Film

Notorious (1946, Alfred Hitchcock)

In the third act of Notorious, director Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht (who had some uncredited and quite exquisite help) figure out a way to get maximal drama out of a rather mundane situation. Well, mundane as far as the possibilities of American agents in Rio de Janeiro (with the permission of the government) trying to root out Nazi moneymen after the war. And as mundane as is possible when Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant are the American agents. When they’re glamourous and star-crossed lovers. Mundane for all those conditions.

Because a big action sequence wouldn’t be out of place in Notorious. It’s a spy thriller, with a naif (Bergman) as the main spy and a debonair Grant as her handler. Claude Rains is the villain, though he’s a somewhat benign one. Even when he’s most dangerous, Rains is always pitiful. He’s a mama’s boy—singular performance from Leopoldine Konstantin as the mom—and he used to know Bergman’s dad. During the War, when they were traitors; Bergman’s dad got busted (leading to Grant finding some leverage to get her to help), Rains ran away to Rio. Grant needs Bergman to help not just because her dad gives her cred with the Nazis… but because Rains had the hots for her. It’s not illegal inappropriate—she would’ve been late twenties, he would’ve been late forties—or even exceptionally (and definitely not for a movie). Bergman did not reciprocate.

It should be the perfect assignment, particularly for Bergman because—the agency has decided—she’s already lost her virtue so why not do for Uncle Sam. Grant’s boss, an outstanding Louis Calhern, sees Bergman as an asset and can’t figure out why Grant doesn’t do the same. Though Calhern also doesn’t want to ask. Meanwhile, it’s not the perfect assignment for Bergman or Grant because the two of them managed to fall in love even though Grant’s kind of a dick and Bergman’s got a serious drinking problem. But Notorious makes it all work. The writing, the acting, Hitchcock’s glorious, glamorous close-up heavy direction, plus the photography—Ted Tetzlaff—the music—Roy Webb—and especially Theron Warth’s editing. Warth’s cutting is what makes Notorious thrilling. Warth’s cutting, Hitchcock’s directing, Bergman’s acting.

Notorious runs just over a hundred minutes and at least the entire first act and a chunk of the second is all just a close examination of Bergman as she goes through this momentous life change. She’s gone from shamed public enemy to secret agent to potential secret agent power couple. Notorious doesn’t just pull off its plot—charming espionage thriller—it’s got the whole romance thing going too. Grant wants Bergman to say no the assignment, Bergman wants Grant to tell her she can’t do it, but he’s a dick about it because it’s his job and it’s duty before love and all whereas Bergman—who the film establishes magnificently in the first few scenes, thanks to Hecht’s writing and Bergman’s awesome deliver of the dialogue—just wants Grant to acknowledge her as a person and not some stereotype. Now, while Grant’s debonair and all and definitely Cary Grant levels of attractive, he’s also a socially awkward goof. Not a lot, but just a bit. Enough he’s bad with people in general, more ladies, and Bergman specifically.

With barely a handful of Grant moments, Notorious is a spotlight on Bergman for the first forty-five or so minutes. Once Bergman gets to Rains’s house and gets to meet everyone—all his Nazi pals, mom Konstantin, of course, and then butler Alexis Minotis (who’s peculiar in just the right way, though it seems entirely coincidental—like, Minotis will glance at the camera, which the film is able to get away with thanks to Hitchcock’s establishing it elsewhere—but anyway, after the film gets to the house it pretty much doesn’t leave and Hitchcock and Hecht adjust the narrative distance to Bergman and how the film tracks her narrative.

At this point, Notorious starts to feel a little different. Then a lot different. Then when Hitchcock synthesizes the styles in the third act, it feels like it’s been longer (partially because the film skips ahead quite a bit at least twice in the second act, which works well in maintaining tension). But there’s no rushing on the second act of the second act part of Notorious; Bergman gets a great arc. Rains gets a great arc. Grant gets to continue his arc, which has him mostly fretting in the backgrounds—often literally—as he becomes so frustrated with the situation and, eventually, himself. Bergman’s performance, particularly in the first act, is amazing. No question about it, the stuff she does it doesn’t seem like anyone else could ever do. Just spectacular, one of a kind stuff. Grant’s background stuff is a lot less superlative (it’s more like he just realized playing the whole part comedically just without any big jokes was the way to do it), but it’s one of Notorious’s many treasures.

It’s an outstanding film. Hitchcock’s direction is inventive, measured, ambitious, enthused. Outstanding script. Wonderful performances from Bergman and Grant. The film’s an obvious technical masterpiece but still has a buzz of Hollywood magic to it. Notorious is—quite obviously at this point in time—one of a kind. In the best ways.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; written by Ben Hecht; director of photography, Ted Tetzlaff; edited by Theron Warth; music by Roy Webb; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Cary Grant (Devlin), Ingrid Bergman (Alicia Huberman), Claude Rains (Alexander Sebastian), Leopoldine Konstantin (Mme. Sebastian), Louis Calhern (Paul Prescott), Alexis Minotis (Joseph), Reinhold Schünzel (Dr. Anderson), and Ivan Triesault (Eric Mathis).


Valley of the Gods (2019, Lech Majewski)

Valley of the Gods is a cautionary tale. If you’re going to make a combination of Citizen Kane—with either actual footage or a recreated shot—and then a bunch of vague Kubrick nods, including Keir Dullea (arguably in the film’s best performance) as a snippy butler and a HAL while doing a retelling of the Navajo creation myth set on the Navajo Nation Reservation near Monument Valley and the Valley of the Gods… I don’t know, make sure you’ve got enough money your cinematographers (director Majewski and Pawel Tybora are credited) are able to light the digital video well and maybe, even more importantly, hire CGI people who are good at their jobs. The third act of Gods should be an outrageous disaster but instead it’s a whimper of one, as each of the film’s four “plots” fails.

The driving force is the Navajo creation myth retelling, which has Steven Skyler—who is not good—getting drunk and sad because an unseen industrialist is going to mine uranium on the Reservation and pay off the tribe. So like any drunk man who is sad, he goes home to girlfriend Owee Rae and kind of tries to rape her but, you know, they’re dating and he’s drunk so what’s her problem.

So he goes off and forces himself on a rock.

Majewski—who also writes, co-produces, and co-production designs (I feel like this one is where he’s got real strength)—has a lot of interesting writing choices. They’re bad, yes, but they’re also exaggerated tropes. I forgot to mention Skyler’s got some kind of problem with Rae because she won’t bear him a son or something. It’s not an actual subplot because making it a subplot might require giving Rae some lines. She gets like two. But a nude singing scene because, you know, life’s pretty empty otherwise.

With Skyler’s story, Majewski’s writing more or less gets a pass because he’s trying to do the creation story. The film opens with the creation story in text, which is way too obvious but Majewski’s always way too obvious. If there’s something good he could make better by not explaining it, he spends six minutes explaining it. Like why is top-billed Josh Hartnett driving out into the Valley of the Gods, parking, getting a writing desk out of his SUV and sitting down to write in fountain pen on special paper—I’m not looking up the term—the point is Hartnett’s a luddite artisté writer without a cell phone who’s a dedicated… wait for it… ad writer in L.A. He hates the life, as one would imagine his coworkers hate their lives too when they have to fax him—it’s okay because he’s got a fax machine in his car—but at least he’s got wife Jaime Ray Newman. Except she leaves him because he’s not exciting and he’s overdramatic with his writing needs. She dumps him for a hang-gliding instructor. Maybe. I hope. It’s be something good so let’s pretend.

Newman’s terrible.

Hartnett holds it together okay for a bit but once he’s in John Malkovich’s CGI Citizen Kane castle, it’s all over. Simultaneously we meet Bérénice Marlohe, whose son has been taken away for some reason—I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the teensy-weensy visual detail explaining it; Majewski can’t stop with the narration so long as it’s about Hartnett being sad about being a White guy or everyone talking about Malkovich being the “richest man on the planet” (Majewski grew up speaking Polish… does that phrase sound less insipid in Polish?), but when it’s establishing Marlohe, he’s got no time. Doesn’t matter, she’s basically a single night sex partner for Malkovich, who brings in a different woman every night to pretend to be his dead wife. Still alive, but like, his dead wife.

Because Valley of the Gods is all about the healthy relationships between men and women. As long as that healthy relationship is women pampering men—seriously, the stuff with Newman having to coddle Hartnett’s ego is painful and seems way too based on reality.

Malkovich is fine. Like, he’s in a hood a bunch of it so they could use a double, but when he gets his big scene it’s fine. He can act through the bad. Especially in close-up, which he gets, unlike most everyone else. Hartnett gets the wrong close-ups—he does get a solid rant scene at one point; shame the dialogue’s crap. It’s at his psychiatrist’s. John Rhys-Davies plays the psychiatrist and he blathers nonsense at Hartnett to set up the plot (Hartnett’s supposed to do absurd things, hence the desk in the desert, ruining it being an interesting vision) and he does sound vaguely authoritative but I think it’s because Rhys-Davies is Freud-ing up the accent. But their appointment is sort of when all reality goes out the window. It’d be more believable if Rhy-Davies were just some guy Hartnett bothered into listening to his problems as opposed to a mental health professional who recommends his depressed patient risk his life multiple times.

There’s a lot you could do in Valley of the Gods and make it work by just not being nonsensical about it.

But Majewski doesn’t.

For a while it seems like absolutely gorgeous production design—presumably a lot of it mixing in CGI and doing it very well (before the finale does it very poorly)—exquisite editing (Eliot Ems and Norbert Rudzik), good photography from Majewski and Tybora (the Valley exteriors are appropriately gorgeous and foreboding), and the script not being too terrible (yet)—it seems like Valley might make it. Then Newman’s second scene ruins it and it’s just a slide down.

Marlohe’s bad but maybe it’s Majewski’s fault—he doesn’t direct the actors, which all of them except Malkovich and Dullea apparently need because the writing’s so wanting….

Take out all the talking, entirely rescore it, and fix the inept CGI and who knows. Pretty might be enough.

Though it does move pretty well for two hours, I guess.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Lech Majewski; directors of photography, Majewski and Pawel Tybora; edited by Eliot Ems and Norbert Rudzik; music by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek; production designers, Christopher R. DeMuri and Majewski; costume designers, Ewa Kochanska, Carolyn Leone, and Ewa Minge; produced by Majewski and Filip Jan Rymsza; released by Well Go USA Entertainment.

Starring Steven Skyler (Grey Horse), Josh Hartnett (John Ecas), Bérénice Marlohe (Karen Kitson), Keir Dullea (Ulim), John Malkovich (Wes Tauros), Joseph Runningfox (Third Eye), Jaime Ray Newman (Laura Ecas), and John Rhys-Davies (Dr. Hermann), and John A. Lorenz (Bird Face), and Owee Rae (Sweet Grass).


House of Hummingbird (2018, Kim Bora)

Eun-hee (Park Ji-hu) is an average Seoul eighth grader circa 1994, which would be fine if being average weren’t a one-way ticket to nowhere. Park’s the youngest of three children; while presumably eldest sister Park Soo-yeon has already screwed up and is going to a crappy school across the bridge, son Son Sang-yeon is doing great. Studies hard, works hard; sure, he regularly beats the crap out of Park, but it’s actually just one of the things making her average. At least Son doesn’t hit her in the face—Park’s best friend, Park Seo-yoon, gets hit in the face and has to hide it.

The only thing Park’s got going for her at the start of the film is boyfriend Jung Yoon-seo. Except working class Park isn’t supposed to have a boyfriend. She’s not supposed to karaoke either. She also smokes. Her classmates think she’s a troublemaker and her parents—well, mom Lee Seung-yeon is worried about it. Dad Jung In-gi has long since decided all the hopes and dreams are on Son. Though we find out in the first act, when mom’s drunken brother Hyung Young-seon shows up and establishes she had the smarts as a kid and Hyung screwed it up for both of them as it turned out.

This visit from Hyung is one of the inciting actions. It kicks off the sibling comparison subplot—theme, theme seems more appropriate—while Park goes through her routines until something else interesting happens. She gets a new Chinese teacher. Instead of a boring straight-edge guy, it’s cigarette smoking—out the stairwell window no less—Kim Sae-byuk. Thanks to some drama in Park’s friendship with Park Seo-yoon, she unexpectedly has the opportunity to bond with follow flounderer Kim. Of course, Kim’s at least ten years older—or more, she’s on an extension of an already extended break from university—and she’s had some time to think about how damaging reality can be on eighth grade girls.

Except reality also doesn’t let Kim intervene. There’s this frangible quality to Kim and Park’s relationship and their scenes are probably the film’s best in terms of character development. The limited character development is generally fine—Park’s like fourteen, right? It’s a character study in how it’s studying how her character develops.

Because it’s a big year for Park. Six major events. Seven if you could a first kiss. One of them is national news and presumably the point of the precise 1994 setting. No spoilers but… turns out House is going to have deus ex machinas to its deus ex machinas. Kim’s script stays fairly loose given how much it’s got to lead the narrative–House’s lyricism is in Kim’s direction and maybe what the script skips, not the script itself. The story—in an epical sense—is anticlimactic; thanks to Kim’s direction, the film instead gets to be passively climatic. Or at least significantly cumulative.

Park’s performance is good. Very strong performance. Not… singular. You keep waiting for Kim to throw something at her she obviously can’t handle. There’s something askew about the narrative distance, just a bit, and it ends up hurting more than helping. Because all it helps with is some narrative shortcuts—Kim maintains the same narrative distance throughout, even when it means dropping entire plot lines in addition to an indifference to the passage of time. They’re things you can cover with some nice direction and Kim indeed makes it up with nice direction. Kang Guk-hyun’s photography is good, Zoe Sua Cho’s editing is good.

Matija Strnisa’s music is fine. It never really sweeps when it needs to sweep. Sound is really important in the film only there’s no precision in the score… it always feels vaguely like stock music. Good stock music. But stock music.

Most of House of Hummingbird is really good. Until Kim gets to the third act and panics. It’s not one of those things where the deus ex machina is necessarily bad—or even the second one—but the work from the first to the second isn’t there. Kim employs this combination of a twist and a bait and switch; it doesn’t seem craven but it does seem cravenly pragmatic. The film’s pace slows down in the second act then speeds up so much in the third—when calling a scene a scene (versus, say, a snapshot) is a stretch—it feels like they needed another fifteen minutes.

Lots of House of Hummingbird is excellent and the way it showcases Park’s performance is at times just the right coming-of-age picture exquisite. But the finish is a mess of a mess of a mess of a mess.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kim Bora; director of photography, Kang Guk-hyun; edited by Zoe Sua Cho; music by Matija Strnisa; production designer, Kim Geun-a; costume designer, Yang Hee-hwa; produced by Zoe Sua Cho and Kim Bora; released by At9 Film.

Starring Park Ji-hu (Eun-hee), Kim Sae-byeok (Young-ji), Jeong In-gi (Eun-hee’s father), Lee Seung-yun (Eun-hee’s mother), Park Soo-yeon (Soo-hee), Son Sang-yeon (Dae-hoon), Park Seo-yoon (Ji-suk), Jung Yoon-seo (Ji-wan), Seol Hye-in (Yo-ri), and Hyung Young-seon (Eun-hee’s uncle).


Samurai Marathon (2019, Bernard Rose)

Samurai Marathon has some strange epilogue problems; all of a sudden the movie’s about marathons, when it turns out the marathon isn’t a particularly big deal in the story. It’s central to the story, but as a narrative tool. It provides the right stage for these characters. Though, with a title like Samurai Marathon, you’re thinking how important the marathon’s going to be.

It’s not.

Director (and co-screenwriter) Rose doesn’t rush through the marathon—no pun—but he keeps up a good clip. Especially after he establishes the shenanigans. At least two people in the marathon—high ranking samurai—are cheating, which is in addition to one of the runners being a spy, which is in addition to another of the runners being the Lord’s runaway daughter (Komatsu Nana). Satoh Takeru is the spy—raised from a child to be the Shogun’s spy in the Lord’s court, a life-long sleeper agent—Moriyama Mirai is the Lord’s favorite, who gets to marry Komatsu, who’s so thrilled with the prospect she runs away in the first place. Then there are nice guy runners Sometani Shôta and Joey Iwanaga, they’re just out to win and better their lives. Sometani might be able to elevate his position, which would help with the family, and Iwanaga needs a promotion to impress a girl.

It’s never soapy because Rose keeps Marathon grounded when it’s time for the dramatics. The first act also has a lot of Philip Glass music over fading shots, it’s very much a Philip Glass scored movie; he’s good at a lot of it, even some of the action, but if the main theme isn’t a nod to Liz Phair’s cover of Chopsticks… then it’s just Glass doing Chopsticks and not doing anything with it.

So. Could use a better theme.

There’s a cute subplot about old retired samurai Takenaka Naoto who bonds with former colleague’s son Wakabayashi Ruka. Rose seems very aware things are only going to look nice living in the 1850s for so long so he rushes through a bunch, which is particularly noticeable with Komatsu, whose female empowerment arc works because Komatsu’s appealing and pretty good and Rose’s direction is good, not because it’s a real arc. It’s less substantive than, say, that Takenaka and Wakabayashi arc, which is very much background and Komatsu is very much foreground.

Similarly, Satoh’s arc is a tad too pragmatic.

Not to mention the whole thing with Danny Huston, playing the U.S. Navy Admiral who shows up in Japan trying to start trade, which sets off cultural panic. Part of that panic is regional lord Hasegawa Hiroki deciding his men are too weak in the face of Colt revolvers so they need to do a thirty-six mile marathon. But the movie’s not about them running thirty-six miles in kimonos with a very rigid running stance, it’s about Satoh sounding the alarm on his spy channel without realizing Hasegawa just wants some pageantry not to revolt against the Shogun. So these samurai have to fight an invading force, turning it in a war movie. There’s a little bit of Western in it too, the way Rose establishes the characters; just not really any sports movie.

Until the end.

When it’s forced in and is absolutely bewildering.

But Samurai Marathon’s pretty good. Strong performances without any particular standouts, gorgeous photography from Ishizaka Takuro (love the primary color use), Glass-appropriate editing from Kamitsuna Mako, and decent direction from Rose. Solid sword fights.

I’m sure every fourteenth shot is an homage to one of Rose’s favorite Japanese movies, but adequately wraps them in a compelling story.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Bernard Rose; screenplay by Rose, Saitô Hiroshi, and Yamagishi Kikumi, based on a novel by Dobashi Akihiro; director of photography, Ishizaka Takuro; edited by Kamitsuna Mako; music by Philip Glass; production designer, Sasaki Takashi; costume designer, Wada Emi; produced by Iguchi Takashi, Ikegami Tsutakasa, Nakazawa Toshiaki, Ohno Takahiro, Sasaki Motoi, Yagi Seiji, Zushi Kensuke, and Jeremy Thomas; released by GAGA.

Starring Satoh Takeru (Jinnai), Komatsu Nana (Princess Yuki), Moriyama Mirai (Tsujimura), Sometani Shôta (Uesugi), Aoki Munetaka (Ueki), Kohata Ryu (Hayabusa), Koseki Yûta (Saburo), Fukami Motoki (Momose), Kato Shinsuke (Okajima), Joey Iwanaga (Kakizaki), Wakabayashi Ruka (Isuke), Tsutsui Mariko (Kiyo), and Takenaka Naoto (Mataemon).


Rock Jocks (2012, Paul V. Seetachitt)

Rock Jocks is full of “it’s not racist because” jokes. There’s even a moment early on when Felicia Day tries explaining to Gerry Bednob how he’s actually a racist even though he says he’s not. When he disagrees, Day gives up, which is a fairly good place to give up on Jocks. You’ve hit the peaks worth sitting around for, namely Bednob is funny as the crotchety old White bigot who just happens to be of East Indian descent. It’s real cheap, real easy jokes. All of Rock Jocks is real cheap, real easy, real problematic. Writer and director Paul V. Seetachitt likes teasing racism, sexism, homophobia, whatever, but he never commits to it.

Well, wait. The sexism. There’s some real committal to the sexism.

The movie’s about the night crew at the United States’s secret remote asteroid destroyer program. If you’re good at video games, you get recruited and then you save the world from big asteroids the rubes don’t know about night after night. The captain is burn-out waiting-to-happen divorced bad dad Andrew Bowen. Bowen’s never anywhere near as bad as some of the other actors in the movie, which is the closest his performance gets to deserving a compliment. Day’s his first officer. She’s overly ambitious because she’s a woman and so it’s funny. He’s going to mansplain to her fierce and her other major subplots involve asteroid shooter Kevin Wu trying to humiliate her—his commanding officer—while captain Bowen ignores it to mope.

Part of the joke is supposed to be how all the Jocks are actually just shallow, thinly written assholes, but Seetachitt makes Wu the biggest asshole of all. Wu’s the shooter with the big ego, but Justin Chon’s still got the higher scores. Chon… could be worse. Wu could not be worse, not without supernatural intervention or something. He’s real bad and not funny.

Jocks hits occasionally—almost always in some way thanks to Bednob—but it’s a very low success rate on the jokes working with the acting working with the directing. In some ways, Rock Jocks is impressive. It’s low budget, but Seetachitt knows how to shoot everything in the script, he just doesn’t have a great editor in Adam Varney and for some reason Seetachitt and photographer Polly Morgan really want to do shaky-cam and shaky-zooms. Just, you know, because.

It’s annoying.

And invites you to ignore the performances because the camera’s ignoring them.

Supporting cast. Mark Woolley’s bad as the bean counter who just happens to be there on the night of the biggest, most important asteroid strike on the planet Earth in… at least a couple days. Who knows.

Doug Jones is great as the space alien who just walks around the base. There’s a bunch of nonsense about Jones having a giant Rube Goldberg contraption in his quarters but it’s all time waster. Lots of time wasting in Jocks, which would be fine at twenty-two—as a TV pilot—or maybe seventy as a goofy low budget, independent pop culture reference comedy….

But it’s ninety minutes.

There are subplots.

There are Robert Picardo and Jason Mewes as the security guards who sit and bullshit all night. It is very awkward. Especially since Picardo and Mewes aren’t bad. They’re just not funny. Ptolemy Slocum is bad as Bowen’s ex-wife’s boyfriend, who shouldn’t be in the movie but again, Rock Jocks really wants to hit that ninety minute runtime so let’s do full subplots for these jerks.

Day and Wu both have moments good and bad. Middling would be an accurate descriptor.

Rock Jocks proves you can be not competent while also not being incompetent.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Paul V. Seetachitt; director of photography, Polly Morgan; edited by Adam Varney; music by S. Peace Nistades; production designer, Greg Aronowitz; costume designer, Jenny Green; produced by Sheri Bryant and Craig Lew.

Starring Andrew Bowen (John), Felicia Day (Alison), Justin Chon (Seth), Kevin Wu (Danny), Gerry Bednob (Tom), Mark Woolley (Austin), Zach Callison (Dylan), Ptolemy Slocum (Roger), Robert Picardo (Guard 1), Jason Mewes (Guard 2), and Doug Jones (Smoking Jesus).


Enter the Fat Dragon (2020, Tanigaki Kenji)

Enter the Fat Dragon is about Hong Kong super-cop Donnie Yen (already in a pound of makeup before he puts on the fat suit, presumably to look more age appropriate for love interest Niki Chow) who goes too far one too many times and finds himself busted down to the evidence room. After Chow dumps him—they’ve been together ten years and just now about to get married and he ruins their engagement photo shoot with his opening action sequence (it’s a bigger deal because she’s an actress whose profession he doesn’t respect)–Yen hits the junk food hard, which is clearly a big change for him since he started the movie junk food shaming subordinate then boss Louis Cheung for eating a slice of pineapple. Pretty soon he’s put on a hundred pounds; Yen started the movie at a cool one-fifty, because it’s in the opening narration.

It’s weird for a fifty-seven year-old man to talk to you about his weight at the start of a movie but whatever.

He’s clearly only supposed to be thirty-five.

Anyway. Dragon is a movie from 2020 where star producer hyphenate Yen thought it was a great idea to put on a fat suit and do wire-fu on an absolutely fantastic Japanese street set. It took a while to realize it was a set, but once I did, I kept getting distracted with the great detail in the background cast. Whoever designed the set, built it, directed the extras, just phenomenal work.

Lee Kin-wai’s the art director, so maybe it’s Lee Kin-wai’s department.

There’s an okay fight scene on the street set, going on the rooftops and such. Tanigaki’s direction gets most of the martial arts action, but doesn’t do anything interesting with it. It doesn’t showcase Yen well, which might more be because he doesn’t get any close-ups in the movie because of all the make-up he’s clearly wearing.

And some of the other action is fine. It’s too rush—Dragon runs just over ninety minutes and hurries through subplots. But it’s obvious we’re not missing much.

After a while—and all the junk food in the vending machine—Yen goes to Japan on his redemption assignment, a prisoner transfer (throughout Dragon feels like a mix of an eighties action movies, James Bond, and whatever else I’ve forgotten—just never Enter the Dragon, outside some forced references). The transfer goes wrong thanks to dirty Japanese cop Takenaka Naoto and Yen’s stuck in Japan—he also loses his luggage, leading him to ex-Hong Kong cop Wong Jing. Wong—who also cowrote—is a big lovable dope who loves the restaurant owner (Teresa Mo) across the street. Together they’re basically joint foster parents to lovable teen orphan Lin Qiunan. Every Chinese person Yen meets in Japan is great and every Japanese person he meets in Japan is a villain.

The main villain is Joey Iwanaga, who’s more enthusiastic than the role needs or the movie seems to care. He’s Yakuza and behind Yen’s prisoner transfer problems; he’s also Chow’s new boss.

It’s never good—though there are a handful of great laughs, most of them exceptionally cheap because Enter the Fat Dragon is slapstick. Some of the way they “get away” with Yen being clumsy in the fat suit is having him be clumsy before the fat suit, when he’s just in that pound of make-up. Most of the slapstick’s not good.

The end is a large scale action finale; not good either. There may even be a Superman: The Movie nod.

Dragon’s bad slapstick with a lot of cheap jokes. Not the expected ones, but still cheap ones.

Yen’s not able to even make micro-expressions in his makeup so he hasn’t got much of a performance. The martial arts stuff looks good enough it’d be nice if the movie had a good director.

Chow’s eh. Even though they’re even more age inappropriate, Jessica Jann—as Takenaka’s Chinese national interpreter but not accomplice—and Yen have more chemistry than he ever has with Chow. It’s not her fault; she’s kind of a villain? She’s shallow because she doesn’t want him to be a super-cop, which somehow manages to become a subplot, though I guess you need it for the reconciliation arc.

The first act kept having… not exactly potential, but enthusiastic possibilities only it never takes them on. Instead—outside that great street set and some technical aspects of the finale–Dragon never really does anything. It’s milquetoast.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Tanigaki Kenji; written by Chan Kin-Hung, Lui Koon-Nam, and Jing Wong; directors of photography, Fung Yuen-man and Ishizaka Takuro; edited by Lee Ka-wing; costume designer, Lee Pik-kwan; produced by Connie Wong and Donnie Yen; released by Mega-Vision Pictures.

Starring Donnie Yen (Fallon Zhu), Niki Chow (Chloe Song), Joey Iwanaga (Shimakura), Jing Wong (Thor), Teresa Mo (Charisma), Lin Qiunan (Little Tiger), Louis Cheung (Commander Huang), Takenaka Naoto (Inspector Endo), Jessica Jann (Maggie), and Watanabe Tetsu (Grandfather).


The Old Guard (2020, Gina Prince-Bythewood)

The Old Guard is better than any of the Highlander movies (to date, I suppose) but sadly not a success. It gets relatively close to passing at least, but then the epilogue is forced, predictable (screenwriter Greg Rucka’s really obvious, he’s really episodic and he’s really obvious–Old Guard is based on Rucka and Leandro Fernandez’s comic of the same name so the episodic makes sense. The obvious also makes sense (I’ve got many the Rucka comic under the reading belt). But the epilogue’s pretty bad. At one point during Old Guard, when I’d given up on this entry actually being good, I got hopeful for the sequel.

Epilogue kinds of ruins it.

But not as much as the soundtrack; Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O'Halloran are credited with the score, which I think is maybe three minutes of actual music. The rest of the time there’s the best accompanying song soundtrack Netflix was willing to pay for, which apparently was less than it would take to download some public domain recording of classical music.

All of the action sequences in Old Guard have a really annoying, not well-chosen song going with them. Maybe I just don’t like my ears to bleed, maybe the songs really are good, but then editor Terilyn A. Shropshire should’ve cut the action to the songs better. They’re not synced, it’s just accompaniment. So they apparently didn’t have to pay Bertelmann and O'Halloran anymore.

Highlander 1 had Queen and Michael Kamen.

The Old Guard has Bertelmann, O’Halloran, and the full versions of songs you can probably excerpt for free. It’s dreadful. Particularly because otherwise the action scenes would be good. There’s a solid fight scene for Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne; they’ve got to have their pissing contest after all. Old Guard follows the eighties action movie tropes well enough if it’d embraced them more it might’ve endeared.

Though it’s hard to endear with such a bad soundtrack. It’s really profoundly bad. It’s something else.

Anyway. Theron is playing Sean Connery, while Layne is the newest Highlander. She’s not Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod however, because Matthias Schoenaerts basically fits that part. Layne’s new and unexpected, the first new Immortal in two hundred years, which is ostensibly ominous but the comic’s got—sorry, sorry, the movie—the movie’s got profound logic problems. Rucka.

Theron has been alive since “Xena” times at least and has always battled on the side of good, saving this village or that village for thousands and thousands of years. But it’s 2020 and she no longer sees any evidence of the good she’s done for 4,000 years. Theron and her fellow Immortals Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, and Luca Marinelli do nothing but fight. And in the last few decades, they’ve been mercenaries for the CIA, doing rescue operations. You know, all those rescue operations the CIA does with the good people. Thankfully there’s no government conspiracy for Rucka’s script to be naive about, instead there’s an evil big Pharma company out to steal the secret of immortality.

Harry Melling plays the head of the company.

It’s singularly one of the worst villain performances ever. Melling is playing the young Pharma bro evil mastermind only he’s dressed like Pee-Wee Herman (“Playhouse” not South Trail Cinema) and he’s so silly it’s hard to believe anyone could keep a straight face during the scenes. Though most of Melling’s supporting cast is bad. Actually, all of them.

Head of security Joey Ansah is a martial arts guy. He’s never good but at least he can do his fight stuff in the end. Whereas evil scientist Anamaria Marinca is just… bad.

What’s disconcerting is how the casting is otherwise good.

Layne’s fellow Marines—Mette Towley and Natacha Karam—they’re solid. Until that plot line goes bad—Rucka—a movie with them in it more had a lot of potential.

So the leads.

Theron’s as close to bad—due to abject disinterest in anything other than her hand-to-hand scenes, not even the gun fight scenes, which are fine other than that terrible soundtrack–that disinterest is even more concerning given Theron produced the film (which means she’s hit that stage of Eighties Eastwood stage of career)—without every actually being bad. She shows some personality a handful of times, but there’s really no call for it because there’s not really any significant character development because….

Rucka.

Layne’s got some really good moments and she’s always appealing but Old Guard isn’t supposed to be a pilot movie or even a TV movie to test out how Layne does on Netflix, it’s supposed to be a good part. And it’s not a good part. No one’s got a good part.

Well, Schoenaerts. Except his performance is the same Schoenaerts head-shaking and looking off into the distance thing he always does, just immortal this time. He’s likable though. Be fun to see in the sequel. Maybe.

Kenzari’s great. Marinelli’s fine. Chiwetel Ejiofor hopefully bought something nice.

Prince-Bythewood’s direction is fine. The action scenes would’ve been good without the terrible soundtrack. The Old Guard’s not her fault (I mean, I don’t know about the soundtrack but I sincerely hope it wasn’t her idea); the direction’s fine otherwise. The action scenes are anomalies. When scenes otherwise go wrong, it’s because of the script.

Though there are a handful of nice moments in Rucka’s script; until the third act, it really seems like Old Guard’s going to make it through. And then it doesn’t.

Because Rucka’s cheap and obvious, Melling is atrocious, and the soundtrack is painfully exasperating.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood; screenplay by Greg Rucka, based on the comic book by Rucka and Leandro Fernandez; directors of photography, Barry Ackroyd and Tami Reiker; edited by Terilyn A. Shropshire; music by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran; production designer, Paul Kirby; costume designer, Mary E. Vogt; produced by A.J. Dix, David Ellison, Marc Evans, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger, Beth Kono, and Charlize Theron; streamed by Netflix.

Starring Charlize Theron (Andy), KiKi Layne (Nile), Matthias Schoenaerts (Booker), Marwan Kenzari (Joe), Luca Marinelli (Nicky), Harry Melling (Merrick), Natacha Karam (Dizzy), Mette Towley (Jordan), Anamaria Marinca (Dr. Meta Kozak), Joey Ansah (Keane), and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Copley).


Backcountry (2014, Adam MacDonald)

Backcountry is all about this young couple who need a weekend in the woods to realize why they’re wrong for each other. She’s a lawyer who’s interested in playing on her smartphone with her friends. The movie’s from 2014; maybe it’s supposed to be Candy Crush? Is 2014 too early for Instagram?

Missy Peregrym plays the female lead.

Her Romeo is Jeff Roop, who acts like he once had an acting coach who really believed in him but it turns out was dead wrong about Roop’s abilities. Like, Peregrym’s flat. There’s a moment, late in the film, when she’s supposed to be on the brink of collapse, run through more than she ever thought she could survive, and she’s sort of scowl-peering like she’s trying to see what director MacDonald’s telling her to do. It’s even worse because we know by that time in the film… MacDonald (hopefully) isn’t giving his actors any direction.

The script he gets them to perform is bad enough.

Roop is a failed landscaper or something. He’s maybe going to get a friend of his to sell him a share in his successful landscaping firm or something. But he lives off Peregrym, obviously.

They’re going up to a provincial park–Backcountry isn’t ashamed of its Canadianity (I mean, it’s got “Da Vinci” Nicolas Campbell cameoing and it tries to pretend very American Eric Balfour is Irish)—but they still don’t draw too much attention to it. They never mention Toronto, which I vaguely recall was always the eighties giveaway.

Now, MacDonald’s got a problem with perspective. Almost throughout. But he maybe gets some first act forgiveness because most of it is him doing these rote montage sequences. The beginning is a bunch of shots of the car driving out of civilization into the wild—the Backcountry. Neither Roop or Peregrym’s likable during their car trip (it’s scary to think they’re supposed to be) and once they get to the park, we find out Roop’s got something special planned for their trip.

He’s very obviously going to propose.

Very obviously.

To the point it’s almost a surprise Peregrym isn’t supposed to know about it and just have ignored it while playing Candy Crush, which is what MacDonald thinks lawyers do. I mean. Sure, but she’s supposed to be a movie lawyer. She doesn’t seem lawyerly enough for “Night Court.”

Because she’s bad. It’s bad. Backcountry’s bad.

I mean, are the gore effects good?

Sure. MacDonald doesn’t know how to direct them—or anything else—Christian Bielz doesn’t know how to light them (though he’s better than expected during daylight scenes, nighttime no), and editor Dev Singh doesn’t know how to cut them. The editing is the least competent part of Backcountry but you can tell it’s MacDonald’s idea. Singh clearly had terrible footage to work with.

Vince Nudo’s score, which is kind of an eighties synth thing but restrained (Tangerine Dream meets Vangelis), isn’t exactly good or even interesting but it’s peculiar in a not bad way.

And peculiar in a not bad way is something special for Backcountry, which is otherwise entirely unremarkable in its badness.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Adam MacDonald; director of photography, Christian Bielz; edited by Dev Singh; music by Vince Nudo; production designer, Pierre Bonhomme; costume designer, Ginger Martini; produced by Thomas Michael; released by IFC Films.

Starring Jeff Roop (Alex), Missy Peregrym (Jenn), Nicholas Campbell (Ranger), and Eric Balfour (Brad).


The Cabin in the Woods (2011, Drew Goddard)

I didn’t have much hope for Cabin in the Woods; though, I mean, director and co-writer Drew Goddard… he’s gone on to stuff. Good stuff. Right?

But if I’d known it was written in three days—it shows—and cost $30 million—it actually looks pretty darn good for $30 million, saving the money shots until the final third or so. And I guess it’s well-paced? Like, it’s terribly long and exasperating as the film threats the various unlikable cast members but then once it gets into the “final girl” sequence, it’s a lot better. I foolishly even had the wrong final girl picked; I thought Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon were going to do something interesting with genre. Or maybe I just assumed they were going to try to do something interesting. Maybe feign something interesting.

I didn’t expect them to mix together a few standard sci-fi tropes, the Evil Dead, a not-Ace Ventura Jim Carrey vehicle, a pseudo-gory Texas Chainsaw knock-off, Whedon and Goddard’s celebrity “Lost” fanfic, maybe two other things I recognized and forgot, plus all the horror in-jokes and references I didn’t get. I got the Hellraiser one, of course, because that one was peculiarly… not desperate but maybe wishful. Like for a moment it became a different movie. Though I was confused the whole time because I thought it was supposed to be the merman not the Hellraiser guy. Cabin is often very talky and very fast and it’s not clear during the first half they’re ever going to painfully detail the big secret with a special genre guest star (if you’re willing to stretch genre). It’s a solid guest star “get,” but it would’ve been better with just a voice over and maybe just been Jamie Lee Curtis.

Even getting past the bad writing—because it’s not just a string of tropes fit into very specific, very literal boxes, it’s still terribly written—the acting is all atrocious as well. Cabin creates a role just for Bradley Whitford—paired with Richard Jenkins like they’re Lemmon and Matthau or something—and it’s bad. Like, the part’s bad and Whitford’s obnoxious. Jenkins is better, but definitely not good. He too is obnoxious, with a more explicit misogyny thing thrown in for good measure.

But the leads—Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchison, Chris Hemsworth, Jesse Williams, Fran Kranz—they’re bad. Hutchison, Hemsworth, and Kranz are really, really, really bad.

It’s bad writing on the characters and all, but the acting’s still bad. If Connolly and Williams were really good, there might be some relief but they’re not. They’re just not as bad as the rest of them. They don’t get actively worse. When it seems like Connolly might be getting better but then doesn’t, it’s not a negative. It maintains. Hemsworth, Kranz, and Hutchison get worse throughout.

Good photography from Peter Deming, okay editing from Lisa Lassek (Lassek’s cuts are fine, the content’s just bad), strangely unmemorable score by David Julyan. I remember a lot of emphasis music but not any of the specifics about it, which is probably for the best.

Goddard’s direction is confused for the first half, when he’s homaging left and right, but it’s at least a low competent for the second half, as the film movies into a new realm.

The second realm is… technically more interesting than the first and the film definitely doesn’t get as bad as it sometimes threatens. But there’s only so good it’s ever going to get given the leads. And the writing.

Maybe it would’ve been better as a TV show? They could’ve called it “Lost in the Woods” or something.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Drew Goddard; written by Joss Whedon and Goddard; director of photography, Peter Deming; edited by Lisa Lassek; music by David Julyan; production designer, Martin Whist; costume designer, Shawna Trpcic; produced by Whedon; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Kristen Connolly (Dana), Chris Hemsworth (Curt), Anna Hutchison (Jules), Fran Kranz (Marty), Jesse Williams (Holden), Richard Jenkins (Sitterson), Bradley Whitford (Hadley), Brian White (Truman), Amy Acker (Lin), and Tim DeZarn (Mordecai).


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).


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