★½

Troop Zero (2019, Bert & Bertie)

Troop Zero is heartwarming but not too heartwarming. It doesn’t promise the stars as much as it promises a gradual slide to fairness; it promises redemption to some but not the ones who really need it. It avoids any seriousness to instead provide consistent, constant entertainment. Often in the form of amusing montage sequences with good soundtrack accompaniment and excellent editing from Catherine Haight. But as anything other than consistent, constant entertainment? Troop Zero’s got a lot of problems.

The film’s the story of a girl living poor in rural Georgia in the late seventies (Mckenna Grace, who’s likable and perfectly fine but has any great moments; she’s a solid child actor, who isn’t doing anything special). She finds out if you’re in the Girl Scouts (they’re called something else, obviously), you might be on the gold record NASA is shooting out into space on a Voyager spacecraft. If you’re wondering why there’s not a Star Trek: The Motion Picture reference right about now, it’s because it’s too hard. Needless to say, I tried.

Anyway. Grace gets her neighbor, pre-gay Charlie Shotwell–Troop Zero has that heartwarming Hollywood take on poor rural Americana when it comes to marginalized people: everyone’s poor and no one cares if you’re gay or Black. There’s a lot of awful bullying in Troop Zero and a bunch of horrific female characters—which is all good because the directors and writer are woman but also maybe not a great look because it implies a lot more seriousness than the film’s ever willing to engage with—but there’s never any overt racism, homophobia, or even sexism. There’s some subtle racism but it’s just to make the main mean girl (Ashley Brooke) even meaner. Sorry, tangents again, which is particularly inappropriate for Troop Zero. It doesn’t have any tangents. When its subplots get attention, it always sticks out because the moments seemed forced in—like top-billed Viola Davis’s law school ambitions or her bonding with stuck-up school principal Allison Janney (who’s redemptive moments seem contractually obligated for all the good they do). So… sorry.

Grace and Shotwell set about getting enough kids for a new troop. See, the manual, which Grace can read and understand because her father (Jim Gaffigan) is a lawyer who never wins his cases but because the clients are always guilty and encourages her critical thinking skills, never specifies gender requirements. They get Christian girl Bella Higginbotham, then bully and extorter Milan Ray, and Ray’s enforcer, Johanna Colón. To varying degrees, the kids are all entertaining. Colón and Shotwell get the most situational comedy, Ray’s got a decent sort of subplot about unexpectedly bonding with Grace (which gets mostly forgotten in the third act), and Higginbotham’s always sympathetic. They never quite bond with troop leader Davis, which makes sense as boss Gaffigan ordered her to take the gig. Will the troop get over their differences and band together to take it to the finals? Will they defeat the mean girls?

Those questions might be important if Troop Zero needed them to decide anything. There’s a definite lack of conflict in the film outside the bullying. Gaffigan’s a sweetheart and in permanently in the red with his law practice, meaning Davis can’t get paid, but they’re always okay. There’s never much narrative danger. Often there’s none at all. So when the film fails to muster enough enthusiasm to seep through on the grand finale, it’s not unexpected. Troop Zero, despite the energetic montages and the directors adequate inventiveness as far as composition—cinematographer James Whitaker ably assists—never has much directed energy. Never much focus. Grace gets scenes to herself, Davis gets scenes to herself, Janney gets scenes to herself. Grace is the de facto protagonist because she narrates the film; otherwise, she’d be sharing focus with Davis, Janney, and maybe even Gaffigan.

And Grace has got a kids’ story arc. It’s got some real depth to it, but it’s still a kids’ story arc. The film’s handling of Grace clashes with its handling of the adults. Davis and Janney, for example, they don’t have kiddie arcs. Widower Gaffigan wouldn’t have a kiddie arc. My pejorative use of kiddie here is just to mean non-confrontational. Bullying aside.

Davis is great, Gaffigan’s great, Janney’s great. Grace is okay. Ray’s good. Colón’s adorable. The kids are all fine—Higginbotham, Shotwell—when something doesn’t work out for them, it’s just as often the script or direction versus the kid.

For the actors’ sake, it’d be really nice if Troop Zero was more successful, less uneven. It’s got a good (albeit unrealistic) heart and a very likable cast. And the grand finale talent show is true delight.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Bert & Bertie; written by Lucy Alibar; director of photography, James Whitaker; edited by Catherine Haight; music by Rob Lord; production designer, Laura Fox; costume designer, Caroline Eselin; produced by Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Kate Churchill, Steve Tisch, and Viola Davis; released by Amazon Studios.

Starring Mckenna Grace (Christmas Flint), Viola Davis (Miss Rayleen), Jim Gaffigan (Ramsey Flint), Allison Janney (Miss Massey), Charlie Shotwell (Joseph), Milan Ray (Hell-No Price), Johanna Colón (Smash), Bella Higginbotham (Anne-Claire), Mike Epps (Dwayne Champaign), Ashley Brooke (Piper Keller), and Ash Thapliyal (Persad).


Inherit the Viper (2019, Anthony Jerjen)

Inherit the Viper is an unfortunately titled but acceptably mediocre crime drama about rural siblings Margarita Levieva, Josh Hartnett, and Owen Teague running an opioid business. Levieva’s the merciless boss, Hartnett’s the reluctant muscle, Teague’s the enthusiastic but uninvolved teenager. Everything’s going fine—well, outside the occasional fatal overdose for customers—until Teague decides he’s got to go into business for himself. Only he’s not very bright and his idea is to steal his family’s product to sell on the side, forcing Levieva (who wanted to get Teague involved) and Hartnett (who didn’t) to make some tough, momentous decisions. Renewed interest from local law enforcement (Dash Mihok) and a justifiably enraged recent widower (Brad William Henke) complicate matters.

So, a fairly standard family crime drama.

Andrew Crabtree’s script throws a lot at the characters but in targeted bursts. Viper never overreaches. Crabtree and director Jerjen never do anything they aren’t sure they can successfully execute. The film’s got some great production values—Jerjen, cinematographer Nicholas Wiesnet, editors Gordon Antell and Kiran Pallegadda put some drone shots to great use for establishing shots, showcasing the desolate, failed rural community. Jerjen’s composition for the talking heads scenes, which are most of the film until the final third or so, is usually the same parallel shot, giving the actors each their space. Even though Jerjen’s got the patience for the talking heads and showcasing the actors (really, the film often plays like a demo reel for its stars more than a serious dramatic effort), he never gets in close enough to really look. When Levieva finally shows her humanity, when Hartnett finally shows his fear, Jerjen doesn’t have any way to help the actors rise above the script, which is fairly pat as far as character motivation and development go. Both the script and the direction posit the characters as somewhat tragic, even though the point of Levieva is she would reject that tragedy and it would be consuming the soulful Hartnett, who has a much better understanding of the world—ostensibly due to his time in Iraq War II, but more because the script needs it—than his peers.

Well, except of course how the film then positions other people as the good folks just facilitating the opioid ring without actually getting their hands too dirty (special guest star Bruce Dern plays a bar owner and friend of the family’s absent, smalltime crook dad).

Instead of Levieva or Hartnett, the film focuses on Teague. It’s both a trope—the child grows up—and the most economical. Hartnett getting more of a focus would mean more to do with pregnant girlfriend Valorie Curry and, even though the film starts spotlighting Levieva, she barely gets any character development throughout. And, when she does, it feels like the film’s trying too hard. Because to transcend the material, the script would need to be better and there’d need to be more of a budget (the film looks great, moves well but it’s obviously streamlined as can be). Jerjen does what he can with the constraints the production’s got and it works. The drone shots do get tiring by the end but more because they never really impact how the narrative plays; they’re always technically solid. Especially set against Patrick Kirst’s score.

For over half the film, Viper acts like it isn’t going to rest the whole thing on whether or not Teague can carry it through the third act to the finish, then it hands it off to Teague and, sure, he can get it to the finish but… not spectacularly. It’s a pass and no pass situation. Teague passes, adequate, no reason to rejoice.

Levieva’s the film’s best performance, even with her character going off some rails in the third act. Hartnett’s good, but it’s a propped up majorly supporting role; Teague’s not compelling enough, Hartnett picks up the slack for it. It’s unclear whether Jerjen would be able to do more. He’s got a lot of technical chops as a director and he’s pretty good with the actors, but Viper never seems thoughtful enough. Jerjen’s successfully realizes the script but without any imagination. It’s like he’s too good, technically, to have to be inventive.

Inherit the Viper—the title’s even worse once you find out what it means—isn’t bad, it’s just rote, even with its cast’s solid efforts.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Anthony Jerjen; written by Andrew Crabtree; director of photography, Nicholas Wiesnet; edited by Gordon Antell and Kiran Pallegadda; music by Patrick Kirst; production designer, Tracy Dishman; costume designer, Emily Batson; produced by Michel Merkt and Benito Mueller; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Margarita Levieva (Josie Conley), Josh Hartnett (Kip Conley), Owen Teague (Boots Conley), Valorie Curry (Eve), Dash Mihok (Kyle), Chandler Riggs (Cooper), Brad William Henke (Tedd), and Bruce Dern (Clay).


Emma (1996, Douglas McGrath)

Emma keeps misplacing things. For a long stretches, it misplaces second-billed Toni Collette (who goes from being the subject of the first half to an afterthought in the most of the second half to just a plot foil in the third act). There’s also lead Gwyneth Paltrow’s painting. The film opens with Paltrow’s paintings of her friends, home, and familiar places, which get used again to identify locations for a bit in the first act, and then the painting becomes a plot point… but then it’s gone, both from the narrative (which could make sense with the plot point if you’re being generous) and the film’s visuals. It’s indicative of Emma’s greatest problem—even greater than Paltrow not really being up to snuff for the lead and often mugging her way through scenes, her costars all doing the double duty of load-bearing and acting—is director McGrath. He’s got some ideas, but he’s rarely consistent with them (outside he and cinematographer Ian Wilson’s astoundingly ill-advised attempt at “natural” lighting), and even if he were… he doesn’t have the chops to pull them off. Not in directing actors (there are some rather oddly bad performances throughout), not in composing shots, and definitely not in establishing a narrative distance. Particularly bad form on the last one, as McGrath adapted the Jane Austen novel himself.

The film’s got two competing narrations, one from Paltrow and one from what we assume is one character but is actually another because getting in a pointless wink is more important than verisimilitude. But the misleading narration—which only works because the supporting cast is so thinly drawn—is just a third act problem. Paltrow’s narration, which kicks off in earnest somewhere in the second half, is from the character’s diary. The diary doesn’t come into play until well after the narration is established and has very little interesting to convey. It’s good writing (so presumably from the source novel) but it doesn’t add anything to the film because the film’s already established itself without needing diary or narration. McGrath’s constantly introducing elements the film’s already shown it can do without. Sometimes they’re competent, sometimes they’re piddling.

Ewan McGregor, for instance, is piddling.

McGregor plays Paltrow’s eventual de facto suitor. So, the film starts with Paltrow just having succeeded in marrying off governess Greta Scacchi to local widow James Cosmo and deciding she’s going to become a matchmaker. Her next subjects? Vicar Alan Cummings (who’s more middling than piddling) and aforementioned second-billed Collette. Now, Collette doesn’t have any money and Cummings is out for a rich dowry only Paltrow thinks love will conquer all. Except the condescending, gently demeaning way Paltrow treats Collette is duplicated in how the film treats her. Collette, and many of the other women in the film, are often used for laughs. Weird since Paltrow getting her eventual comeuppance involves her punching down, you’d think McGrath, adapted the novel, would be able to do something like foreshadowing… but he cannot because he does a poor job of adapting the novel. Seriously; you get done with Emma and don’t even wonder if you should read the novel. Given the film’s from the renewed era of Austen adaptations… it ought to at least encourage readership.

Anyway.

Eventually McGregor shows up as Cosmo’s son and, presumably, Paltrow’s intended. Except he’s playing the part like he’s in a bad Muppet Jane Austen’s Emma and not just because of the hair. In some ways he perfectly compliments Paltrow’s performance; they both mug for the camera, he just does it with more volume, more bluster. Their similarities even potentially become a plot point but not really because of the way McGrath directs the scene, which… is again the biggest problem with the film. McGrath’s well-meaning enough in his direction, just inept with it. And when he does try to show flourish, usually with a silly camera move—one does have to wonder about cinematographer Wilson’s agency—it ends up silly at best.

There are some okay supporting performances: Jeremy Northam’s fine as Paltrow’s male friend, though there’s a way too big performance differential between the two of them and never the right chemistry, Collette’s good, especially given the circumstances, Sophie Thompson’s probably the best, as the woman Paltrow meanest girls. Sacchi’s all right. Cosmo mugs. Denys Hawthorne, as Paltrow’s father, is literal scenery. Juliet Stevenson, as a second half punchline, does a lot better than she should given the part and the direction.

Not great editing from Lesley Walker doesn’t help things. Rachel Portman’s score has its moments but also the ones where it seems more appropriate for an ostentatious adventure picture, which then just introduces the false promise of personality to the filmmaking and what could be, if only McGrath had the chops.

The third act’s particularly disappointing as all it really needs is some narrative sincerity. It doesn’t even need to have Paltrow step up… though I guess it does make some sense how McGrath then takes the movie away from her. It’s like he gives her a vote of no confidence after he’s just made a two hour movie of her.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Douglas McGrath; screenplay by McGrath, based on the novel by Jane Austen; director of photography, Ian Wilson; edited by Lesley Walker; music by Rachel Portman; production designer, Michael Howells; costume designer, Ruth Myers; produced by Patrick Cassavetti and Steven Haft; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma Woodhouse), Toni Collette (Harriet Smith), Alan Cumming (Mr. Elton), Ewan McGregor (Frank Churchill), Jeremy Northam (George Knightley), Greta Scacchi (Mrs. Weston), Juliet Stevenson (Mrs. Elton), Polly Walker (Jane Fairfax), Sophie Thompson (Miss Bates), James Cosmo (Mr. Weston), Denys Hawthorne (Mr. Woodhouse), and Phyllida Law (Mrs. Bates).


Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, Francis Ford Coppola)

On one hand, with the Wojciech Kilar score, Bram Stoker’s Dracula can get away with just about anything. On the other, with Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves playing leads… well, it needs something to help it get away with anything.

It helps neither Ryder or Reeves are the actual star of the film. Neither is top-billed Gary Oldman (as the Count). The star is director Coppola and his crew—cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, production designer Thomas E. Sanders, costume designer Eiko Ishioka (for better and worse), editors Anne Goursaud, Glen Scantlebury, and Nicholas C. Smith. And Kilar, of course. And whoever did all the amazing practical special effects; Bram Stoker’s is a very audiovisual experience. As the story itself belies reality, why should the film itself be any different an experience. Lots of inventive transitions, lots of creative composite shots to show Oldman’s faraway yet so close impact on the world of his victims. Shame James V. Hart’s screenplay isn’t anywhere near as experimental or imaginative. The script’s big deviation from the novel—in addition to Anthony Hopkins’s Van Helsing being crude—is Ryder falling in love with Oldman because she’s his reincarnated fifteenth century wife, who killed herself thinking he’d died in battle, which caused him to renounce God and become… a vampire.

The most interesting thing about Bram Stoker’s is how any of it would make sense. Like, Oldman’s castle is full of paintings done after Ryder’s death—Ryder the queen, not the young British woman with the questionable accent. Did he pay the painters or eat them? Because even though the film “humanizes” Oldman a little, it never makes him particularly reasonable as a character. Why, for instance, does he regrow a mustache when he de-ages himself and then shed it when he gets old again. Also, why does he get old again so often. Why did he get old in the first place? Wasn’t he eating enough villager? Seems like he was eating plenty of them.

Anyway.

None of those details matter because Bram Stoker’s looks great and has that Kilar score. Ryder can be bombing a questionably written scene—though, to be fair, it’s not like there are any strong performances in the film. Oldman’s got a few strong moments, a lot of okay ones, and some piddly ones too. But Kilar’s score can save the heck out of a scene. Given the lack of chemistry from Oldman towards Ryder and the lack of chemistry, accent, and acting from Ryder towards… everyone (save, maybe, best friend Sadie Frost), the melodramatic nineteenth century romance but kind of saucy scenes where Oldman has to remind himself to keep the fangs in are all mesmerizing thanks to how the music compliments the image. Bram Stoker’s is masterfully made. It’s far from a cinematic masterpiece, but Coppola does provide a solid facsimile of one. As long as you ignore the acting and the writing.

Whether Ryder would be better if the character were better—she falls in love with Oldman while fiancé Reeves is being held captive in faraway Oldman’s castle (it’s kind of hilarious how easily Reeves slips her mind—the film utilizes the novel’s epistolary format, turning the diary entries into narration from cast so we know she’s not thinking about Reeves); the falling in love while the dude’s away is literally her only thing. Ryder’s not even worried about Frost, who Oldman’s attacking every night because she’s slutty and Ryder’s virginal. Or something. It’s unclear why Oldman targets Frost in the first place, though maybe there was a scene explaining it… along with his London base being right next door to Richard E. Grant’s sanitarium, which is important but not really thanks to Hart’s script. It’s like Coppola came up with all the visual machinations to distract from Hart not having the best narrative.

Of course, it’d be disingenuous to the source material if Bram Stoker’s had a solid narrative.

And at least Ryder and Reeves are failing with questionable (at best) accents. Actual Brits Grant, Frost, and Cary Elwes all have extremely bad moments where you wish they’d just be screwing up accents. Grant can’t seem to take the thing seriously, Frost is out of her depth, and Elwes always seems like he’s just coming into the film for the first time, scene after scene. He makes no impression. Neither does Billy Campbell (as a very Texan Texan). In an extremely odd case of stunt-casting, Tom Waits disappoints as Oldman’s first solicitor, who’s gone mad and been committed and now eats bugs. Waits’s eccentric take seems more appropriate for a TV commercial than drama.

As for Hopkins… he could be worse. He’s not good, he doesn’t take the part seriously (how could he), but he could be worse.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a gorgeous exercise in technical filmmaking. And not much else.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola; screenplay by James V. Hart, based on the novel by Bram Stoker; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Anne Goursaud, Glen Scantlebury, and Nicholas C. Smith; music by Wojciech Kilar; production designer, Thomas E. Sanders; produced by Coppola, Fred Fuchs, and Charles Mulvehill; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Gary Oldman (Dracula), Winona Ryder (Mina), Anthony Hopkins (Van Helsing), Keanu Reeves (Harker), Richard E. Grant (Seward), Cary Elwes (Holmwood), Billy Campbell (Morris), Sadie Frost (Lucy), and Tom Waits (Renfield).


Savage (2018, Cui Siwei)

Savage is not savage. It’s got some violence, some of it rough, and it’s got some mean bad guys, but it’s never savage. I mean, unless it’s supposed to be referring to hero—more than protagonist or lead—Chang Chen. He beats up some suspects pretty bad at the beginning because he’s mad about partner Li Guangjie getting killed in the third or fourth scene, after its established Li and Chang both want the same girl, doctor Ni Ni. Li dies in what should be a routine traffic stop and Chang can’t forgive himself, leading to a bad year between him and Ni (see, she actually wanted him anyway), which catches us up to the present action. Some of the year before stuff is important, most of it not. In fact, they could easily get away with none of it because the dead partner bit plays more to the melodrama, less to the tight, tough action noir. Savage takes too long getting started and ends badly but between the two is a well-executed, continuous (though not real time), very simple, and very physical action movie.

One year after robbing a gold shipment—which opens the movie, it seems somewhat savage but still not enough—robbers Liao Fan, Huang Jue, and Zhang Yicong return to the scene of the crime, where they also killed Li. Savage gives Chang every opportunity to avenge himself upon his foes but he never gives in, much to the film’s detriment as well as the lives of people around Chang. He hasn’t learned much since Li got killed apparently, other than beat up people and get away with it because you’re a cop. Though the guys in the restaurant harassing Ni had it comes and it’s nice to see her not getting smacked around when threatened, which happens a lot in the second half of the movie.

So Chang’s never Savage with the main villains. It’s weird.

The big boss is Liao Fan. He doesn’t talk much, just watches, thinks, acts. Liao’s great. Probably the film’s best performance. He’s fairly savage, but also not. For instance, he’s not as ruthless as Huang Jue, who’s gold-crazed. And excellent. Huang’s also great. Last guy is Zhang Yicong, playing Liao’s dipshit punk little brother. Liao makes Huang babysit Zhang. Zhang’s fine. He doesn’t any heavy lifting but also doesn’t seem to be capable of handling it if he did. Liao and Huang, who both mainly stay reflective versus proactive, seem like they’re in a different and better film in their scenes with Zhang. He doesn’t get it, which is meta, since his character doesn’t get it either.

The problem might just be director Cui and his interest in the actors. Cui and cinematographer Du Jie do a phenomenal job with the snow-pocalypse mountain where Chang chases the bad guys, but Cui couldn’t give a toss about the performances. The melodrama’s better at interior dialogue sequences (i.e. when the characters aren’t worried about getting buried in an avalanche but instead wondering why they can’t find any Swiss Miss in the lodge. The action’s either outside or in the lodge. Once it becomes clear everyone’s going to end up at the lodge, the strong action’s timer starts ticking down. It’s just obvious from early on Cui isn’t going to do as well inside a snowed-in lodge as he does in a snow-drowned wilderness. Cui likes taking time with the action; he needs lots of space.

Ni’s good even if she’s got a crap part and then is a punching bag to emphasis how the bad men are bad. Liu Hua’s good as the partial comic relief, the lodge manager who’s also infamous for poaching.

Even without dialogue, just being present, Liao kind of becomes the lead. Not the protagonist; Ni’s kind of the protagonist. So cop Chang’s the hero, damsel Ni’s the protagonist, and villain Liao’s the lead. It’s a very confused narrative. Cui’s script isn’t quite there.

Awesome music. I’ll be damned if I can find the name of the composer anywhere.

Savage is pretty good for most of its too long runtime. The melodrama doesn’t work, doesn’t inform the plot or the characters… the film’s lean, just not in the right way. And the parts could be a lot better. Cui really fails his actors, in script and direction. Worse, it’s just through indifference. Cui’s not even passionate about not being passionate about them.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Cui Siwei; director of photography, Du Jie; edited by Du Yuan; produced by Terence Chang; released by Huaxia Film Distribution.

Starring Chang Chen (Wang Kangho), Ni Ni (Sun Yan), Liao Fan (Lao Da), Huang Jue (Lao Er), Zhang Yicong (Lao San), Liu Hua (Guo San), and Li Guangjie (Han Xiaosong).


Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959, John Guillermin)

Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure is a fairly solid action thriller. Tarzan (genial, musclebound Gordon Scott) is hunting nemesis Anthony Quayle through the jungle. The movie opens with Quayle and his crew robbing an African settlement. They’re after the dynamite but they end up killing a couple people. They’re also in blackface, which would just be a dated oddity if you didn’t realize they were in blackface until one of them is deliberating the fate of an actual Black person, a sick African child. It’s this really weird moment in the film and it’s the first really memorable sequence. Greatest Adventure seems a little different from the start.

So the gang. Sean Connery is the cocky, rough and tumble one, Niall MacGinnis is the nerdy Dutch one (he’s the diamond guy—turns out it’s all about diamonds), Al Mulock is the secretive boat driver, Scilla Gabel is Quayle’s woman. Connery and Gabel are flirty but it’s never a thing for Quayle because Quayle’s so secure. Connery worships him, MacGinnis is terrified of him, and Mulock respects him. Because Quayle and Mulock are the older guys who aren’t shifty Dutchmen or cocky heartthrobs, they’ve got the experience. Half of Greatest Adventure is this “after the heist” movie, just set in Africa on a questionable boat. There are certain exterior shots where the boat looks really fake. And I think always when it’s on a set. And now I guess I better just get the set-talk over with.

Greatest Adventure has profound production deficiencies. Director Guillermin and cinematographer Edward Scaife are mixing location shots from two obviously different locations—usually with a jump cut courtesy Bert Rule—but Guillermin and Scaife also have some set shots, then some projection composites, then stock African safari footage. And then Rule’s jump cuts. And Guillermin’s composition. He’s so close on it, every time. The way he shoots leading lady Sara Shane ruins her performance. Well, okay, Rule’s cutting probably hurts it worse, but Guillermin has a very strange way of shooting Scott and Shane—like he doesn’t trust them with the scene, and then when they succeed (occasionally with qualifications, yes, but still success), Guillermin doesn’t acknowledge it. Scott and Shane have this relatively effective love affair in this tense experience. Because Shane didn’t mean to tag along with Scott, she just wanted to be a jerk to him—Shane’s a model but mostly just a special friend to a very rich guy. The characterization of Shane and Gabel—their character setup—is not great. But Gabel and Shane get caught up in the events—Scott hunting Quayle, Quayle deciding to hunt him right back—and both women start their own character arcs, totally separate from the boys.

It’s cool. Even with all the issues.

Scott’s fine. Well, until the end when he needs to carry the movie, even for a moment and he can’t, but he’s fine. Even with the goofy dialogue. He’s got very goofy dialogue to show he’s Tarzan and not some regular dude. Formal but grammatically incorrect or something. But it’s all about Quayle. Quayle gives a truly superb performance. He gets to Ahab out, he gets to bare his soul, he gets to handle the mundane personality conflicts between his crew, he gets to have this weird but sincere romance with Gabel. Quayle takes the role as written and adds all sorts of depth to it. Guillermin helps a lot with adding texture—with the bad guys, anyway—but it seems like Quayle’s out there on his own and Guillermin is just getting to watch like the rest of us. It’s a great villain performance. And rather grounded, especially considering it’s Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure.

It gets good for a long while, then the end fumbles. Badly.

But Guillermin tries a lot and some of it succeeds. Quayle’s legitimately fantastic performance, for example.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by John Guillermin; screenplay by Berne Giler and Guillermin, based on a story by Les Crutchfield and characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs; director of photography, Edward Scaife; edited by Bert Rule; music by Douglas Gamley; produced by Sy Weintraub; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Gordon Scott (Tarzan), Anthony Quayle (Slade), Sara Shane (Angie), Niall MacGinnis (Kruger), Sean Connery (O’Bannion), Al Mulock (Dino), and Scilla Gabel (Toni).


A Tattered Web (1971, Paul Wendkos)

For its sub-genre of TV movie, A Tattered Web is pretty great. It’s a dirty cop story, only the dirty cop—Lloyd Bridges—is only a dirty cop because he’s trying to protect himself from a murder change and he’s only trying to protect himself from a murder charge so he doesn’t upset his daughter (Sallie Shockley). See, Bridges only killed this woman Anne Helm because Helm was sleeping with Shockley’s husband, Frank Converse. And Bridges didn’t even mean to kill her, he was just shoving her against the wall and, boom, somehow killed her. It was an accident. And Bridges was really about to call it in before he realized he didn’t want to go to prison; even if he got a jury sympathetic to the manslaughter nature of it… Bridges was there to harass Helm for sleeping with Converse. He was abusing his authority big time. And Web is from the early seventies so theoretically he might get in trouble for it.

So the movie is Bridges trying to stay ahead of his partner, a better than his material Murray Hamilton, while trying to convince Converse there’s another murderer—because the cops are after Converse because he’s the lover—and trying to make sure Shockley doesn’t find out about Converse and Helm. There’s always a lot going on in Tattered Web; it’s got a great pace.

It’s also got a rather strong script. There are a lot of narrative shortcuts and whatnot—it’s a seventy-some minute TV movie, after all—but writer Art Wallace still takes the time to have Bridges, now fully conspiring with Converse and framing an innocent man (Broderick Crawford), there’s still this scene where Bridges just gleefully watches Converse get his ass kicked. Even though the subplot doesn’t do much for the story, Web does have this one about Bridges becoming a violence junkie. It’s not great, writing or acting, but it’s weird and imaginative and you can cut it some slack. It’s nice Wallace cares enough to do character development, which isn’t just for Bridges.

Though Bridges also has this great one about the self-loathing his cover-up is causing. There’s visible pain in Bridges’s face when he manipulates Crawford. It’s often a good performance; Bridges isn’t phoning it in. He gets carried away but only slightly. If he doesn’t rein it in himself, it’s like the film’s Converse standing by to pull Bridges back.

Converse gives the best performance. It takes him a while to get going—as he’s doing more dick things at the beginning—but then he starts getting actually good. Shockley you wish was better because she’s clearly capable of it (she pulls off the weird infantilizing interrogation scene she has with Hamilton), but she gets abandoned for the end.

The end is a drag down fist fight on cliffs overlooking the Pacific. There’s no room for girls there, just the men who have to prove themselves. It’s a poorly done action scene—Bridges’s stunt man has brown hair versus blond—but it’s a great idea in the narrative.

A Tattered Web is all right.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Paul Wendkos; written by Art Wallace; director of photography, Michel Hugo; edited by John McSweeney Jr.; music by Robert Drasnin; produced by Bob Markell; aired by the Central Broadcasting System.

Starring Lloyd Bridges (Sgt. Ed Stagg), Frank Converse (Steve Butler), Sallie Shockley (Tina Butler), Murray Hamilton (Sgt. Joe Marcus), Broderick Crawford (Willard Edson), Anne Helm (Louise Campbell), John Fiedler (Sam Jeffers), Val Avery (Sgt. Harry Barnes), and Whit Bissell (Mr. Harland).


I Died a Thousand Times (1955, Stuart Heisler)

Going into the third act of I Died a Thousand Times, the film is in great shape. It’s got a strange pace but it’s all working out, mostly thanks to lead Jack Palance’s peculiar and strong performance, and it doesn’t seem like it could do anything wrong enough to screw things up. Unfortunately, the resolution is one giant choke. One where Palance is basically a bit player (or less) and the script fully embraces the casual misogyny it’s been flirting with the entire time. It seemed like it had gotten over it–Thousand’s casual misogyny has highs and lows, what with slut-shaming female lead Shelley Winters and then damsel in distress Lori Nelson’s arc from sweet young girl to callous, shallow tease (the film’s also got issues with the young people and their fast music, eventually—and perfectly—personified in an uncredited Dennis Hopper, who Palance sadly doesn’t beat to a pulp). But for the finish, when the film’s drained everything positive like sap, it brings back that casual misogyny. It’s not just disappointing and beneath W.R. Burnett’s script, it’s also annoying.

The film opens with Palance driving through the desert, headed west. We get the ground situation in pieces. He’s an ex-con bank robber, paroled after eight years. He’s not hostile so much as guarded. But he lets his guard down right away with kindly old couple Ralph Moody and Olive Carey. And not only because of their fetching, though club-footed and shy granddaughter Lori Nelson. Palance and Moody have a good rapport, which may or may not get some context in the script later on. Writer Burnett’s got some really big first act dialogue problems—when Palance and Winters first meet and shoot really bad slang at each other–but the script’s got a really delicate arc for Palance. It makes some leaps and bounds, particularly with the relationship with Palance and Winters, but it doesn’t ever seem rushed, just truncated. Lots of the credit goes to Palance, whose performance is initially as much about presence as delivery.

We meet Winters after we get the setup—courtesy cop turned crook James Millican (it also doesn’t help the film’s take on law enforcement takes a 180 for the third act)—crime boss Lon Chaney Jr. (who’s delightful) pays to get Palance pardoned so Palance can knock-off the jewelry stored at a swanky mountain resort. Even in 1955 dollars, I imagine it must have cost Chaney a lot to get Palance pardoned—despite being in for life—from a federal penitentiary. Probably more than the heist is worth. And if it was so expensive, why not have good backup for Palance? Instead, Chaney’s hired young punks Earl Holliman and Lee Marvin. Not only do they like fast music, they also bring along a dame—Winters. Ostensibly she’s there with Marvin, but she’s also keeping Holliman on a low boil. It’s because she’s manipulating the young sociopaths Palance lets her stay. See, Palance is actually a big softy. We know it with Moody, then we really know it once he friends the puppy at the tourist cabins where they’re all staying. He never entertains Winters, but he doesn’t disrespect her. He trusts her to handle the boys. It’s a very interesting relationship between them, because every time Palance seems like he’s warming up, he pulls back immediately, no warning. It’s a really nice performance.

Winters has her hands full, in the first act, with Marvin and Holliman (despite not having many scenes with them). Died has that weird structure I mentioned earlier. The first and second acts almost overlap because two such distinct things are going on. There’s Marvin, Holliman, Winters, and inside man at the resort Perry Lopez goofing off at the cabins, then there’s Los Angeles with Chaney and Millican, but also kindly old folks Moody and Carey (not to mention Nelson). When they’re finally gearing up to pull the heist, there’s a shock because there’s been no expectation of seeing Holliman or Marvin actually having to participate. They seem way too passive, not just in their behavior, but also in how the film positions them.

Though, actually, they’re in the background of the heist, just like they’re in the background of Palance and Winters. So it seems Heisler and Burnett agree. Or just didn’t want them in the way during the heist, which is fine. Marvin and Holliman are fine, but they’re not interesting to watch. Palance, Winters, even someone with a lesser performance like Nelson or Millican… they’re interesting to watch. A lot of Died takes place outside, often on location, and the film just feels more natural outdoors—another irony given the ending. Heisler rarely has ambitious shots outside the location shooting, but he and cinematographer Ted D. McCord succeed with that location shooting so credit there—but he’s more interested in the cute puppy than the relationship between aging career criminal Palance and girl with a past Winters, though Heisler does perk up a little once they’re making face. Because Winters falls hard for Palance. He’s a big tough guy who occasionally poetically describes the human condition and likes puppies and is kind to old people.

Winters doesn’t get the best part. Like, her exposition feels like it’s been given a G rating when it needs to be an NC-17. Because 1955. But Winters gets it across. The strongest thing, which the film doesn’t pursue, is how Winters interacts with Palance after she’s realized he’s a sweetie. The end fails the hell out of her too. It’s a real bummer.

I Died a Thousand Times—which actually makes no sense as a title since Chaney at one point talks about how you can “only die once”—really needs a better third act. It’s not even as competent, technically speaking, as it ought to be. Because it’s foreshadowed from the first or second scene, only in a really obvious way where they shouldn’t have really gone for it. Especially not since there’s another bookending device sitting there available, apparently just a passive addition to serve the plot but with a lot more possibility than the actual ending.

Is it worth seeing? Yeah. If it had a solid ending, it would’ve given Palance an amazing lead performance and possibly a great supporting one for Winters. It’s just… a real bummer.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Heisler; written by W.R. Burnett; director of photography, Ted D. McCord; edited by Clarence Kolster; music by David Buttolph; produced by Willis Goldbeck; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Jack Palance (Roy Earle), Shelley Winters (Marie Garson), Lon Chaney Jr. (Big Mac), Earl Holliman (Red), Lee Marvin (Babe Kossuck), Ralph Moody (Pa Goodhue), Olive Carey (Ma Goodhue), Lori Nelson (Velma), Perry Lopez (Louis Mendoza), Howard St. John (Doc Banton), James Millican (Jack Kranmer), and Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez (Chico).



Free Solo (2018, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin)

Free Solo is ostensibly about rock climber Alex Honnold’s obsession to free solo (climbing alone without ropes, maybe falling to a gruesome death) Yosemite’s El Capitan mountain. You know, from Star Trek V. Does Honnold beat Captain Kirk’s time? You could watch and find out. Or Google.

Only it’s not about Honnold’s obsession because the film takes a year off from the story. So is it about making a movie about Honnold’s preparation to climb El Cap? No. So is it a movie about Honnold? No, not at all. At some point the movie seems to realize Honnold’s not sympathetic at all, even when he’s doing good works (which don’t really figure into his psyche, which would be far more of an interesting subject—how did this affectless person get the idea to start a charity). That discovery of the lack of sympathetic nature comes before Honnold’s girlfriend shows up—but after Honnold says he doesn’t want a serious relationship because it might screw up his climbing—and Free Solo does try to investigate some of his lack of affect. Is it because his amygdala doesn’t register danger? Don’t know, he gets medically questionable MRI and then it’s over. Is it because his mom only spoke French to him as a child? Don’t know, Mom disappears real quick after she shows up (she only speaks English in the movie so Honnold telling the French anecdotes sound specious). Because Honnold’s not a reliable narrator. He’s always lying to his girlfriend, whose interview segments initially seem like they’d be good training for a couples’ counselor but once they buy a house together it becomes the girlfriend’s craven middle class ambitions and Honnold’s utter disinterest. Presumably he’s fixating on his El Cap obsession but we never find out because the film doesn’t get deep with its subject.

Its subject who apparently set up the film project himself for himself. But there’s no ego. Honnold treats the film as an inconvenience, which makes sense. There are a number of rather inauthentic devices directors Vasarhelyi (who’s never in the film) and Chin (who’s in it a bunch) use.

In theory, Free Solo could just be about using amazing camera technology to film this guy free climbing El Capitan for the first time in history but… it’s not. The film’s very shady about how they actually shoot the climb. After eighty minutes of the camera crew being omnipresent, they disappear for the climb itself, even though the cameras are obviously there (and Chin talked to his camera crew all about their placement). But there are lots of cameras. And some really good microphones. At least, there had better have been really good microphones because if they added the sound of Honnold grunting through his climb into the movie? It’d be bigger bullshit than the scenes with the camera crew fretting over possibly recording Honnold fall to his death. They’re not just camera guys, they’re rock climbers and they’re Honnold’s friends. At least as close as he seems to get to friends. They’re going to be really sad if he dies and they’re filming it for this movie.

So the movie ends up being about the camera guys worrying Honnold’s going to fall and die. It’s not about his girlfriend worrying, it’s not about his challenge and achievement, it’s the camera guys feeling like if he dies, they’re partially responsible for turning it into a movie.

But Vasarhelyi and Chin already know if Honnold falls to his death. They know before the movie starts. They present the last third, featuring the footage of his climb, like an exploitative thriller, even hiding where they’ve got cameras and cameramen in the resolution. Wouldn’t it make more sense to showcase Honnold’s ability?

He’s the only guy who’s ever done this climb. This climb, captured on “film,” has never happened before. And they treat it like a chance to terrify instead of champion.

And given Honnold’s really questionable take on reality—he blathers about being a warrior and is a possibly obnoxious vegetarian (but not vegan, so it’s like, what are you bragging about). He’s also an emotionally absent boyfriend, but, hey, his girlfriend likes him… for reasons.

Is there a great movie in Free Solo? With better editors, a more earnest, more authentic narrative distance, not to mention better music… probably. But the filmmakers sit on some amazing climbing footage, which they tease out, set to iffy music by Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts and lackluster cutting from Bob Eisenhardt. It’s a bummer.

Especially since Honnold’s probably best observed through a telephoto lens.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin; directors of photography, Chin, Clair Popkin, and Mikey Schaefer; edited by Bob Eisenhardt; music by Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts; produced by Chin, Vasarhelyi, Shannon Dill, and Evan Hayes; released by National Geographic Documentary Films.


The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018, Terry Gilliam)

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote opens with a “twenty-five years in the making” title card; it seems for every year it took director Gilliam to get the film made, he added another ending. Don has a troubled third act, with Gilliam and co-writer Tony Grisoni tacking on false ending after false ending, trying to get the story where it needs to go for the film to get its finish. Is it an effective finish… no. The finish looks pretty–Don always at least looks pretty thanks to Nicola Pecorini’s photography, even if some of Gilliam’s Panavision aspect shots are a little boring. Another thing you’d think he might’ve been more ready with—especially since there’s a plot point about storyboards in the first act.

The first act is less successful than the second act and better than the third act; it’s a little lazy, a little disingenuous, but it doesn’t have the herky-jerk narrative of the third act (when the film moves from ending to ending). Don is about wunderkind commercial director Adam Driver, who’s having a disastrous shoot on his latest project. He’s doing some kind of commercial—either the product isn’t mentioned or it isn’t repeated enough for me to remember—and he’s using a Don Quixote character, filming on location in Spain. Why Spain? Not sure. I mean, we soon find out Driver shot a student film in the area (about Don Quixote) but apparently forgot about it until confronted with a bootleg of said film. He’s just a whiny prima donna director, surrounded by a sniveling entourage. If Driver’s got enough charm to get through this portion of the film, Gilliam didn’t have him use it. The leads’ ineffectiveness ends up playing a big part in why Don fails.

Anyway. Pretty soon Driver’s remembering he spent two months making a zero budget Don Quixote film and goes off to visit the village where he shot it. There are a bunch of flashbacks to the first film’s production, with the moppy-headed Driver far more likable than his slick commercial auteur; it softens Driver up enough to get him sympathetic for the second act. It also introduces Don Quixote himself, Jonathan Pryce, and impressionable, vivacious teenage girl, Joana Ribeiro. Before the film, Pryce was a shoemaker and Ribeiro was just daughter of the restaurant owner. When Driver gets to the village, he finds out Ribeiro has—in the ten years since—become a fallen woman and Pryce has gone insane and thinks he’s actually Don Quixote.

After Driver reunites with Pryce, sees what’s happened, and flees, there’s a little bit more with the commercial-making—the film relies heavily on a subplot involving Stellan Skarsgård as Driver’s boss, Olga Kurylenko as Skarsgård’s wife and Driver’s occasional lover, and Jordi Mollà as the Russian oligarch who Skarsgård’s wooing—but it’s all water treading to finally team Driver up with Pryce. So they can go on great adventures.

Are the adventures great?

Eh.

There are moments during the adventures when Driver and Pryce click. Not enough of them. And not after Ribeiro returns to the story and Driver decides he’s got to save her from the really bad situation she’s in. Don is very paternalistic with its female characters, which is rather unfortunate since Ribeiro and Kurylenko are much better than the male actors in the film.

Neither Driver or Pryce have enough star wattage for the film. Not the way Gilliam directs it or writes it. Neither of them command the screen. They’re constantly upstaged by supporting players. They also have a lack of rapport they really need. Again, some of it is the script, some of it is the direction, but more compelling leads would get Don where it wants to go a little more smoothly.

Mollà’s either miscast, poorly directed, or bad; he doesn’t actually have enough material for it to matter. But he certainly doesn’t have the heft the part seems to require. Skarsgård’s in a similar situation, but he’s at least affable and enthused.

What else… oh, the ostensible political asides. Gilliam doesn’t want to commit to any of them but he does want to acknowledge “reality.” Not sure why. It just tacks needless minutes onto the film’s laborious runtime.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote could be a lot worse. Driver and Pryce are never bad, they’re just not… good enough. Ribeiro and Kurylenko are good enough, they just never get enough material. Though, to be fair, neither of them belong in the film. Without their subplots, maybe Driver and Pryce would spend enough time together to find some rhythm.

But given that twenty-five year lead time, you’d think it’d be a lot tighter of a production.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Terry Gilliam; written by Gilliam and Tony Grisoni; director of photography, Nicola Pecorini; edited by Teresa Font; music by Roque Baños; production designer, Benjamín Fernández; produced by Mariela Besuievsky, Amy Gilliam, Gerardo Herrero, and Grégoire Melin; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Adam Driver (Toby), Jonathan Pryce (Don Quixote), Joana Ribeiro (Angelica), Olga Kurylenko (Jacqui), Stellan Skarsgård (The Boss), Óscar Jaenada (The Gypsy), and Jordi Mollà (The Oligarch).


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