Film

What We Do in the Shadows (2019) s02e08 – Collaboration

Traditional sitcom writer team—seriously, IMDb them (“Frasier” and “Newsradio”—Sam Johnson and Chris Marcil contribute this episode’s script and… well, maybe things make more sense now. Also they don’t seem up on the show because they don’t know how to use Natasia Demetriou at all. Distressingly don’t know how to use her.

Anyway, the main plot involves Kayvan Novak’s familiar from the seventies (Jack O'Connell) remembering he was Novak’s familiar and showing up at the house, causing some tension with current familiar Harvey Guillén.

O’Connell returning isn’t actually the main plot, but Guillén once again getting upset about Novak not making him a vampire, which drives Guillén to the house of a newly changed vampire (Greta Lee), who promises he won’t have to wait so long to become a vampire.

It seems weird the show never came up for a good reason the vampires don’t want to make new vampires, because this episode just has Novak and other vampires staring blankly into the camera, offering empty promises about vampire-making. It’s completely unthought, not just wishy-washy. It gives Novak and Guillén some rather weak scenes to act through at times.

And O’Connell’s nowhere near funny enough, not as actor or character.

It seems like it should be funny—if they’d gotten Fred Willard or someone—but then they didn’t. They just got a bland guest star.

Meanwhile, Demetriou, Matt Berry, and Mark Proksch have a subplot about how Berry actually wrote all the popular songs in the world and didn’t get any credit for them. He and Demetriou start writing new music and driving each other nuts so, of course, Proksch wants to get them to a live music venue so he can feed off the discomfort of all involved.

It’s sporadically funny thanks to the actors and the actual singing is funny but… it’s like Johnson and Marcil didn’t know Berry could do singing and so on. Or, worse, they did and this subplot’s the best they came up with.

It’s not bad.

It’s just nowhere near as good as the other episodes this season. It feels very season one.

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).


Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (2020, Tony Tilse)

At no point does Miss Fisher & the Crypt of Tears introduce viewer unfamiliar with star Essie Davis’s television show, to which this film’s a sequel, “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.” The movie opens with an action sequence setting up Davis as an exquisitely dressed combination of Indiana Jones and James Bond. The action—a title card tells us—starts in 1929 Palestine, where the British are mucking things up for the native people… Crypt of Tears is anti-British Imperialism… but from an Australian bent.

Davis rescues Izabella Yena, who’s in British jail for snooping around the destruction of her village ten years before. During the rescue sequence, Davis evades police in a rooftop chance and has a bunch of costume changes. It’s overindulgent and flamboyant but enthusiastic. It’s fun to watch Davis get to do an exaggerated character schtick thanks to the bigger movie budget.

Until they get to the CGI train sequence and it’s clear while Crypt of Tears might have a “movie budget,” it doesn’t have anywhere near a big enough one. The film tries and tries with the desert visuals, which does showcase Margot Wilson’s costuming, albeit not so much in the digital extreme long shots, but they’re always just there. Production designer Robbie Perkins does well, so at least Tears always looks good.

Until the end, which is more cinematographer Roger Lanser and director Tilse’s fault.

Anyway. After Yena’s rescue, the movie goes through some plot hoops to bring series love interest and Davis sidekick Nathan Page to England. There’s a single scene in Australia with the TV show’s cast, but since the movie’s not really a direct sequel to the series… they’re all just doing forced cameos. The movie’s not going to involve the TV cast (save Page, and him in very supporting role), though it’s fun seeing Miriam Margolyes if you’re a TV fan.

Once Davis and Page are reunited, there’s a laborious setup with the… residents of the house where Davis is staying in England. It’s as exciting as it sounds, as Tears becomes a traditional location-bound mystery, kind of a protracted, but somewhat suspect limited Agatha Christie.

Somehow the movie, with its TV show-experienced director and screenwriter (Deb Cox), manages to avoid all the show’s familiar tropes and go instead with bland mystery movie ones. Page being background would be understandable if they were spotlighting Davis as an action hero, but they don’t. We get a bunch with the suspects, who are extremely flat.

Maybe because they’re shooting Australia for England? Rupert Penry-Jones is the single Brit in the cast. Or is it just the suspects aren’t movie dynamic enough? Yena seems like she’s going to have a very obvious woman’s empowerment arc with Davis as her mentor but then she’s just… around. The movie doesn’t do anything with her. There aren’t any subplots for the suspects, if any questions do get raised outside the main plot, they don’t get answered.

The mystery is… blah.

To someone unfamiliar with the show, Tears is just going to be a confusing and often very charming—it’s not like Davis isn’t great or Page isn’t adorable—not great period mystery with TV movie CGI special effects (think CW, not HBO), but as a “big screen” effort from the show creators… it’s a disappointment. It’s like they targeted a very specific audience and gave them something intended for the general audience they decided to exclude.

Also most frustrating is how the fumble is probably going to kill any sequel possibilities. More Davis and Page isn’t going to ever be a bad thing, you just wish it had been a good thing in Tears.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Tony Tilse; screenplay by Deb Cox, based on characters created by Kerry Greenwood; director of photography, Roger Lanser; edited by Stephen Evans; music by Greg Walker; production designer, Robbie Perkins; costume designer, Margot Wilson; produced by Fiona Eagger and Lucy Maclaren; released by Roadshow Films.

Starring Essie Davis (Phryne Fisher), Nathan Page (Detective Inspector Jack Robinson), Rupert Penry-Jones (First Lieutenant Jonathon Lofthouse), Izabella Yena (Shirin Abbas), Ian Bliss (Professor Linnaeus), Daniel Lapaine (Lord Lofthouse), Jacqueline McKenzie (Lady Eleanor Lofthouse), Kal Naga (Sheikh Kahlil Abbas), John Waters (Vincent Montague), John Stanton (Crippins), and Miriam Margolyes (Prudence Stanley).


To Live and Die in L.A. (1985, William Friedkin)

If you’ve ever started watching To Live and Die in L.A. and turned it off because it’s terrible or just heard of it and thought you should see it, let me say… there’s no reason to see it. Or sit through it. Not even morbid curiosity. Or unless you want to see John Pankow’s butt. Director Friedkin does seem to be trying to start a macho male nudity thing with L.A.—including… umm… Little William L. Petersen, but he also does some homophobia in other parts. Not anti-lesbian though. Friedkin’s pro-objectification there.

Also… some vague racism. By some I mean every time someone who isn’t White is around. But all of it—even the dingus—is C-level L.A. shenanigans. They leave far less impression, for example, than the incredible stupidity of Secret Service agents Petersen and Pankow. Though at one point Pankow identifies himself as a Treasury Agent. L.A.’s based on a novel—by co-screenwriter Gerald Petievich—and for some reason I’d assume Petievich would’ve at least looked up the difference. Not Friedkin (the other screenwriter). Friedkin doesn’t even seem aware real guns weigh more than the rubber guns his actors strut around with.

To Live and Die in L.A., when you toss aside whatever is going on with bad guy counterfeiter Willem Dafoe, is about how adrenalin junkie, dirty Secret Service agent Petersen corrupts straight-edge Pankow, teaching him how to blackmail, exploit, and rape comely ex-cons (Darlanne Fluegel gets all the sympathy for being in this one), strut around in tight jeans (though Pankow doesn’t go with two to three inch lifts like Petersen) and shirts unbuttoned to two above the navel, and… I don’t know, act tough or something.

The scary part of L.A. isn’t the idiotic, toxic masculinity is good, actually, sentiment—Friedkin must’ve read some amazing male empowerment books in the eighties—but the idea it’s an accurate representation of the Secret Service. Though, wait, didn’t they get busted for something stupid and… oh. Yeah.

Okay, so it’s probably legit.

Otherwise the movie would be famous for the agency suing them for how they were portrayed. Because they’re idiots. Like, even if you’ve only watched “CHiPs,” you have a better idea of how to run an investigation than this group of dimwits.

The movie starts with a suicide bomber going after Reagan. The stupidest suicide bomber in the world, who comes up with a rappelling thing when he has enough explosive to just take out the hotel or whatever. Once the bomber fails—in an Islamophobic portrayal out of a GOP campaign ad—we get the Secret Service guys getting hammered and Petersen showing off his base jumping.

Every man wants to be a macho, macho man… you know what, L.A. set to Village People instead of Wang Chung (yes, really, it’s got a Wang Chung “score” and, no, it’s not good). But then Petersen’s partner, Michael Greene, three days from retirement, goes off to the middle of nowhere to investigate a counterfeiter who turns out to be Dafoe. Dafoe gets the drop on him because Greene’s an idiot too and so Petersen swears vengeance.

The best performance in the film is probably… Dafoe? Of the leads, anyway. Petersen and Pankow are risible, like they’re doing a spoof of themselves and don’t know it. Dean Stockwell’s kind of okay but then not, which is too bad because he starts better than he finishes. Fluegel’s not good, just sympathetic because she’s so exploited. Robert Downey’s terrible in a stunt cameo. John Turturro… I mean, you can tell he might be good someday but certainly not here. Debra Feuer, despite having the most potentially interesting story, isn’t any good as Dafoe’s muse.

Some of the Robby Müller photography is good. Some of it is not. They go handheld a lot, which would be a questionable choice if there weren’t so many just plain terrible choices Müller and Friedkin make. M. Scott Smith’s editing… is not bad. It’s not good, but it certainly seems like it’d be bad given Friedkin’s vibe here. It’s not. It’s tolerable. So much in L.A. is intolerable—like Lilly Kilvert’s production design and Linda M. Bass’s costumes—the tolerable parts shine.

To Live and Die in L.A. is an excruciatingly bad two hours. It’s hilariously pretentious and full of itself, but it’s got no laugh value; the joke is on whoever’s watching it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by William Friedkin; screenplay by Friedkin and Gerald Petievich, based on the novel by Petievich; director of photography, Robby Müller; edited by M. Scott Smith; music by Wang Chung; production designer, Lilly Kilvert; costume designer, Linda M. Bass; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Petersen (Chance), Willem Dafoe (Eric Masters), John Pankow (John Vukovich), Darlanne Fluegel (Ruth Lanier), John Turturro (Carl Cody), Dean Stockwell (Bob Grimes), Debra Feuer (Bianca Torres), Steve James (Jeff Rice), Robert Downey Sr. (Thomas Bateman), Christopher Allport (Max Waxman), and Michael Greene (Jim Hart).


What We Do in the Shadows (2019) s02e07 – The Return

It’s a team episode—or more of one—with Nick Kroll returning from the first season. Kroll was a posh New York vampire who was in love with one of Matt Berry’s hats. Unfortunately, that hat was cursed and Kroll’s having some very bad luck. He’s living in a sewer with one rapping sidekick Mike Dara and another sewer-dwelling vampire sidekick (Christine Ebadi, in some truly icky makeup).

Kroll guilts Berry and Natasia Demetriou—following a hilarious talk about their evening out at the terrible “talkes”—into inviting him over. He’s so anxious to get out of the sewer, he beats them home, with Kayvan Novak and Harvey Guillén playing reluctant hosts.

There’s some great banter—plus Novak’s harsh assessment of why Guillén’s still a familiar and not a vampire (he’s like the last donut left, everyone’s sure there’s something wrong with it)—before they end up inviting Kroll and company (of course he brought the entourage) to stay the night.

Or day. Whatever.

Unfortunately, Ebadi really wants to eat Guillén and since she’s a hardier vampire than most, she’s not scared to lurk around during the day. They get into a big argument and Guillén’s all of a sudden got to worry about Novak finding out about the whole “vampire slayer” thing.

Meanwhile, Mark Proksch has an amazing subplot about his online trolling activities.

Writer-director-show creator-source movie co-creator Jemaine Clement has a great time with the episode; it feels like he wanted to give Proksch a good solo adventure—the show’s really exploring the energy vampire mythos—while taking advantage of guest star Kroll’s antagonistic chemistry with the rest of the cast. And it moves Guillén’s vampire slayer subplot forward for the first time in quite a few episodes.

It’s kind of overshadowed by the last episode Jackie Daytona peak, but it’s still fantastic.

Vampira and Me (2012, Ray Greene)

For its protracted 106 minute runtime, Vampira and Me is a combination of tragic, frustrating, annoying, and enthralling. The problem with the whole project is writer, producer, editor, director, and narrator Greene. Well, okay, the problem with any project about Vampira (Maila Nurmi) is the lack of extant footage of her television show, “The Vampira Show,” which ran in the mid-fifties. Nurmi was an immediate hit—the first glamour ghoul—but broadcasts were live and no recordings were made. Watching Me, there’s just enough remaining footage to show Nurmi as an excellent early television comedian, who kept up and outpaced her costars, and it’s an exceptional bummer the footage just isn’t here.

Much of Vampira and Me is an at least hour-long interview Nurmi recorded with Greene when he was working on another project. Greene, as narrator, says Me is going to be all about how Nurmi isn’t “just” Vampira, so the Vampira in the title is a little weird… ditto the Me, actually, because Greene barely has any anecdotes about his friendship with Nurmi. Except one where he emphases her emotional problems. It’s a weird choice. But Vampira and Me is full of weird choices, like Greene using a bunch of unrelated but contemporary footage because none exists of Nurmi. So you’re watching some commercial from the fifties and supposed to pretend it’s Nurmi or something. Plus he then goes on to add sound effects to actual recordings of Nurmi monologuing. And there are sound effects all the time.

It’s annoying. Like I said, frustrating, tragic, enthralling, annoying.

Nurmi herself—based on the filmed interview material—is a natural raconteur. She knew Orson Welles back in the day and you can imagine they’d have done great banter if given the opportunity. She was also good friends with James Dean during his meteoric rise, which gets a lot of coverage in the film but very little insight. Nurmi was into New Age woo and Greene’s not a good enough interviewer to get through that murky pool to actual insight. The biggest bummer of the film itself is the interview, which a better filmmaker could’ve incorporated into a far better project. The lack of other interviewees is a big problem.

But then there’s Greene’s narrative construction. He jumps ahead to the sixties at one point, then pulls back to the fifties. The timeline wouldn’t be muddled if Greene just did a better job presenting it. He also doesn’t get anything out of the jump ahead and fall back. It also contributes greatly to the slog of the second half.

Then there’s Greene “killing off” his subject; at the beginning of the film, he implies this rare, exclusive interview is going to be the emphasis and everything else will serve to annotate it. Nope. Greene doesn’t cover a lot of Nurmi’s rougher days—she spent almost fifty years in abject poverty, screwed out of continuing popularity because of a dispute with the TV station (they wanted to syndicate with other Vampiras in local markets, she apparently wanted to be Vmapira in all of them—not clear because Greene didn’t think to ask, apparently). He’s got some line about how she went on to a somewhat happy ending at the end and then doesn’t show it or talk about it… she just dies and it’s funeral footage, which is weird.

Also weird is the clips of a dancing fifties girl who looks a lot like Carolyn Jones, who played Morticia Addams on “The Addams Family” TV show. Nurmi got her idea for the Vampira costume from the Addams Family cartoon strip. She was trying to get noticed by producers to do an Addams Family adaptation, not “The Vampira Show.” And given the Elvira vs. Vampira stuff, which barely gets covered—and Greene at one point makes it sound like Cassandra Peterson (Elvira) was a reluctant nemesis… you’d think he’d clarify. Nope.

But then it turns out Greene’s not a very honest documentarian.

He implies Nurmi’s “Vampira” show was up against “I Love Lucy” in the 1955 Emmy’s when Nurmi was actually nominated for a local Emmy. What makes that deception so galling is the James Dean friendship, which was in contention for years because of a Hedda Hopper book and Nurmi had to fight to be believed. Documentation backs Nurmi up, but it took decades.

Greene’s got a great chance to look at fifties Hollywood and the ephemera of television–the first viral sensations—and he has a handful of good observations, they just don’t go anywhere. And they’re really early in the film.

It’s a testament to Nurmi as a storyteller and personality she’s able to surmount this wanting “homage” just in the single camera interview and a few surviving clips.

1/4

CREDITS

Written, directed, produced, and edited by Ray Greene; directors of photography, Larry Herbst, Sean Peacock, and Greene.


Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959, Edward D. Wood Jr.)

There’s not a lot to say about Plan 9 from Outer Space. It’s comically inept on almost every level—the uncredited sound editor (unless it’s also director Wood, who wrote, produced, and edited) does all right. The chirping crickets in the graveyard as the cast mugs their way through an alien zombie invasion give it a distinct feel. Even when it’s obvious they’re on the same set, even when Wood goes through the same footage over and over (special guest star Bela Lugosi died during production—or at least the Ed Wood movie says).

And before Ed Wood, there might have been more to say about Plan 9. At the time of its release, maybe one could gin up enough enthusiasm to blather about it. Or maybe just plain gin would help.

But as to Plan 9 being “so bad, it’s good,” I mean… it gets really boring at fifty minutes. It’s been getting more and more boring but once space aliens Dudley Manlove and Joanna Lee get introduced it’s a snooze-fest. Even with Tor Johnson zombieing around, though it turns out he’s a disappointing zombie; almost nothing’s more amusing than Johnson deliver his cop dialogue with a heavy Swedish accent. Well, maybe Duke Moore rubbing his gun barrel all over the place. And Manlove’s temper tantrum at the end. Manlove’s temper tantrum is where Plan 9 could have really done something.

But most of the movie is just bad actors giving bad performances in a poorly written, poorly directed movie. I guess William C. Thompson’s photography is all right. It’s nowhere near as incompetent as the scenes its lighting anyway.

Wood, as writer, has a silly narration—Plan 9 is presented (by vitamin slinger Criswell) as a true story so the narration does a documentary thing—but he occasionally hits just the right amount of absurd in the dialogue for it to be amusing. Momentarily. Again, Plan 9 gets long fast and its inconsistent in the amusing badness. If you gave up early, you’d miss Manlove’s temper tantrum at the finale but you’d also miss whatever else, which probably makes up for it. Leading man Gregory Walcott is really bad in an unlikable fifties alpha male kind of way. Moore’s at least silly bad. Tom Keene is kind of not terrible. You can tell Keene has occasionally not been terrible. No one gives that vibe. They all seem like they’re always as terrible as they are in Plan 9.

Wait, wait—flight attendant Norma McCarty and co-pilot David De Mering; they’re kind of amusing. Wood writes them this strange flirting scene and it doesn’t work but it’s… endearing. Ish.

And leading lady Mona McKinnon is nowhere near as bad as husband Walcott; she gets some sympathy being married to him.

Cops Carl Anthony and Paul Marco are funny bad.

There’s just not enough funny bad to keep Plan 9 going.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written, produced, edited, and directed by Edward D. Wood Jr.; director of photography, William C. Thompson; released by Distributors Corporation of America.

Starring Gregory Walcott (Jeff Trent), Mona McKinnon (Paula Trent), Duke Moore (Lt. Harper), Tom Keene (Col. Edwards), Carl Anthony (Patrolman Larry), Paul Marco (Patrolman Kelton), Tor Johnson (Inspector Clay), Dudley Manlove (Eros), Joanna Lee (Tanna), John Breckinridge (Ruler), Lyle Talbot (Gen. Roberts), David De Mering (Danny), Norma McCarty (Edith), Maila Nurmi (Vampire Girl), and Bela Lugosi (Ghoul Man); narrated by Criswell.


Pennies from Heaven (1981, Herbert Ross)

Pennies from Heaven is about how being a woman—particularly in the 1930s—is awful because you exist entirely for male consumption. If not sexually, then as production. The film’s supposed to be about how life’s just unfair for dreamers, in this case lead Steve Martin, who’s just trying to make the American Dream work for him; what’s standing in his way is wife Jessica Harper not wanting to give him her father’s estate so he can open a record store. He’s a traveling sheet music salesman in Chicago; he covers the rural points west.

We know Martin’s a dreamer because he daydreams in musicals. All of a sudden the movie will switch over to a big musical number with Martin and other actors lip-synching to period recordings. The musical stuff is good. Ross’s direction emphasizes the production, which is… fine. But the actual production of the numbers is excellent. Great choreography, so on and so forth. Martin’s very good at the dancing.

The same cannot be said about his “aw shucks” performance. Though some of the problem is Dennis Potter’s script; no one speaks his dialogue well until the second half of the movie, when Christopher Walken shows up and Bernadette Peters starts her fallen woman arc. Until that point, it seems like Potter’s dialogue just isn’t catching. But then all of a sudden Peters makes it breathtaking and it’s clear the problem’s a combination of Martin, Ross, and Potter, not Peters or Harper.

The film’s well-aware it’s about how being a woman is lousy—Peters gets seduced and knocked up by married Martin, who then abandons her multiple times, and finally ends up hooking. Harper—who manages to be the character with the least agency in the film, which is something because Martin’s got almost nil—is the cold fish preacher’s daughter wife who won’t give Martin enough sex or the money to start his store. Even though Martin humiliates her and then some cops humiliate her later on, Harper’s never presented sympathetically. If only she gave him some sugar (or the money sooner), look what might’ve been avoided.

Because somehow when it comes time to address Martin’s exploitation and mental abuse and manipulation, the movie just skips it. He’s the hero, after all, the dreamer who can’t find his American Dream. Again, it’s a combination of script, acting, and directing. Pennies from Heaven is only going to work if Martin’s transcendent.

And he’s not. Worse, he’s markedly better during the musical numbers than the dramatic, which makes the dramatic feel like a strange stagy vanity project, but one where he’s unenthusiastic about it too.

Nothing is worse than unenthusiastic vanity projects. Yes, he’s got the enthusiasm for the musical numbers—which disappear during at least twenty minutes of the film; it gives Peters a chance for some great acting in a middling film, but it also all drags. Her character’s ostensibly obsessed with Martin but he’s clearly a doofus. Yes, she’s supposed to be all in because of some kind of animal magnetism but… Martin hasn’t got any. The film cheating Harper out of getting rid of him at some point is a disservice to the work she put into her performance.

Wondrous photography from Gordon Willis—maybe thirty percent of Ross’s shots are good and there are some way too stagy ones—but Willis makes them all work. The film’s gorgeous.

Great dancing from Peters, Walken, and Vernel Bagneris (who’s got the majorly thankless part of the forgotten man). But he’s also really vile man. The only guy who’s not criminally creepy in Pennies from Heaven is Francis X. McCarthy, who plays a kindly bartender.

The end seems like it’s going to flop, then seems like it’ll do the right thing, but then it turns out doing the right thing is the wrong thing for the film anyway. Because it just isn’t going to work out. It just can’t.

Shame to waste the truly spectacular Peters performance.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Herbert Ross; screenplay by Dennis Potter, based on his BBC television serial; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by Richard Marks; production designer, Philip Harrison; costume designer, Bob Mackie; produced by Nora Kaye and Herbert Ross; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Steve Martin (Arthur), Bernadette Peters (Eileen), Jessica Harper (Joan), Vernel Bagneris (The Accordion Man), John McMartin (Mr. Warner), John Karlen (The Detective), Jay Garner (The Banker), Robert Fitch (Al), Tommy Rall (Ed), Eliska Krupka (The Blind Girl), and Christopher Walken (Tom).


What We Do in the Shadows (2019) s02e06 – On the Run

In addition to being the most Matt Berry episode of “Shadows” ever, this episode also has the best Mark Hamill performance since… 1983? 1980? He’s only in the episode maybe five minutes so it’s hard to compare with the Original Trilogy or Big Red One.

Hamill’s another vampire, one who Berry stiffed for rent on a beach house in San Diego in the late 1800s; Berry had been trying to sell his soul to the Devil to get better at the guitar, but went to the wrong place. Also there was a floater in the toilet, so Berry definitely wasn’t paying. It’s a hilarious argument, leading to a duel, with everyone in the cast getting something to do.

But then Berry runs for it and it becomes his episode. He’s not going to duel, he’s not going to pay the rent, so instead he’s going to pretend to be a human named “Jackie Daytona” and run a bar in rural Pennsylvania. Berry’s beloved by all—well, not the people he’s killed and drained of blood, but everyone else, particularly bar waitress Madeleine Martin. And then the entire town after Berry starts supporting the high school girls’ volley ball team in their quest for the state championship.

There’s a little bit back at the house with everyone dealing with Berry being gone, but mostly it’s an excuse for a great Mark Proksch scene. Natasia Demetriou’s distraught, obviously, and Proksch takes advantage for some great feeding. Kayvan Novak and Harvey Guillén are background the whole episode, with the occasional knowing look from Guillén and a one-liner from Novak. It’s like the show realized Berry can’t really go all out with the main cast; “Shadows” has gradually become Demetriou’s show, with Berry acting as her main support but support. Giving him a side adventure really works out.

Two crises arise in idyllic Pennsylvania however—the town can’t afford to send the volley ball team to state and Hamill has tracked Berry to the area. He doesn’t recognize Berry because of the foolproof human disguise, but Hamill knows he’s close. Great stuff with Hamill and Berry, just great.

The end seems like it might not connect, but then does—Stefani Robinson’s script is outstanding. Nice direction from Yana Gorskaya too.

Hopefully Hamill will be back.

Or just get his own show with the character. They leave him with an excellent setup.

But it’s finally a Berry showcase. Since the first episode, he’s been reining it in so as not to walk off with the show. It’s show much fun to see him not have to worry about it and just let loose. Jackie Daytona indeed.

Signs (2002, M. Night Shyamalan)

It’s impossible to overstate what a profoundly, risibly bad movie Shyamalan has made with Signs. As the end credits started rolling, after the most disappointing “epilogue” Shyamalan could’ve come up with—it’s not just disappointing, it’s also pointless (pointless is the probably the best adjective to describe scenes in Signs)—my wife joked the movie took two weeks to film. To which I responded, “Thirteen and a half days longer than it took to write.” Because even with all the bad in Signs—and there’s so much bad—the writing is the worst.

And Shyamalan does this non-committal “camera as POV” thing—cinematographer Tak Fujimoto should be ashamed of himself for enabling Shyamalan to do it and embarrassed with how poorly he shoots the thing; Signs looks terrible–so, in other words, there’s a lot of competition for what’s worst in Signs. Shyamalan’s direction of the talking heads scenes—and there so many talking heads scenes because Shyamalan, who’s ego is literally oozing from every grain of film–involves characters almost looking directly into the camera but then just a little diagonally. Shyamalan is going for something with Signs, with his very intentional direction, his very intentional casting of himself as the guy who kills star Mel Gibson’s wife in a traffic accident (Shyamalan was asleep at the wheel) and vehicular manslaughter isn’t a thing and it just turns reverend Gibson into an atheist (but they never say the a-word because while Signs is definitely a millimeter thinly veiled Christian movie, there’s still the veil and it’s never going to get confrontational about it). Also… Shyamalan wrote the movie, so he did kill the wife.

Symbolism. Pass it on. Like the dog tchotchkes at the end to remind the viewer there are dogs, even if everyone forgot about them because they don’t matter because Signs is insipid.

Signs is full of symbolism but not really full because there’s not much because Shyamalan gets frequently bored with things like mise en scène because there’s better things to do like write the awful scenes between Gibson and his family. I went into Signs at least thinking Gibson would get through it unscathed (performance-wise). No. No. Not at all. It’s a godawful performance. He is incapable of pretending to be a former reverend, a widow, a husband, a father, a brother, and a farmer. The scenes with Gibson and kids Rory Culkin (who’s kind of terrible; it’s not his fault, Shyamalan seems to be having him do a Macaulay impression circa Uncle Buck but he’s still bad) and Abigail Breslin, who gets terrible material and terrible direction, but is still phenomenal. Shyamalan can’t figure out how to direct her because she’s not terrible like the rest of his cast.

Though, not Joaquin Phoenix. He’s leagues better than Gibson, though it helps Phoenix’s character is a dope. Gibson’s ostensibly functional enough to get to this point in his life—whereas Phoenix apparently always had Gibson to lean on—yet Gibson is real dumb. Real dumb.

Other bad things about Signs? Cherry Jones. She’s awful. Ted Sutton is so bad SAG should’ve shut the production down. Bad editing from Barbara Tulliver; Tulliver’s editing, cut for cut, is probably even worse than Fujimoto’s photography. Tulliver—presumably unintentionally—screws up all of Shyamalan’s jump scares. Larry Fulton’s production design is bad.

James Newton Howard’s score, while inexplicably a complete Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock rip-off (oh, wait, was Signs in the middle of Shyamalan being the new Hitchcock era), and poorly utilized, isn’t poorly composed. It’s competent, just misapplied. Everything else is incompetent and misapplied.

I was looking through Rodale for a good, fresh adjective to describe Signs but I think vapid does the job best. It’s worse than I expected it to be, which is saying a lot, but it also surprised me. I had no idea Gibson would so spectacularly fail or Phoenix would be—with a lot of conditions—so much better. And I guess Shyamalan managed to be inventively terrible, it’s just he’s a pointless kind of inventively terrible.

Oh, you know what… there’s the word.

Puerile.

Signs is puerile.

CREDITS

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan; director of photography, Tak Fujimoto; edited by Barbara Tulliver; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Larry Fulton; costume designer, Ann Roth; produced by Frank Marshall, Sam Mercer, and Shyamalan; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Mel Gibson (Graham Hess), Joaquin Phoenix (Merrill Hess), Rory Culkin (Morgan Hess), Abigail Breslin (Bo Hess), Patricia Kalember (Colleen Hess), Cherry Jones (Officer Paski), Ted Sutton (SFC Cunningham), Merritt Wever (Tracey Abernathy), and M. Night Shyamalan (Ray Reddy).


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