnipresent—including a full song montage presumably for the artist placement—and never seems like the track complimenting the action is as important as the track getting used. The film’s also big on production placement, McLaren underwrites Statham’s garage of sports cars while Elba’s cybernetically-linked (it’s a cartoon, just go with it) Triumph motorcycles gets a lot of screen time.

It ought to be better, it’s not as good as it should be, but it makes clear it could’ve been worse. Johnson, Elba, and especially Kirby make it work.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by David Leitch; screenplay by Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce, based on a story by Morgan; director of photography, Jonathan Sela; edited by Christopher Rouse; music by Tyler Bates; production designer, David Scheunemann; produced by Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Hiram Garcia, and Morgan; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Dwayne Johnson (Hobbs), Jason Statham (Shaw), Idris Elba (Brixton), Vanessa Kirby (Hattie), Helen Mirren (Queenie), Eddie Marsan (Professor Andreiko), Eliana Sua (Sam), Cliff Curtis (Jonah), and Lori Pelenise Tuisano (Sefina).


Biloxi Blues (1988, Mike Nichols)

Biloxi Blues has some rather peculiar, rather significant third act problems. Like, it doesn’t have a third act. Did they cut a bunch to keep the PG rating or something? Because at a certain point the rising action stalls out and the film goes into montage summary overdrive. After giving lead Matthew Broderick and ostensible love interest Penelope Ann Miller an amazing “meet cute” first dance, full of chemistry and energy, Miller never gets another line. She’s in a few montage shots, as Broderick romances her, but she’s not even present in the film, just visible. It’s a very weird development, especially considering how phenomenally director Nichols shoots that dance scene.

And Nichols has a lot of very thoughtful direction in the film, which is another reason it feels like it doesn’t have a third act. None of the direction is thoughtful. In fact, it’s tonally regressive. The end of the film—the last real scene—turns everything into a smile, with writer Neil Simon and Nichols running as far away from every question or difficult thought they raised as fast as they can. It just doesn’t make any sense. Unless Simon didn’t have an ending to the movie and for some reason everyone—Nichols, the producer, the studio—just shrugged and said, “Yeah, Matthew Broderick can sell it with narration, he’s Ferris Bueller, it’ll be fine.”

Is Broderick’s narration read good? Yeah… it’s not bad. It’s not great, but it’s not bad. It’s also not his fault because Simon doesn’t give him anything to say really. Whatever lessons Broderick learned from his time in boot camp in 1945 Biloxi don’t come through in the narration. Or Broderick’s onscreen performance. It also turns out he’s supposed to be narrating it from the present, which seems weird with the accompanying shots. There’s got to be a story behind Blues’s production. There’s just got to be.

Because no one has a full character arc in the entire film. Not even Christopher Walken, who’s about one great scene away from a fantastic performance. He never gets his great scene, never unconditionally. It’s usually a combination of script and Broderick; Broderick, not in performance or in role as written, never gets to honestly react to Walken. Walken hounds Broderick for much of the film, because Broderick’s a New York smart-ass and, well, he’s also Jewish. Walken’s not going to take a cheap shot about the Jewish thing, but it’s there. Anytime Walken and Broderick have some kind of showdown where you want to see Broderick’s reaction—or, hell, Walken’s—the action goes to the rest of the platoon.

The rest of the platoon is alpha Matt Mulhern, wannabe alpha Markus Flanagan, average guy Casey Siemaszko, popular but good guy Michael Dolan, and super-nerd (and fellow Jewish guy) Corey Parker. All of the performances are good. It’s exceptional Parker’s able to get away with such an exaggerated stereotype, especially since there’s not a lot of consistency with the character in the script. He starts the film constantly farting and having to take a crap. Apparently it stops being a problem after he starts eating the army food. He’s also supposedly having all sorts of run-ins with Walken; we see some of them, but never the fallout. It’s just like with Broderick… Simon’s not interested in the characters developing from their experiences in Blues.

But Nichols directs for it. The way he positions the actors—Broderick, Parker, Mulhern, Flanagan, Siemaszko, Dolan—Nichols has got a distinct focus. Only then the script goes somewhere else and Nichols lets the film lose that focus. As a result, it always feels like something’s missing. Especially with Walken; especially after the “third act” reveals on Walken. Biloxi Blues should given Walken a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and doesn’t.

Mulhern’s really good. Dolan’s really good. Flanagan and Siemaszko are sort of flat good; the script doesn’t really give them enough. In Siemaszko’s case, Simon forgets about him too.

Great cameo from Park Overall. Good photography from Bill Butler, good music from Georges Delerue, great production design from Paul Sylbert. The forties soundtrack selections aren’t great and tend to be during the ill-advised “for laughs” sections, but they also make the film seem artificial and vaguely insincere, which is definitely not what it ought to be doing.

Biloxi Blues should be really good. It’s got the pieces to be really good. Instead, it’s decent, but a misfire.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mike Nichols; screenplay by Neil Simon, based on his play; director of photography, Bill Butler; edited by Sam O’Steen; music by Georges Delerue; production designer, Paul Sylbert; produced by Ray Stark; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Matthew Broderick (Eugene Morris Jerome), Christopher Walken (Sgt. Toomey), Matt Mulhern (Joseph Wykowski), Corey Parker (Arnold B. Epstein), Markus Flanagan (Roy Selridge), Casey Siemaszko (Don Carney), Michael Dolan (James J. Hennesey), Penelope Ann Miller (Daisy), and Park Overall (Rowena).


The Watcher (2000, Joe Charbanic)

I do not regret watching The Watcher, which features Keanu Reeves as a serial killer who sees the world like a shitty late nineties video camera. It might not even be a video camera. The shots might just be through a shitty video viewfinder. There’s a lot of… competency on display in the film, but it’s never from director Charbanic. Charbanic’s hilariously incompetent. Well, sort of hilariously. Sometimes the bad goes on too long and gets tiring. The therapy sessions haunted ex-FBI agent James Spader has with Marisa Tomei are always tedious; the writing (from David Elliot and Clay Ayers) is godawful, but Tomei also looks like someone’s pointing a pistol at her dog offscreen to keep her on set. Given how Charbanic doesn’t do establishing shots, there’s sometimes no evidence Spader and Tomei are on set together. Spader can handle it. Tomei cannot.

Because until the last act, when Reeves kidnaps Tomei and Spader, it’s Spader’s movie. It’s about this guy who has moved to Chicago from L.A., on full disability after he ran into a burning house to save his lover (Yvonne Niami). Only then we find out through flashbacks Spader left Miami tied up to go chase Reeves. His lasting damage from the rescue attempt doesn’t always allow him to remember the fire. Tragic.

For more reasons than one. Niami seems awkwardly filmed. Maybe it’s because she’s one of the producers’ wives. The shlock producer. The film has three. Two seem legit, the third—Nile Niami—did a bunch of low budget action crap. The Watcher feels like low budget action crap, but filmed on location. Because even though there’s the interesting behind the scenes story about how Reeves was buds with director Charbanic from when Reeves toured with his crappy band instead of doing Speed 2 and verbally agreed to do this shitty script and then some assistant forged Reeves’s name on an actual contract and Reeves was trapped—even though there’s that story, whatever the deal with the Chicago location shooting is far more compelling. Because they go all out shooting in Chicago. It looks terrible, because Charbanic sucks and Matthew Chapman’s cinematography looks like a syndicated TV cop show and Richard Nord’s editing is atrocious, but whoever coordinated and managed all that location stuff—great job. The CG explosions look like crap, but the real ones look awesome… well, look awesomely executed. They don’t look awesome because the direction’s bad. Though the big explosion shot is one of the better, more approaching competence moments.

They’ve got a gazillion cop cars, they’ve got helicopters flying into the city from over Lake Michigan–the movie goes all out as a Chicago travelogue. At first it seems like it’s some kind of promotional video to shoot in Chicago, then it seems like it’s some crappy action movie just shot in Chicago—like a Chicago investor or something—but apparently it’s something else entirely. Kind of interesting. Far more interesting than the movie. And the Reeves casting intrigue. Because Reeves is just bad. He’s really bad at playing the serial killer. The script’s dumb, Charbanic’s a suck director, but Reeves is still just bad.

Spader… works it. Sometimes you can just pass the time watching Spader figure out how he’s going to essay this crap role. It’s like watching the performance occur to him. It’s not a great performance by any means—the script’s crap, characterization’s crap, part’s crap—but it’s interesting to watch Spader. Less Tomei. Chris Ellis is really good as Spader’s Chicago PD sidekick. Ellis doesn’t have a single acceptably written line but somehow he makes it work. He’s very enthusiastic. Like somehow he’d convinced himself The Watcher was going to be the next Matrix. It has Keanu Reeves in a leather jacket all the time after all.

Marco Beltrami’s score isn’t good—Nord’s cutting for music, Beltrami or the light metal soundtrack selections is terrible—but Beltrami works it too. He’s got some good technique, but there’s no way the final product is going to come across.

The Watcher’s atrocious. You shouldn’t watch it.

Though, if you’re interested in the Chicago area and seeing an expansively but poorly shot film showcasing it… you probably can’t do better than The Watcher? But also don’t watch it. It’s terrible.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Charbanic; screenplay by David Elliot and Clay Ayers, based on a story by Darcy Meyers and Elliot; director of photography, Michael Chapman; edited by Richard Nord; music by Marco Beltrami; production designers, Maria Caso and Brian Eatwell; produced by Christopher Eberts, Elliott Lewitt, Nile Niami, and Jeff Rice; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring James Spader (Joel), Keanu Reeves (David), Marisa Tomei (Polly), Chris Ellis (Hollis), and Ernie Hudson (Mike).


Land of the Dead (2005, George A. Romero), the director’s cut

While Land of the Dead is almost always an unfortunate misfire, it’s also never an unmitigated disaster. It’s full of missed opportunities, but they’re usually missed because director Romero just can’t crack the scene. And when he doesn’t crack a set piece, he often goes in the entirely different direction; maybe it’s about the budget, which is way too small, maybe it’s not. But it seems like the budget. After the successful opening set piece, there’s no reason to think Romero isn’t going to be able to execute at least the same quality again. And he’s never able to do it, but he also never really tries to do it. Romero front loads the movie; it deflates just when it should be doing the opposite. The characters gradually lose personality and importance. Because it’s time for the adequate but bland zombie action.

The film takes place in the future… the zombies have won, people all grouped in the big cities, the rich people live well, the poor people do not. Romero is shooting Toronto for Pittsburgh with a cinematographer (Miroslaw Baszak) who lights it to look as Canadian as possible. Land lacks any visual personality; the mix of Romero’s composition, Baszak’s flat lighting, Michael Doherty’s fine but bland editing, and Arvinder Grewal’s production design looks less like a post (zombie) apocalyptic vision and more like a pitch reel for one. Same goes for the actors, save Dennis Hopper, who’s just plain terrible. Simon Baker, Asia Argento, John Leguizamo, Robert Joy; at best their performances feel like stand-ins for better ones once the project gets the green light. At worst, it’s a charmless lead like Simon Baker, who is more than capable of being charming, Romero just doesn’t seem to realize it. Not in his direction or his script, which gives his actors really bad life stories purely for expository purposes. There’s not just no character development in Land, Romero doesn’t take the time to even establish the characters.

And it’d be fine if the film could have retained the first set piece energy. So Baker, Leguizamo, and Joy all work for Hopper. They leave the city to raid neighboring towns for supplies. Apparently there’s an almost endless amount of neighboring towns to raid; all you have to do is shoot fireworks and the zombies all look up and everything’s jim-dandy—the zombies don’t attack, they watch fireworks. It also allows Romero to set a lot of action at night, which was apparently less expensive and does nothing to help with that lack of personality thing. Only Baker and Joy discover there’s one zombie—Eugene Clark, in the film’s best performance—who doesn’t look up at the fireworks.

The movie ends up being about Clark leading a bunch of zombies to attack the city, where the rich people live in a ritzy skyscraper and Romero only has the money to establish it through a promotional video playing on a TV–Land of the Dead has both too little budget and too much. The tricks and devices Romero uses to cover for not having more money lack inventiveness; there’s a ton of bad CGI composites. Like, a static matte painting would’ve been much better bad. But you do bad CGI composites because they’re cheap. And it shows. And it hurts the movie.

Anyway, while Clark’s leading the slow-moving attack—see, he’s learned how to use objects and can teach other zombies how to use objects so it’s going to be a different kind of zombie attack (only, not really as it turns out but the attack’s immaterial)—Leguizamo has gone rogue and Baker has to track him down, bringing pals Joy and Argento.

Of the three, Argento’s probably best. She’s not good overall—the writing doesn’t allow for it—but she’s got some rather strong moments. She takes the job more seriously than anyone else. Though who knows what’s going through Hopper’s head as he woodenly delivers lines; who knows, maybe Romero did cast him to be a personality-free rich jackass with a goatee. Hopper’s reaction shots to zombies eating flesh look like someone told him to stand still for his picture to be taken. Romero would’ve done better to give Leguizamo that part. To do something to mix it up.

But there’s no mixing it up. Because outside a couple Romero-Dead nods and sufficiently revolting zombie feasting (though Baszak’s lighting makes it look… not fake, but not real), Land of the Dead has less of a pulse than its zombies.

It’s a shame.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by George A. Romero; director of photography, Miroslaw Baszak; edited by Michael Doherty; music by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek; production designer, Arvinder Grewal; produced by Mark Canton, Bernie Goldmann, and Peter Grunwald; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Simon Baker (Riley Denbo), Asia Argento (Slack), Robert Joy (Charlie), John Leguizamo (Cholo DeMora), Dennis Hopper (Kaufman), Joanne Boland (Pretty Boy), Alan Van Sprang (Brubaker), Phil Fondacaro (Chihuahua), Sasha Roiz (Manolete), Krista Bridges (Motown), Pedro Miguel Arce (Pillsbury), and Eugene Clark (Big Daddy).


The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle (2000, Des McAnuff)

As a musical, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle might have worked. When there’s the big Pottsylvanian national anthem scene, director McAnuff finally seems comfortable. He needs a stage; Rocky and Bullwinkle is a road movie. There aren’t any stages. The occasional set piece hints at potential for the format–CGI animated moose and squirrel opposite life action–but McAnuff never knows how to direct them. And there’s something off about the CGI.

Rocky and Bullwinkle’s “real world” is drab and generic. But not drab and generic in the right way to match the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” animation style, which the film opens with. The story has “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” forgotten in reruns, but then have to be brought over to the real world to help the FBI. Specifically, FBI agent Piper Perabo, who’s supposed to be the perky, adorable female lead.

She’s terrible. McAnuff doesn’t direct his actors at all, so it’s not like she got any help, but she’s all wrong. Her performance, whatever direction McAnuff gives, all of it; she can’t act well off the CGI moose and squirrel. Sometimes they get close, like Rocky’s flying sequence, but it’s never for long.

And since she’s the one with Rocky and Bullwinkle most of the time, it gets to be a problem. At least she’s better than cameoing Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell. They manage to be the worst of the cameos, save John Goodman. Goodman can’t even pretend in his bit.

If any part of Rocky and Bullwinkle worked–be it Perabo, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Robert De Niro, Rene Russo, and Jason Alexander as the live action idiot spies, the endless cameos–the film would be immensely better. It would be a failed ambition. But it’s not ambitious in any way. McAnuff’s direction is catatonic, Kenneth Lonergan’s script isn’t any better–the occasional laughs are all thanks to Rocky and Bullwinkle voice performers June Forey and Keith Scott. The actors look deranged or miserable. The film sets itself up to fail, betting a lot on the successful introduction of the cartoon characters into reality. When it doesn’t come off, the film stalls.

So it’s stalled for acts two and three. It stalls real early.

Thomas E. Ackerman’s photography is flat and muted. While reality is supposed to be, visually, reality, Lonergan’s script is frequently absurdist. He tries for “Rocky and Bullwinkle” type sight gags and puns for the regular residents of reality. It’d work as a musical.

Everything would work if it were a musical. Maybe even Jason Alexander, who’s lifeless and miserable. Rene Russo tries. She almost has a good scene. But there are no hidden gems in Rocky and Bullwinkle. It’s bad.

Moose and squirrel deserve better.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Des McAnuff; screenplay by Kenneth Lonergan, based on characters created by Jay Ward; director of photography, Thomas E. Ackerman; edited by Dennis Virkler; music by Mark Mothersbaugh; production designer, Gavin Bocquet; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring June Foray (Rocky), Keith Scott (Bullwinkle), Piper Perabo (Karen Sympathy), Robert De Niro (Fearless Leader), Jason Alexander (Boris), Rene Russo (Natasha), Randy Quaid (Cappy von Trapment), and Janeane Garofalo (Minnie Mogul).


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