Warner Bros.

Cool Hand Luke (1967, Stuart Rosenberg)

Maybe a third of the way into Cool Hand Luke, the film all of a sudden starts getting really good. It’s when Jo Van Fleet makes her appearance, which provides the film both its single best acting—Newman and Van Fleet are exquisite in the scene—and also director Rosenberg showing he’s actually got a handle on the film’s style. Luke’s got an excess of style—about half of the more ambitious shots work (though they always look great thanks to cinematographer Conrad Hall)—and it’s not clear to Van Fleet’s exit whether or not Rosenberg actually knows what he’s doing.

Unfortunately, even though it’s initially a big positive Rosenberg’s got ambitions, the lumpy second half (and especially the third act) show such a lack of ambition—outside the forced Jesus symbolism, which Rosenberg feigns big but feigns empty. Rosenberg goes on to press with the Jesus stuff without exactly having prepared for it, which also ends up being a problem for editor Sam O'Steen. O’Steen and Hall enable most of the great early filmmaking stuff, but once Rosenberg gives up on anything but religiously themed production design and what not… well, Hall can still make it look good, but O’Steen’s slicing at… soft-boiled eggs. It’s hit and miss.

It also doesn’t help Lalo Schifrin’s first half score seems entirely disconnected from his second half score. Luke’s from a very strange place in time, when you weren’t going to have leading man Paul Newman getting accused of glorying criminals but you also were going to acknowledge criminals were people too (as long as they’re White and it’s the late 1940s and there’s no such thing as prison rape or or beatings or even bullying). Rosenberg’s initial approach is to acknowledge the unspoken through the, let’s just say, mise-en-scène. But instead of actual engaging with that unspoken in the second half, when the film very directly says it wants to question the idea of humanity and empathy and brotherhood and whatever… it just cops out and becomes a disjointed Jesus parable with some amusing chase sequences throughout.

The stuff in the beginning, with Schrifin’s score turning the road gang vehicles driving Newman and his fellow prisoners to and from the prison camp into a nightmare scene… it doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t figure in. It’s just Rosenberg flexing. And he’s got some good flexes throughout; how could he not with this cast and crew. Newman, Hall, O’Steen, Schifrin, George Kennedy, Strother Martin, and the entire supporting cast. Rosenberg’s able to mix a lot of acting styles, like gravel-voiced straight shooter J.D. Cannon and mumblecore Harry Dean Stanton. The direction of the cast is impressive. It’s just the scenes aren’t great. Not after a while.

When Rosenberg’s got to figure out how to show Newman alienated and abandoned by masculinity and what not… Luke just shrugs. It does whatever it can to avoid Newman. It’s like a character study until it decides it doesn’t want to get too close to that character.

And instead there’s a bunch of Christian imagery. Only not assembled in any meaningful way, it’s just another gimmick for Rosenberg to utilize. He doesn’t seem to be malicious about it. He’s not covering for any perceived lack in the picture… which is kind of the problem. Rosenberg’s got some moves, a great crew, a fantastic cast, and a script in need. He gets about as far as you can without being able to fix the problem and then throws in some crosses to get to the finish line.

It’s a bummer.

Some great acting from Newman though. Just great. Like, Kennedy’s good and whatnot, but Newman’s big swings hit.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg; screenplay by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson, based on the novel by Pearce; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Sam O’Steen; music by Lalo Schifrin; costume designer, Howard Shoup; produced by Gordon Carroll; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Paul Newman (Lucas Jackson), George Kennedy (Dragline), Jo Van Fleet (Arletta Jackson), Strother Martin (The Captain), Morgan Woodward (Walking Boss), Luke Askew (Boss Paul), Robert Donner (Boss Shorty), Clifton James (Carr), John McLiam (Boss Keen), Andre Trottier (Boss Popler), Charles Tyner (Boss Higgins), J.D. Cannon (Society Red), Lou Antonio (Koko), Robert Drivas (Loudmouth Steve), Marc Cavell (Rabbitt), Richard Davalos (Blind Dick), Warren Finnerty (Tattoo), Dennis Hopper (Babalugats), Wayne Rogers (Gambler), Dean Stanton (Tramp), Ralph Waite (Alibi), Buck Kartalian (Dynamite), Joe Don Baker (Fixer), James Gammon (Sleepy), Anthony Zerbe (Dog Boy), and Joy Harmon (Lucille).


The Man with Two Brains (1983, Carl Reiner)

The Man with Two Brains does not age well. It’s a case study in not aging well, even more so because when the three writers—director Reiner, star Steve Martin, and George Gipe—can’t figure out how to do an ending so they just do an extended fat joke… well, it’s hard to continuing giving the film a pass. Not after a racial epithets joke, which the film doesn’t even realize is lazy.

Because it does recognize its easy jokes. There are a lot of easy, easy, easy jokes Brains wants to get away with and it usually is able to do it thanks to Martin or co-star Kathleen Turner, but the finale doesn’t use anyone well. In fact, it’s a call back to a completely different section of the film they probably don’t want to be recalling.

The movie’s got a really peculiar structure. The first act is about Martin falling for evil gold digger Turner (not knowing she’s an evil gold digger) and her refusing to consummate the relationship. So boss Peter Hobbs (who’s pleasantly sturdy and game for even the fail jokes) sends Martin off to Europe for a conference; a little continental seduction and so on.

In Europe, Martin meets mad scientist David Warner, who’s—oh, right. Martin’s the world’s premier brain surgeon. Anyway. He meets Warner, who’s a mad scientist who wants to transplant brains he’s been keeping alive thanks to hydroxychloroquine or something. Warner’s oddly disappointing in the film. I was expecting something from him and he never does anything. The film’s got problems with the supporting characters though; Warner’s butler, Paul Benedict, gets more personality than Warner in fewer scenes with less exposition. Reiner’s direction is… not great. He and Martin (and Gipe) are trying a lot of different things, some things are a lot less successful than others.

And even the big successes are often qualified. Like when Martin is prowling the streets to find a woman to murder so his soul mate—a disembodied brain voiced by Sissy Spacek—can find a new home. It’s all very complicated, with the brain stuff being Martin finally getting free of animate costars and getting to do his wild and crazy guy thing in the spotlight. It’s better when he does it opposite other cast, specifically Turner, who frequently can’t hold her femme fatale. Martin so funny she’s laughing. It’s brings Turner almost too much personality.

Back to that successful sequence—Martin lurking the streets of Vienna, looking for a woman to murder. All of a sudden the backlot shooting starts to work—Reiner and cinematographer Michael Chapman(!) shoot Two Brains like they’re trying to figure out how to not make it look like a sitcom but end up making it look more like one because of how they compensate. Like Joel Goldsmith’s ludicrously inappropriate synth score; it ups the zany so you don’t think too much about Martin’s premeditated murder scene and so on, but it’s also terrible. And doesn’t help the scene. Ever. In fact, it’s always actively hurting it.

Overall, Two Brains doesn’t have the pieces to succeed. The story’s not there. The plotting isn’t there. The pacing’s there. The direction’s not there. Martin and Turner do an excellent job doing absurd caricatures (at best, Martin does just mug occasionally), but it’s like no one’s curating the gags or even taking note of their successes. It’s got its ambitions just no idea when they realize.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Carl Reiner; written by Reiner, Steve Martin, and George Gipe; director of photography, Michael Chapman; edited by Bud Molin; music by Joel Goldsmith; production designer, Mark W. Mansbridge and Polly Platt; produced by William E. McEuen and David V. Picker; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Steve Martin (Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr), Kathleen Turner (Dolores Benedict), Sissy Spacek (Anne Uumellmahaye), David Warner (Dr. Alfred Necessiter), Peter Hobbs (Dr. Brandon), Randi Brooks (Fran), and Paul Benedict (Butler).


The Enforcer (1976, James Fargo)

The Enforcer is cheap in all the wrong ways, both in terms of budget and narrative, which probably ought to be clear in the first scene, when the movie opens on a butt shot of Jocelyn Jones in Daisy Dukes. She’s hitchhiking but it’s all a setup for the villain reveal—Jones is in an ostensible militant beatnik organization with a bunch of Vietnam vets (Enforcer’s politics are a whirlwind trip of anti-Vet, pro-Cop, anti-Government, anti-taxpayer, anti-equality, before you even get to the low-key racism and high-key sexism) and they’re about to ransom the city. The bad guys—led by a terrible DeVeren Bookwalter and a mediocre Michael Cavanaugh—ransom the city two times without anyone really taking much notice because the budget isn’t high enough for big set pieces. So instead it’s all smaller action stuff on location; The Enforcer has an A (enough) cast, an A crew (minus director Fargo), great San Francisco shooting locations, and at best B action sequences. Even when they’re on great locations, they’re never good enough.

Because Fargo, mostly. Fargo rarely directs a good scene and he often seems disinterested when the film actually gets reasonable as far as character development goes. Of course, Enforcer has multiple instances of the cop actors having to remind themselves to point their guns straight so no one’s particularly invested. During the action-packed (for Enforcer) showdown on Alcatraz, Clint Eastwood seems particularly bored. Or maybe I’m projecting. The Enforcer is ninety-six long minutes.

This Dirty Harry sequel features some more players from the original, Eastwood’s commanding officer, Harry Guardino (who’s absolutely disinterested in every scene but still has way more charm than he should given the material), and partner, John Mitchum. Mitchum is not good. Fargo’s direction of Mitchum is godawful, but Mitchum is… rough. Especially during the liquor store hold-up where Eastwood first encounters uppity minorities, in this case a rather terrible Rudy Ramos. Look fast for Joe Spano as Ramos’s (uncredited) accomplice.

Wish Joe Spano was in more of the movie.

Anyway, once Eastwood saves the day and costs the taxpayers a bunch of money, bureaucrat captain Bradford Dillman (in a particularly lousy performance in a particularly lousy role), busts him down to personnel where Eastwood meets Tyne Daly. She’s being promoted through affirmative action. She’s never had an arrest, never been on the street, so they’re going to make her an inspector. And once Eastwood’s on the terrorist case—though it actually turns out Bookwalter’s not about the beatnik peace stuff; he’s a common thief—anyway, once Eastwood’s on that case, Daly’s his new partner.

And here’s where we get to see Eastwood practice abuser tactics—being mean to Daly, then being nice to her, over and over. He’ll go on to do something similar with Black organizer Albert Popwell, who’s rather likable. Sadly, the best scenes in the movie—by far—are when Eastwood and Daly are palling around (in the apparent lead-up to a cut romance) or when he’s being a dick to Popwell. It’s kind of ironic it takes the minorities—Daly and Popwell—to get some effort out of Eastwood, which he can’t be bothered with when he’s in scenes with his fellow White man.

Though Eastwood’s delivery of one-liners is all right.

The film’s technically solid enough—Charles W. Short’s photography of the San Francisco locations is gorgeous, even if he doesn’t do anything to help Fargo with the action sequences (Fargo manages to bungle a chase across San Francisco rooftops)—so it seems like it might just skate through. Then the third act, which brings back in showstopping bad M.G. Kelly, crumples fast. The exciting Alcatraz finish is a snoozer.

Pretty good Jerry Fielding score and Daly’s good in a crap part.

Enforcer starts a why bother and ends a don’t.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by James Fargo; screenplay by Stirling Silliphant and Dean Riesner, based on a story by Gail Morgan Hickman and S.W. Schurr, and characters created by Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink; director of photography, Charles W. Short; edited by Ferris Webster and Joel Cox; music by Jerry Fielding; costume designer, Glenn Wright; produced by Robert Daley; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Clint Eastwood (Harry Callahan), Tyne Daly (Kate Moore), DeVeren Bookwalter (Bobby Maxwell), John Mitchum (DiGeorgio), Bradford Dillman (Capt. McKay), Harry Guardino (Lt. Bressler), Albert Popwell (Mustapha), Michael Cavanaugh (Lalo), Samantha Doane (Wanda), Jocelyn Jones (Miki), M.G. Kelly (Father John), Rudy Ramos (Mendez), and John Crawford as the Mayor.


Barry Lyndon (1975, Stanley Kubrick)

The first half of Barry Lyndon, very nicely delineated on screen with a title card and then an intermission, is a black comedy. The second half is a tragedy. The epilogue explicitly reconciles the two, but there’s also Michael Hordern’s narration, which does the most expository work of anything in the picture. For the most part, Barry Lyndon’s characters are inscrutable. There are occasional exceptions, usually driven from ambiguity by rage—often directed at the titular protagonist, played by Ryan O’Neal—like first nemesis Leonard Rossiter and final nemesis Leon Vitali. Rossiter and Vitali’s souls lay bare. Most everyone else’s do not. Least of all O’Neal’s. O’Neal and his protagonist, subject of the narration but not the film, are forever a mystery. The narration often will describe O’Neal’s actions and reactions, even their motivations, but sometimes not. For example, in the first half of the film, when O’Neal deserts and assumes the identity of an officer, we never know why O’Neal doesn’t put more work into his disguise. In the second half, and far more consequentially for everyone, it’s never clear if O’Neal knocking off the drinking and carousing once he marries rich widow Marisa Berenson is sincere and, regardless, what made him knock it off.

Part one of the film follows O’Neal from poverty in Ireland to military success—albeit enlisted—in the Seven Years War on the continent, then his escape from the military into professional gambling, which leads him to Berenson. The scene where O’Neal seduces Berenson is exquisite and singular, a sublime mix of various movie magics—Kubrick’s direction, the actors silent looks exchanged over a card game, John Alcott’s glorious, gorgeous lighting, Tony Lawson’s editing, the music—the film’s main theme is a Handel piece, which Kubrick trains the audience throughout the first half to recognize for what it accompanies dramatically and then is able to use it later to amplify sequences—not to mention Ken Adam’s production design, Milena Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderlund’s costumes. Every frame of Barry Lyndon is resplendent in one way or another, often in many ways. Kubrick doesn’t do a lot of camera movements, instead relying on zooms to reveal and hide various actions.

Part two of the film is O’Neal and Berenson’s marriage, complicated by his mother (Marie Kean) and her son (Dominic Savage then Leon Vitali), amongst others—not to mention O’Neal’s callousness and cruelty as he assumes control of Berenson’s riches. He’d seduced her while her first husband, aged Frank Middlemass, was still alive and, once his prize is secured, he becomes quite the dick. Again, it’s impossible to know whether O’Neal was always a dick—he’d picked out Berenson as a target, during his days with mentor Patrick Magee, a fellow Irishman pretending to be a Frenchman to card sharp around Europe. O’Neal’s his committed sidekick.

O’Neal and Berenson’s eventual child, David Morley, provides a kind of touchstone for everyone to connect around, even Vitali, who’s seen through O’Neal the whole time and hates him. But it also ends up being Morley who will finally break Vitali’s fragile place in this home he loathes, with his final outburst arguably setting everyone’s lives on a path of destruction. The narrator tells the audience when it’s all too late, some fifty minutes before the end of the film, announcing when it’s time to prepare for the descent, a luxury the characters are without.

The first part of the film is full of entertaining supporting cast members, a somewhat eclectic, somewhat mundane bunch O’Neal meets as his destiny—already rerouted in youth as his father died in a duel just after securing stable employment—moves towards its inevitable conclusion. There’s cousin Gay Hamilton, who teaches O’Neal his way around a woman—it’s unclear how young thirty-two year-old O’Neal is supposed to be playing, but it’s like… seventeen or something. And O’Neal’s frequently blank look is perfect. One of the mysteries is how much O’Neal is grokking things around around him. The Hamilton stuff, at least then O’Neal’s naivety isn’t in question. Hamilton isn’t seriously going to marry her cousin so she warms up to a British officer, aforementioned first nemesis Rossiter, who O’Neal has no problem confronting and making his first duel. The film opens with O’Neal’s father’s death in the duel, so it’s always hanging around. O’Neal is actually fearless while his betters pretend to be and he wields that situation for his own class improvement. Again, does he do it consciously or instinctively… it’s intentionally unclear.

Because while O’Neal is an interesting historical figure to track through these turbulent times, he’s not a sympathetic one. He’s more sympathetic than many and he frequently deserves at least a measure of empathy, he’s never Kubrick’s tragic hero. The tragic hero of the film, its actual subject but not protagonist (because it’s not possible for her to be one) is Berenson. There are tragedies abound in the second part of Lyndon and none of them don’t serve to further devastate Berenson, who weathers them all onscreen in silence, with Kubrick and Alcott’s camera and then Lawson’s cuts all scrutinizing her. O’Neal gives a fantastic performance in Barry Lyndon, but Berenson is the performance the film hinges on. She’s got to convey all the answers without addressing them—or having them addressed in the narration—while O’Neal gets to embrace the inscrutability because, well, he’s a man. And the men of Barry Lyndon place very little value on anything.

The film doesn’t engage much with the fatalism of dueling culture but it’s ever-present. It lurks in the background, waiting for an opportunity to lunge. Similarly, while the first half of Barry Lyndon is very much a war film, it never greatly engages with it; often it’ll happen out-of-shot, but heard, a technique Kubrick utilizes to great effect throughout the first half. Reaction shots from the listener without showing this line or that line being spoken. Eventually it scales up to be the gunfire, which Kubrick actually foreshadows without sound effects earlier in the film. It’s all very intricate, very precise, very delicate.

Everything needs to work for the third act, say the last fifty or so minutes, to deliberately walk its tightrope.

Most everyone O’Neal meets along his way are distinct and excellent—Arthur O'Sullivan’s highwayman only gets a couple scenes but is memorable, Godfrey Quigley’s kindly captain is the closest thing O’Neal, the film, and the audience have to a wholesome role model. Murray Melvin is excellent as Berenson’s personal reverend. Philip Stone’s good as the suffering estate accountant.

Vitali’s got the hardest part in the film and he pulls it off. He manages to be loathsome—he always saves some of his lashings out for Berenson, spitting venom at her once he’s got everyone’s attention—and hateful but never exactly villainous. He’s a very interesting mirror for O’Neal, though neither (apparently) acknowledges it.

Barry Lyndon, especially in the first half, is a history lesson (of sorts); it examines particular times and places, particular cultural norms and mores, without engaging with the larger scale historical events passing. The second half just focuses it in more, examining the participants of the unfolding drama, watching them struggle with their historical contexts… doomed by them, actually. But with a sense of humor about it.

It’s a singular motion picture, always grandiose but never unwieldy, with a superb script from Kubrick, every technical contribution an achievement, and perfect performances. There’s nothing else like it.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick; screenplay by Kubrick, based on a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray; director of photography, John Alcott; edited by Tony Lawson; production designer, Ken Adam; costume designers, Milena Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderlund; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ryan O’Neal (Barry Lyndon), Marisa Berenson (Lady Honoria Lyndon), Leon Vitali (Lord Bullingdon), Marie Kean (Mrs. Barry), David Morley (Bryan Patrick Lyndon), Murray Melvin (Rev. Samuel Runt), Philip Stone (Graham), Patrick Magee (The Chevalier du Balibari), Gay Hamilton (Nora Brady), Leonard Rossiter (Capt. John Quin), Godfrey Quigley (Capt. Grogan), Hardy Krüger (Capt. Potzdorf), Steven Berkoff (Lord Ludd), Diana Körner (Lischen), Frank Middlemass (Sir Charles Lyndon), Dominic Savage (Young Bullingdon), and Arthur O’Sullivan (Capt. Feeny); narrated by Michael Hordern.


Magnum Force (1973, Ted Post)

With forty minutes left in its way too long 124 minute runtime, Magnum Force starts getting real tiresome. The film’s already gone through multiple set pieces, with the Clint Eastwood ones pointless to the narrative but apparently what screenwriters Michael Cimino and John Milius think is character development, while the ones related to the a plot—a cop assassinating San Francisco’s top criminals—somehow even less interesting. After an okay first one, director Post runs out of composition ideas but still pads out the hits.

In the meantime there are the women throwing themselves at Eastwood, which is sort of amusing because he gets to mug charm a bit and Christine White showing sexual agency in a housewife in 1973 is kind of unintentionally progressive (ditto Eastwood’s “gay rights” moment, so long as they shoot well, less the film’s sexualizing women of color, Adele Yoshioka and Margaret Avery, in its “see, they can be objectified too” approach), and then the red herring suspect for the killer cop. All the red herring stuff does is make Eastwood look dumb because it’s obviously not the red herring.

Oh, and then there’s Hal Holbrook. So much Hal Holbrook. Holbrook’s Eastwood’s boss and a flag pin wearing straight edge dweeb who berates Eastwood in front of everyone and cracks jokes about him being a killer then flinches whenever Eastwood looks his way. Far more macho are the motorcycle cops, who end up being the de facto suspects because… well, Milius and Cimino aren’t really very adept at mystery plotting. Especially once the movie starts sharing all the information with the viewer and it’s just Eastwood paying catchup. The motorcycle cops are rookies David Soul, Tim Matheson, Kip Niven, and Robert Urich, and then Eastwood’s old buddy and weathered, drunken veteran Mitchell Ryan. Ryan’s also married to White; it’s obvious why she’s snuggling up to Clint versus Mitch Ryan.

Eastwood’s partner this time is Felton Perry, who’s around to be a positive Black character (i.e. only gets called the n-word by White criminals). Perry’s really likable and pretty good–Magnum Force does not have much in the way of good performances, so Perry’s a bit of a godsend. You at least aren’t sorry when he’s around, which can’t be said for, you know, Holbrook, Matheson, Ryan, or Soul. Soul’s probably the best of the bunch, performance-wise, but it’s such a thin character–with the primetime supporting cast and Post’s pedestrian direction (the car chases are dismal), Magnum Force often feels like the action for a bad TV cop show with some scenes from a poorly written Clint Eastwood vehicle thrown in. But never enough of the Eastwood vehicle; he doesn’t get an arc, unless you count hooking up with Yoshioka—and whatever Post thought lingering on what appears to be Eastwood’s character’s wedding photo (the last movie established he’s a widower) just before he gets slamming with Yoshioka… well, it doesn’t work. Even if it’s supposed to be weird. It’s not lingering enough to be weird. Because weird would be some personality and Magnum Force has zip to offer in that department. Even Lalo Schifrin’s scant score disappoints. And when he uses the original movie’s themes… it just reminds this one is such a downgrade.

Frank Stanley’s photography isn’t bad. The three times Post wants him to do things with focus, Stanley can do them. The rest of the time, it’s all well-lighted, just rather boring Panavision. You’d think the poor composition would be better than Post’s terrible direction of actors—who, to be fair, get lousy dialogue from Cimino and Milius—but the third act convinces, no, actually Post’s bad composition is a bigger problem.

Somehow a shootout on an aircraft carrier is boring. Bravo Ted Post. The bad guy frequently shoots six rounds at nothing, reloads, shoots six more rounds at nothing. It takes until the finish, but I guess being bewilderingly in its badness is better than being mundane in it.

The only other thing of note is a scene where Albert Popwell—returning from Dirty Harry but presumably not playing the same punk who didn’t feel lucky—brutally murders a woman. The movie just pauses and says, “Welp, we need some brutal violence against women in this movie, so let’s make it as garish as possible.”

Doesn’t help Popwell’s victim is one of the film’s only likable characters.

As for Eastwood… it’s not a good vehicle. While his material’s not good, it’s also not atrocious; it’s just he has to play stupid without ever actually acknowledging he’s playing stupid because he’s Clint Eastwood, which only makes it more obvious when he’s not smart enough on the pickup. But he’s kind of barely in it? Eastwood’s love life subplot is about as big his non-main plot cop stuff.

The script’s also got some spoofy laughs in it, like it’s a satire of the original Dirty Harry. But it can’t be because Post’s not good enough for it.

It’s an exhausting, unrewarding two hours and four minutes.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ted Post; screenplay by John Milius and Michael Cimino, based on a story by Milius and characters created by Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink; director of photography, Frank Stanley; edited by Ferris Webster; music by Lalo Schifrin; produced by Robert Daley; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Clint Eastwood (Harry Callahan), Felton Perry (Early Smith), and Hal Holbrook (Lt. Briggs), Mitchell Ryan (Charlie McCoy), Christine White (Carol McCoy), David Soul (Davis), Tim Matheson (Sweet), Kip Niven (Astrachan), Robert Urich (Grimes), Richard Devon (Ricca), Tony Giorgio (Palancio), and Adele Yoshioka (Sunny).


You Can’t Get Away with Murder (1939, Lewis Seiler)

The You in You Can’t Get Away With Murder refers to Billy Halop, nineteen year-old punk kid who doesn’t respect what sister Gale Page sacrifices for him and instead runs around with neighborhood tough Humphrey Bogart. They knock over gas stations, they play pool, it’s a good life… at least until things go wrong during a hold-up—with Bogart’s not billed victim using what looks like (but sadly can’t be) a Krav Maga disarm on him, forcing Bogart to use the gun he took off Halop instead of his regular piece. Only Halop got his gun from sister Page’s boyfriend’s apartment. Harvey Stephens is the boyfriend, some kind of reserve cop or security guard. It gets established by the car Stephens is driving in the first or second scene… I wasn’t paying attention. I thought he was a cabbie.

As Halop and Bogart get pinched for a different hold-up, the cops gossip about Stephens’s getting arrested for the murder Halop knows Bogart committed. End first act, let’s go second.

Bogart and Halop are in Sing Sing for five year sentences—the film, which looks like an A picture from time to time, usually thanks to Sol Polito’s gorgeous photography and Bogart’s phenomenally slimy performance, has a great introduction to Sing Sing with a tour boat introducing it. Things are fine enough, save Harold Huber trying to convince Bogart to dump Halop and make Huber his number one pal, which eventually becomes important but never to character development. There isn’t any character development in Murder. It’s important because after Stephens gets sent to the prison’s death house and Halop starts feeling pangs of guilt at not telling the truth, Huber’s able to poison an increasingly suspicious Bogart against his buddy.

It does help Bogart loses Halop to the prison library, where kindly, aged inmate librarian Henry Travers works toward rehabilitating the lad best he can without ever being able to say the word, “Jesus.” Having Travers get to lay in with religious indoctrination instead of just vague “you won’t be able to live with yourself if you don’t tell the truth” business probably wouldn’t improve Murder, but it might give Travers something to chew on in his performance. What he’s got is pretty thin; three screenwriters—Robert Buckner, Don Ryan, Kenneth Gamet—and they can’t come up with good monologues. I do wonder if one of them came up with the train car in the middle of the prison yard for the breakout standoff, or if it was a group effort.

Because once Page realizes Halop knows something, she tries to get him to save Murphy too, which Halop resents. Maybe if Murder went a different way—i.e. not into prison—it’d be able to get through with Halop, but he’s never good. Like… just… no. He’s never good. Sometimes when he’s doing his fidgeting stuff it seems like it could lead to something good—if he weren’t talking in bad Jimmy Cagney impressions—but he never breaks from the exaggerated deliveries. Bogart’s able to amp it up, quiet it down like none other. He’s awesome. No one else is even close. I mean, Huber and Travers are only good about thirty percent of the time, which isn’t a lot given their importance.

Page is fine. She’s got nothing to do but moon over Stephens, who’s eh (you can see why Halop doesn’t like him), and fret over Halop.

If the movie didn’t treat him like a racist caricature, Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson would win for actor you most like to see onscreen. But the movie cranks the racism from about a two (for 1939) to about a six, which is way too much. Wasting Anderson’s voice is bad enough.

And George E. Stone isn’t good as the main prison gossip, who’s always around to advance the plot. He’s ineffectual. Against Halop, which is incredible.

Even if Halop were good, even if Seiler didn’t get weird with almost all the close-ups—the medium shots are fine, the close-ups are intentionally but pointlessly askew—the script would still be blah. Even with Bogart being great… well, there are better movies to see Bogart doing the same thing in.

That Polito photography is fantastic though. Especially at the end.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Lewis Seiler; screenplay by Robert Buckner, Don Ryan, and Kenneth Gamet, based on a play by Lewis E. Lawes and Jonathan Finn; director of photography, Sol Polito; edited by James Gibbon; music by Heinz Roemheld; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Billy Halop (Johnnie Stone), Humphrey Bogart (Frank Wilson), Gale Page (Madge Stone), Harvey Stephens (Fred Burke), Henry Travers (Pop), Harold Huber (Scappa), Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson (Sam), and George E. Stone (Toad), Joe Sawyer (Red), Joe Downing (Smitty), and John Litel (Attorney Carey).


Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019, Michael Dougherty)

I wonder if, much like that one immortal monkey divining Borges’s dreams and half-dreams at dawn on August 14, 1934, one could assemble a list of all the action beats in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which are mostly from Aliens and Jurassic Park 1 and 2, and arrange them to figure out the story to this film. Once the film hits the second act, I think it’d be more—I’m forgetting the stuff with Vera Farmiga, which is more out of a Mission: Impossible or James Bond. I’m sure Borges’s immortal monkey could do it, but I guess there is something more to director Dougherty and Zach Shields’s script than just stringing together the action scenes, fitting in the right amount of product placement for the studio (turns out it’s a lot and then a lot times twelve), and making sure there enough possible toys. See, you don’t just get Godzilla merchandise from this one, there’s also the other monsters, plus the stupid giant-sized stealth bomber-thing the good guys fly around in because Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a desperately joyless adaptation of a crappy eighties Godzilla cartoon.

Complete with annoying teen Millie Bobby Brown running around. Brown’s not just a mechanical engineer and accomplice to premeditated omnicide, she also knows how to run a ballpark sound board, which is maybe her most impressive trait.

She’s daughter of mad scientist Vera Farmiga (hashtag feminism), who has betrayed Monarch—the good guys with the giant flying fortress who tell the governments of the world to eat it while they study giant monsters, called Titans because someone wanted a trademark and this Godzilla movie tries as much as it can to forget Japan exists so you know they’re not calling them kaiju—and teamed up with eco-terrorist Charles Dance to release all the giant monsters who will once again rule the Earth.

But Brown’s also daughter of Kyle Chandler, who left Farmiga and Brown because their other kid died in the first Godzilla—unseen and stepped on, confirming it did kill a bunch of civilians but whatever. Chandler lives a simple life with a nineties movies alpha male cottage on a lake where he studies wolves nearby. He doesn’t seem to have a problem with Farmiga raising Brown in isolation at the giant monster facilities around the world.

As bad as you think Dougherty and Shields can get with the script, they somehow manage to go even lower. And not just when they’re reusing quotable lines from Alien and The Abyss. It’s all the time. They’ve got nothing good going on here. Nothing.

Obviously things don’t go well with Farmiga’s plan to give the world over to the monsters because it turns out they used frog DNA in the… sadly, no. Nothing quite so good. They really do just hinge it all on Farmiga’s ability to deliver a mad scientist speech and she fails at it utterly. She’s terrible, Brown’s terrible, Chandler’s pretty bad (his part is written as a Die Hard part for Bruce Willis, which would be amusing if Chandler were acting it that way, but he’s not), Ken Watanabe is downright hacky, Sally Hawkins somehow manages not to know how embarrassed she should look during her thankless scenes but someone doesn’t, which just makes it more embarrassing. Not to mention the stunt cameos.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters, more than anything else, reminds of the first American attempt at a Godzilla, not because of plotting, but because of the film’s inability to tell an honest scene as well as the stunt casting. Zhang Ziyi gets… one hell of a thankless part, but she’s better than Hawkins for sure. Zhang’s as good as it gets in Monsters. Same goes for—shockingly because the part is so atrociously written—Bradley Whitford. He’s got the scientist slash medical doctor slash airplane pilot slash submarine pilot maybe part. It’s a really poorly written part, but Whitford manages not to be too bad. It’s the function of his part to make the film worse—kind of like how, in addition to being terrible, Thomas Middleditch literally has this recurring thing about making O’Shea Jackson Jr. seem either stupid or dickish. Jackson’s playing one of the soldiers, Middleditch is some useless company man (Monsters basically thinks Paul Reiser is the good guy in Aliens), Jackson’s Black, Middleditch’s White, Jackson’s likable, Middleditch’s a dipshit… it’s bad. And weird. Because Middleditch is apparently going to go on to become Chandler’s offscreen bro. They act like they’ve had a big bonding thing throughout, even though they never have any real scenes together because the script’s terrible and no one has any real scenes.

Unless you count the Joe Morton going and looking for someone scene. Joe Morton and David Straithairn somehow get through this one unscathed. And CCH Pounder. It’s very nice to see her in something… especially since she’s in the first scene so you could just turn it off after she’s done.

Also bad is Aisha Hinds. Not sure how much of it’s her fault but whatever her agent convinced her was going to happen because of this part… the agent was incorrect.

Terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible music from Bear McCreary. There’s not even a lot of it. It’s sparse. But ungodly awful when it comes in. The movie ought to give some kind of warning so you can steel yourself.

Umm, what else. The editing’s not good, but Dougherty’s direction is awful so it’s not like there’s much the editors—all three of them—could do. Lawrence Sher’s photography is similarly not noteworthy. Monsters’s “mise-en-scène” is broke—Dougherty doesn’t know how to direct a single scene in the movie, giant monster or not—so what’s Sher going to do to fix it. What’s anyone going to do.

There are a handful of other things—okay, maybe a dozen but then like five things (plus the dozen)—I’d really like to enumerate but I can’t. If I list these silly, silly things, it might encourage someone to watch Godzilla: King of the Monsters because it would seem like you couldn’t not have some kind of fun with the goofy things on the list. I don’t even want to tease them.

So instead I’ll just mention Doughterty’s “Brodie Bruce” type obsession with kaiju banging—Mothra and Godzilla are (apparently unrequited) soulmates but there’s a good chance Monsters is implying Ghidorah bangs Rodan. It comes up in a lousy attempt at a joke but then at the end the plot perturbs in just the right way for it to seem like a thing, even if it’s just the movie being cheap or expedient or whatever.

Once upon a time, Charles Dance wore a t-shirt with “Cheaper than Alan Rickman” on it, referring to his casting in a film. King of the Monsters—the entire production, the entire cast, the entire crew, everyone, everything, every frame—is wearing a “Cheaper than Alan Rickman” t-shirt.

It’s an astonishingly silly movie and it’s mortifying the filmmakers weren’t able to at least make a fun, astonishingly silly movie.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Dougherty; screenplay by Dougherty and Zach Shields, based on a story by Max Borenstein, Dougherty, and Shields; director of photography, Lawrence Sher; edited by Roger Barton, Bob Ducsay, and Richard Pearson; music by Bear McCreary; production designer, Scott Chambliss; costume designer, Louise Mingenbach; produced by Alex Garcia, Jon Jashni, Mary Parent, Brian Rogers, and Thomas Tull; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Millie Bobby Brown (Madison Russell), Vera Farmiga (Dr. Emma Russell), Kyle Chandler (Dr. Mark Russell), Ken Watanabe (Dr. Ishiro Serizawa), Charles Dance (Alan Jonah), Ziyi Zhang (Dr. Ilene Chen), Thomas Middleditch (Sam Coleman), Bradley Whitford (Dr. Rick Stanton), Sally Hawkins (Dr. Vivienne Graham), Aisha Hinds (Colonel Diane Foster), O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Chief Warrant Officer Barnes), Anthony Ramos (Staff Sergeant Martinez), Elizabeth Faith Ludlow (First Lieutenant Griffin), David Strathairn (Admiral William Stenz), CCH Pounder (Senator Williams), and Joe Morton (Dr. Houston Brooks).


Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020, Cathy Yan)

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a Margot Robbie vehicle, which is excellent, because Robbie’s great and the filmmaking, particularly on Robbie’s scenes, is outstanding. Retitling it the Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn would be the best move; the Birds of Prey are going to be a bonus, with all your favorite side characters teaming up with the potential for a sequel. Or at least a great “team” epilogue scene. But it’s all about Robbie. Robbie and, to a lesser extent, Ewan McGregor, who gets to play a fantastic villain here.

The film opens with an animated recap of Robbie’s Harley Quinn, which—in addition to being kind of cute and establishing the film’s cartoonish nature immediately—means the film doesn’t have to use any actual footage from Robbie’s previous outing, Suicide Squad, much less the cursed image of Jared Leto’s Joker. And it sets up Robbie’s narration; the narration continues after the opening, walking the audience through the plot, albeit with less exposition than in the opening titles sequence. Robbie’s contemporaneous narration usually establishes one of the supporting players’ backstories in relation to the crime story and gives Fantabulous a noir feel. Director Yan shoots it like one too, with the supporting cast all assuming the showy character actor parts of old without being character actors. Instead, Yan and Prey just waits for the character to resonate enough through presence, then expands them. The film’s got a phenomenal sense of timing, both for the character arcs and the action. The film’s a crime story about a tween pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco) who picks the wrong pocket and gets into a bunch of trouble. She gets some badass defenders who try to get her out of that trouble while also inspiring her to do something better with her life.

Though not exactly. Because Birds of Prey is very much about the bullshit women have to tolerate just to survive. Robbie’s been a cannibal madman’s concubine, if you want to go with comic book Joker, or… shudder… Jared Leto’s, if you want to go with movie Joker. Cop Rosie Perez has watched the men she works with take credit for her work for her entire career. Club singer turned crime boss driver Jurnee Smollett-Bell is on survival mode, though Smollett-Bell’s got the thinnest backstory; the film’s not fair to most of its supporting cast; Birds gives them enough to shine but only just. Like Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Mafia orphan turned “cross bow killer,” who assassinates the mobsters who killed her family so long ago. Winstead turns out being great, but it takes a while. She’s kind of comic relief cameoing leading up to it. It’s unfair because Smollett-Bell’s introduction, a performance of It’s a Man’s World, is one of the film’s best sequences.

Fantabulous has a lot of sequences on that list, however. The entire first act and most of the second are these expertly executed and edited adventures for Robbie, with frequent check-ins on villain McGregor and cop Perez. No one gets to do anything on their own except Robbie, McGregor, and Perez in Birds. Smollett-Bell never runs her own scene and, despite being a lone avenger, Winstead doesn’t get to either. Ditto Basco. It’s Robbie’s movie, with some great stuff for McGregor and Perez—once it’s clear McGregor and Perez are actually going to be able to give excellent performances, Birds of Prey’s gradually solidifying ground immediately turns concrete. McGregor, Yan, and screenwriter Christina Hodson get a truly great villain going here. The strangest part of Fantabulous, between McGregor’s New Wave gangster antics and Robbie doing crime and fighting thugs in the streets of Gotham, is how much it feels like a realization of the DC Batman movies going back to the beginning. Well, not Adam West, but Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. Birds of Prey’s got an actual good sense of humor about itself. It lets itself have fun and stretch to get to certain jokes. The truly terrifying moments in the film make up for it. It’s not just McGregor’s arrogant, privileged sadism, it’s him having even more dangerous sidekick Chris Messina. Because Messina knowingly eggs McGregor on. And they come into the movie cutting people’s faces off so there’s the imagination is rightly spinning.

Throw in Yan, cinematographer Matthew Libatique, production designer K.K. Barrett, and costumer designer Erin Benach’s “reality,” which sort of toughens up a cop comedy to the point where you can have Robbie and Winstead’s costumed antics and not have it break character. Yan and Libatique open with a great scene of urban destruction; it’s very realistically rendered. As the film introduces more and more outlandish elements, the visual tone stays constant. It’s not until the end Birds breaks out the obviously CGI landscapes, at which point Yan and company have earned the leeway. It’s a bit of a cartoon anyway, right?

The third act’s not great. Birds just doesn’t have an ending. Instead of just stopping, the film wraps everything it can together and hopes the cast can pull it off. The cast and some excellent fight choreography, which is geared for eventual laughs not ouches, succeed.

But the point of the movie isn’t the fight, the missing diamond, the girl power… it’s Robbie. And for the great showcase Fantabulous gives Robbie, it doesn’t give her enough. The part’s not there. Because to put the part there… you couldn’t have the entertaining action comedy. Or at least the jokes wouldn’t land in the same way. So it’s not a good ending but it’s a reluctant fine. It does work. It just doesn’t excel and when you’ve spent ninety minutes watching everything excel, something not excelling is a smash on the breaks.

So me being upset about Robbie not getting a better character study aside, Fantabulous is a thorough success. Yan, Robbie, and McGregor are the major standouts—though Yan’s crew all deserves major acknowledgement, especially the costume and production designs, the photography, the editing. I have no memory of Daniel Pemberton’s score, but the soundtrack’s great and, whatever Pemberton does works.

Oh. And the now infamous sandwich scene. It’s remarkable. The film often is.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Cathy Yan; screenplay by Christina Hodson, based on the DC Comics characters created by Robert Kanigher, Carmine Infantino, Paul Levitz, Joe Staton, Joey Cavalieri, Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Mitch Brian, Kelley Puckett, and Damion Scott; director of photography, Matthew Libatique; edited by Jay Cassidy; music by Daniel Pemberton; production designer, K.K. Barrett; costume designer, Erin Benach; produced by Sue Kroll, Margot Robbie, and Bryan Unkeless; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Margot Robbie (Harley Quinn), Ewan McGregor (Roman Sionis), Rosie Perez (Renee Montoya), Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Dinah Lance), Ella Jay Basco (Cassandra Cain), Chris Messina (Victor Zsasz), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Helena Bertinelli), Ali Wong (Ellen Yee), and Steven Williams (Captain Erickson).


Man and two teenage girls looking into the distance

The Witch: Subversion (2018, Park Hoon-jung)

About halfway through The Witch: Subversion, I wondered why they’d opened with a flashback showing presumably chid witch Kim Ha-na escaping from her government “doctors.” The prologue introduces evil scientist lady Jo Min-soo and her chief fixer Park Hee-soon, it introduces the secret castle-like laboratory fortress, it has a lot of blood. The opening titles are a series of photographs hinting at the ground situation with the lab. Medieval witches bred in captivity, some Nazis, twentieth century science, little kids. Then the lab covered in blood and Jo berating her staff for failing their mission. Director Park, both in his direction and his script, doesn’t provide a lot of details but does provide a lot of information the audience isn’t going to misinterpret.

Even if it doesn’t end up being directly related to the photographs in the opening titles… it’s clear Kim is a dangerous, dangerous, dangerous individual.

So then when the movie jumps ahead ten years and Kim Ha-na has grown into Kim Da-mi, who seems to have no memory of her time as a child science experiment, but then finds herself propelled into the spotlight after going a Korean variation of “American Idol,” it seems like Witch might have gotten more mileage out of the audience being just as unsure of Kim’s potential as Kim. Park takes his time introducing some aspects of the character too, spending the first act playing with the audience’s expectations. It works out—exceedingly well thanks to the third act—but it’s a twisty road with some sharp curves.

Because Kim is in a Clark Kent situation. Kindly farmer Choi Jung-woo and wife Oh Mi-hee have taken her in after finding her unconscious and bloody in the yard. The worst behavior Kim ever exhibits is taking Choi’s truck into town to get cattle feed so he doesn’t have to worry about it and can take care of Oh, who’s sick. Kim’s best friend is Go Min-si, daughter of the police chief; Go’s the typical (somewhat) rebellious cop’s daughter while Kim’s the good girl. It’s a great situation for surprises, only there can’t exactly be surprises since the audience is primed for them (thanks to the prologue). So after Kim wins the regions on national television–getting there because she’s able to do an amazing magic trick, which freaks out Choi and Oh—and creepy hot boy Choi Woo-sik starts stalking her, then fixer Park shows back up… it’s clear the situation’s volatility is leading to an inevitable explosion.

Only director Park drags it out. So long. Park drags it through most of the second act, willingly losing all the energy and drama he got out of introducing Choi (not to mention Kim winning “Idol” with an absurdly successful pop rendition of “Danny Boy”), and sort of battering the supporting cast of good guys with some malice… but then he brings it all together for the finale. The third act of Witch pays off in ways you didn’t even think the movie would ever need to pay off in. The film’s a smorgasbord thrown into a kitchen sink, mixing horror, teen drama, sci-fi, action, superhero—but then what Park brings out of all those mixed ingredients in the third act is something else entirely. It’s awesome plotting, awesome execution. When Park finally does get around to the action sequences, he spices them with so much horror gore….

It’s simultaneously gruesome and spellbinding. All of a sudden Kim Chang-ju’s perfectly solid editing becomes breathtaking cutting.

So good.

Great lead performance from Kim. It’s all on her. She can’t miss a beat as she’s under everyone’s close observation—the secret government telekinetic assassin child who escaped too well and is going to get her family and friends kill for the trouble without ever knowing why exactly. Park directs Kim’s scenes like a character study, one with tragically too much action.

Choi’s an awesome villain, sufficiently wise and cruel beyond his teenage years, though not entirely unsympathetic because he’s Jo’s science project and it’s clear his keepers tormented him. Fixer Park was version 1.0 and never lets the newer generation forget he’s got the Power even if they have more power.

There’s an unnecessarily tacked-on epilogue to set up a sequel, which makes some intriguing promises, but it’s not like the movie hasn’t already got the audience juiced for the idea of the next chapter.

Park does a fantastic job with The Witch, which hinges entirely upon Kim and she makes the impossible pedestrian. It’s a really couple hours.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Park Hoon-jung; directors of photography, Young-ho Kim and Teo Lee; edited by Kim Chang-ju; music by Mowg; produced by Park and Yeon Young-sik; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Kim Da-mi (Ja-yoon), Choi Woo-shik (male witch), Go Min-si (Myung-hee) Choi Jung-woo (Ja-yoon’s father), Oh Mi-hee (Ja-yoon’s mother), Jo Min-soo (Dr. Baek), Park Hee-soon (Mr. Choi), Da-eun (female witch), and Kim Ha-na (Young Ja-yoon).


Sphere (1998, Barry Levinson)

Sphere is not a justifiable use of eighty million dollars. I don’t think you could justify spending a dollar to rent a copy to watch, much less eighty million of them to make the thing.

The big problem is the script. Whatever Kurt Wimmer (ominously credited with “adaptation”), Stephen Hauser, and Paul Attanasio did to adapt the Michael Crichton source novel does not a successful script make. It’s got ludicrous character development and bad pacing, and is artificially bewildering and exceptionally crappy to women, specifically Sharon Stone. But there’s so much to fix, so much to compensate for, director Levinson just gives up on even trying. Script’s a big problem but Levinson’s inability to crack any aspect of the project is the biggest. It’s not incompetently directed. It’s incompetently written, incompetently produced, but Levinson’s direction isn’t actually incompetent. It’s just vapid.

Vapid is the word for Levinson’s direction. He’s not interested in executing the film successfully, just executing it. At 134 minutes, it’s a bit of a chore to watch but I imagine it was even more of a chore to make with so little investment whatsoever. Amusingly lead Dustin Hoffman has a bit—apparently ad-libbed—where he explains to Samuel L. Jackson, before the government submarines them to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean to meet space aliens, Hoffman bullshitted a report about how he, Jackson, Stone, and physics whiz kid Liev Schreiber should be the ones to first contact with any space aliens. He used the money to pay for the downpayment on his house, making one wonder what everyone involved with Sphere did with their paychecks before turning in their bullshit….

Okay, that one is a little unfair. Schreiber busts his ass to show-off in a bad part. There’s also these weird optics about competitiveness between Jackson and Schreiber and it’s inexplicable why Schreiber’s got it out for Jackson. Jackson doesn’t like Schreiber because he thinks he’s obnoxious, which is fine—though Schreiber gets intentionally less obnoxious in the second act and it backfires. Schreiber’s a lot better being annoying and doing exposition dumps than not being as annoying and giving them. Of course, the second act stuff isn’t his fault exactly because the film needs its eggheads—Jackson’s a mathematician, Schreiber’s physics, Hoffman’s a psychologist, Stone’s a biochemist-to do all sorts of things you’re not sure they’d know how to do… like setting explosives, repairing underwater habitats, on the fly code-cracking—Stone’s basically a medic, they all know how to get into their underwater suits and go for solo strolls. On and on. Sphere’s got a very limited cast—seven people in a habitat next to a giant spaceship, crash landed 300 years ago, but you’d need a support crew of a dozen to get everything done in the movie you need to get done considering they’re a bunch of narcissistic academics.

But back to the Schreiber vs. Jackson thing—it feels like there are some optics. Jackson’s the Black guy in what turns into a horror movie. He’s got a predicted part in the film.

See, once they go inside the spaceship they find all sorts of weird things, including a giant gold ball and they all become obsessed with it. Except Schreiber and Man in Black boss of the mission Peter Coyote. Oh, if only Peter Coyote were good in the movie. I really think a good performance in that part would at least keep Sphere somewhat buoyant.

Because Coyote, Jackson, and Schreiber have the film’s most important parts. Hoffman’s a terrible leading man. His part seems inflated and Stone’s decreased, which is concerning. Sphere feels very poorly assembled. Stu Linder’s cuts are fine, but the pace of the film, the focus of the narrative impulse? Not good. Whatever Levinson needed to crack with Sphere in terms of characters, plotting, scares, science fictions, musics, whatever… he doesn’t. He’s got no more idea what to do with Sphere at the end than he does at the beginning.

Except to crap on Stone whenever possible. See, she was once Hoffman’s patient and so they had an affair. But he forgot to mention he was married, so he was lying to her while treating her medically. When she felt bad after their breakup and took a bunch of pills, sounds like Hoffman had her sent to electro-shock. Like, he’s a criminal. He shouldn’t just lose his license, he should be charged with something. It’s messed up.

But it’s not the subplot—the subplot is Stone is a crazy woman and no one should trust her, something Coyote rails about, Jackson rails about, Hoffman has an arc about. A vague, vague, vague arc but he definitely goes from thinking he can trust Stone in the beginning to thinking she’s psychotic by the end. With Coyote and Jackson at multiple times counseling Hoffman not to trust Stone because she’s a crazy woman.

It’s really icky.

And even more unfortunate because Stone’s really not good.

She’s got a crap part—such a crap part, just guys violently gaslighting her scene after scene—the writing’s terrible, whatever… and there’s still just something Stone doesn’t bring. Jackson’s got his part down, problematic as some of his scenes get when they think he’s Brett after Ripley let him back into the ship; he’s still got it down. When something goes wrong with Jackson’s performance, it’s the script. Schreiber’s working. Coyote and Hoffman, to differing success, just aim low in every scene and always hit that effectiveness. The least effort possible. Hoffman’s just wrong for it. You wish he weren’t wrong for it because it’d be cool if he could do it, but he can’t do it. Not with how the film’s set up, not with the bad writing, not with Hoffman’s maximum level of effort for this project.

Queen Latifah gets fifth billing and is in what ends up being the film’s best looking visual sequence. Adam Greenberg’s photography is boring, but it’s not his fault. Levinson refuses to give Sphere a visual style, horror, wonder, drama—the second act showdowns between Stone and Hoffman, better written and directed, are Bergman-esque—but it’s not a cheap looking film (save the late nineties CGI) and so it occasionally looks quite good. Latifah’s effect scene’s the one where they spend the time. Shame it’s early on and the film never tries to top it.

Because Levinson’s not trying to ape Kubrick. Worse he doesn’t even seem to acknowledge he should. A bunch of failed homage would make Sphere at least a little fun, instead of frequently upsetting. It’s a drain to watch characters start dying off during the haunted house portion of the film and no one care about it. It’s actually impossible to have less empathy for another character than the characters in Sphere have for one another. Multiple times people get informed of someone dying and the reaction not even warranting a shrug. The biggest question the film raises is, “Is the writing right now bad or lazy and how could you tell the difference?”

Of course, if Sphere were an inevitable fail, it might be fun. But there’s no reason, with a better script, with better direction, with someone else in for Peter Coyote because Coyote’s not showy enough for the part, the film couldn’t be a success. But Levinson’s not the one to do it. It’s clearly the wrong kind of dumb idea for him to fix.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Barry Levinson; screenplay by Stephen Hauser and Paul Attanasio, based on an adaptation by Kurt Wimmer and the novel by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Adam Greenberg; edited by Stu Linder; music by Elliot Goldenthal; production designer, Norman Reynolds; costume designer, Gloria Gresham; produced by Levinson, Crichton, and Andrew Wald; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Dustin Hoffman (Norman), Sharon Stone (Beth), Samuel L. Jackson (Harry), Liev Schreiber (Ted), Queen Latifah (Fletcher), Marga Gómez (Edmunds), and Peter Coyote (Barnes).


This post is part of the Out To Sea Blogathon hosted by Debbie of Moon in Gemini.

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