★½

Elite Squad (2007, José Padilha)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

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

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


Train to Busan (2016, Yeon Sang-ho)

The middle of Train to Busan is excellent. The first act is iffy, the ending is forced, but the middle is where the film excels. It’s where director Yeon just gets to do action, not getting slowed down with the humanity of it all (which he’s uneven on), and just executes these breathtaking action suspense sequences. Not just Yeon, editor Yang Jin-mo, photographer Lee Hyung-deok, composer Jang Young-gyu—and of course the actors. During the action suspense stuff, everyone does really well. Even lead Gong Yoo is good during these sequences and doesn’t have the overwhelmed look he gets the rest of the movie. Gong’s the only character with a real character arc—he goes from being a selfish hedge fund manager and bad dad to a hero in the fight against a zombie horde; he even becomes a better dad and reals everything he’s been missing in daughter Kim Su-an’s life. It’s ought to be emotionally devastating.

But Gong can’t do it. Being fair, it’s not like he gets any help from Yeon on it either, who doesn’t do a good job with directing the character stuff. Outside the action sequences, Yeon’s best directing is all on Ma Dong-seok and Jung Yu-mi, who play an expecting married couple caught up in the afore implied zombie apocalypse. Worse, Yeon’s adequate directing on Kim—as she experiences having this bad dad—falls apart as the film progresses. It’s like Yeon can’t pretend Busan’s about Gong and Kim patching things up thanks to a crisis situation and just sleepwalks the film through the series where they act like it’s working. Maybe it’s just a bad combination; the way Yeon directs the actors, the script, Gong’s flimsy performance. Because a lot of things do come together just right in other ways during Busan. Ma and Jung are wonderful. They’re both excellent—he’s a loving tough guy and she’s, well, okay, she’s just the loving tough guy’s pregnant wife, but she’s really good. And Ma’s able to carry the film when Gong can’t and the film acknowledges it, Gong acknowledges it. Yeon just doesn’t use it to further anything along. Top-billed Gong goes into the third act a better person but a thinner character; everyone else has more depth than him, with the possible exception of daughter Kim, just because she’s a plot device to keep him moving through the picture. Not in a craven way, just a very pragmatic one. Gong and Kim might be the A plot in the film, but all the other plots are more interesting, which becomes real obvious in the third act.

First there’s teen paramours Sohee and Choi Woo-sik, who barely get introduced during the film’s rapid-free introduction of the disaster movie cast—I mean, it’s zombies on a bullet train—have a little do at the beginning of the second act, but then get this layered C plot leading up to a heart-wrenching, loving conclusion. Very nice work from Choi and Sohee and from Yeon. He takes their C plot seriously. He also takes the out of nowhere and completely awesome conductor turns action hero subplot seriously. Jeong Seok-yong is fantastic in that part. Total surprise, but great pay-offs.

The supporting characters’ arcs always pay off (save businessman worm villain Kim Eui-sung’s arc, which goes on too long and gets too important) and always a with a little more enthusiasm than Gong and Kim get. Their family drama is basically red herring and not particularly tasty red herring because Gong’s so wanting at the dad stuff.

When Yeon makes it work—like with Gong, Ma, and Choi unintentionally becoming three musketeers and having to save people and get past zombies on the train and figure out how not to get bit doing it… great stuff. Great chemistry between the actors. It’s not just smooth, it’s easy. It feels like Yeon’s found the film’s vibe and he couldn’t possibility screw it up. He burns through all that newfound goodwill slow then fast; when he hits the third act, it’s a bunch of wide swings. They’d be fine, if they could just hit anything.

Train to Busan probably ends on its lowest point. It’s not bad, it’s got some strong performances, some great special effects—the “choreography” on the running, scary but silly zombies, is breathtaking—but Busan’s got problems pulling into the proverbial station. The third act’s just way too pat.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Yeon Sang-ho; written by Park Joo-suk; director of photography, Lee Hyung-deok; edited by Yang Jin-mo; music by Jang Young-gyu; production designer, Lee Mok-won; costume designers, Gweon Yu-jin and Im Seung-hee; produced by Lee Dong-ha; released by Next World Entertainment.

Starring Gong Yoo (Seok-woo), Ma Dong-seok (Sang-hwa), Choi Woo-sik (Yong-guk), Kim Su-an (Soo-an), Jung Yu-mi (Seong-kyeong), Sohee (Jin-hee), Kim Eui-sung (Yon-suk), Ye Soo-jung (In-gil), Park Myung-shin (Jong-gil), Choi Gwi-hwa (Homeless Man), Jeong Seok-yong (Captain of KTX), and Lee Joo-sil (Seok-woo’s Mother).


48 Hrs. (1982, Walter Hill)

About seventy minutes into 48 Hrs., Nick Nolte apologizes to Eddie Murphy for the racial slurs he’s been calling him since Murphy showed up in the movie. Nolte’s just doing his job, he explains, “keeping him down,” which is an unintentionally honest moment about cops and Black men. Murphy nods to it, but says, “that doesn’t explain all of it,” and Nolte sadly agrees. He’s just a racist White cop. There’s only so much he can do.

At this point in the film, Nolte and Murphy are buddies. 48 Hrs. is an eighties buddy cop movie after all. Even if the first act is a bad but mildly amusing riff on a Dirty Harry movie, introducing hard-living rogue copper Nolte, who just happens to have a sophisticated girlfriend, Annette O’Toole. O’Toole’s pointless in the film, which ends up being fine because the movie’s literally got nothing for her. She gets maybe one good line—which isn’t bad for the supporting cast; outside Nolte and Murphy, not many good lines in the film… you’d think with four screenwriters on it and at least three of them desperate to be iconic, there’d be some good lines thrown around.

Not really. In fact, when O’Toole gets hers’, it’s a surprise because it’s on the end of a bad conversation. The writing on O’Toole and Nolte is awful. Somehow they’re likable together, but not because of anything in the dialogue. Or maybe the scene where much shorter than Nolte O’Toole follows him down the hallway and it’s cute is an accident. 48 Hrs. is not successfully directed, so it’s hard to give Hill much credit other than keeping the trains running on time. Even if it does start really dragging at the end of the first hour, after Nolte and Murphy have just had a fistfight to kill time, followed by the threat of another fistfight.

So the movie opens with Sonny Landham breaking James Remar out of prison. He’s on a chain gang. Hill gets to pretend it’s Cool Hand Luke for a shot or two and the James Horner music is really, really good, but then things start to fall apart once Remar escapes and leaves a guard behind to call it in. The calling it in is a bunch of expository nonsense; 48 Hrs. frequently reminds of plot points in the first hour. It’s like the screenwriters were leaving notes for each other where to pick up. Not a smooth script. Not good dialogue script, not a smoothly paced script. Thank goodness for Eddie Murphy and Horner and cinematographer Ric Waite.

Nolte tags along on a routine call with Jonathan Banks, who’s great and sets a way too high standard for the cop acting in the movie, only they’re not prepared for Remar and Landham and Remar ends up with Nolte’s gun. So Nolte has to go get Eddie Murphy out of jail—Murphy and Remar used to do jobs together—so Murphy can help Nolte find Remar. That sequence of the film, outside Murphy’s introduction, isn’t good. It’s way too perfunctory and doesn’t do anything to transition affable tough jerk Nolte from the opening to the cruel racist who’s going to be berating Murphy for the next thirty or so minutes. If the film had just stuck to its convictions and had Nolte be as vocally racist as he appeared… it’d be taking a position on something. But those are questions for non-buddy cop movies so you get the laughs you can. The first turn for Nolte comes during Murphy’s big set piece in a redneck bar. It makes it seem like 48 Hrs. has its set pieces down… but then the fistfight in the streets because the guys are tired is a few scenes later and it’s clear the movie’s got no idea.

The second act ends with a bad chase sequence in a subway station, but at least Hill’s got to try because there’s so much going on, followed by a song montage with Murphy dancing with a girl and Nolte driving through San Francisco to meet him to kick off the third act, which quickly leads to a stole bus sequence, then there’s the big Chinatown finale. So much action. And all of it middling or worse.

During the Chinatown chase sequence, it’s obviously not the three editors’ fault—though earlier some things are definitely their faults—it’s Hill not knowing how to direct the sequence.

Hill’s… a peculiar director for the film. He’s humorless, he’s got terrible instincts with performances: Nolte’s never good, just more mediocre at times than bad, Remar’s disappointing, David Patrick Kelly’s annoying, Brion James’s annoying–Frank McRae’s yelling police captain is worth walking out of the movie on—other than Murphy… nobody’s actually good. McRae and James aren’t in the movie very much and shouldn’t able to mess it up, but they do. Banks and O’Toole get off easy with “too small” roles.

The James Horner score keeps it interesting for the first forty or so minutes, until the way the movie positions Murphy and Nolte gets a little more tolerable, Ric Waite’s photography is good enough in the first act you wonder what happened later on. There are a lot of obvious insert shots in 48 Hrs.—McRae doesn’t even appear to be in the same room with the other actors in his big scene—and they never match. Technically, 48 Hrs. asks for a lot of indulgence. The music’s not good enough to cover it all.

I mean, the San Francisco scenery does do quite a bit of the lifting. I’m not sure the movie could get away being so thin anywhere else.

It’s ostensibly a Nolte vehicle, which starts as a fine one, turns into a terrible one, but then turns into an adequate one for Murphy. Not all of Murphy’s scenes are good. Maybe a quarter of them fail. But the successful ones are big hits.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Walter Hill; written by Roger Spottiswoode, Hill, Larry Gross, and Steven E. de Souza; director of photography, Ric Waite; edited by Freeman A. Davies, Mark Warner, and Billy Weber; music by James Horner; production designer, John Vallone; costume designer, Marilyn Vance; produced by Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Nick Nolte (Jack Cates), Eddie Murphy (Reggie Hammond), James Remar (Ganz), Sonny Landham (Billy Bear), Annette O’Toole (Elaine), Olivia Brown (Candy), David Patrick Kelly (Luther), Brion James (Kehoe), Jonathan Banks (Algren), James Keane (Vanzant), and Frank McRae (Haden).


Cronos (1993, Guillermo del Toro), the U.S. theatrical version

Cronos opens with an English-narrated prologue about a sixteenth century alchemist making a device to prolong his life. The uncredited narrator is wanting, the music isn’t good—it doesn’t seem like the rest of Javier Álvarez’s score, but who knows (well, the distributor would); it’s a change for the U.S. theaters and a bad one.

So it’s great when the film’s able to overcome that awkward opening—given the difference in tone, it’s hard to say if the original Spanish version would make much difference… some of the problem is the prologue content itself. But once writer and director del Toro gets Cronos settled in the present action, with a patient, deliberate introduction to lovable grandparents Federico Luppi and Margarita Isabel and their almost always silent granddaughter, Tamara Shanath, the iffy opening is an immediately distant memory. Cronos has MacGuffins in its MacGuffins, especially considering where the film ends up; the prologue is one of them. Or two of them.

The first act is mostly Luppi and Shanath hanging out at his antique shop—he’s an antiques dealer, grandma Isabel teaches dance, Shanath’s parents seem to both be deceased, she’s their paternal grandchild. There’s a cute little story Luppi eventually tells Shanath about her dad, who once tried to get Luppi to stop smoking by hiding Luppi’s cigarettes. Shanath’s doing the same thing, sort of; she’s hiding Luppi’s Cronos device.

Getting ahead of myself here.

So Luppi and Shanath are in the shop and they discover a statue with a hollow base. They discover it because some tweaker-type shuffles into the antique shop, looking at some of Luppi’s still wrapped pieces. Luppi gets curious, unwraps the statue, finds the hollow base, opens it, takes out a golden scarab looking thing. Pretty soon it latches on to Luppi’s arm and pokes him with its six legs. Inside the device—the biggest effects sequences in the film are the interiors, close ups of miniature gears—is an unidentified insect. It acts as a filter, presumably putting its own antibodies into the user’s blood, then distributing it back into the body.

The actual process of the device never gets too much attention, partially because there probably aren’t any bugs out there able to turn people into vampires—getting ahead again, sorry—but also because del Toro avoids painting himself and the film into any corners. It’s going to have shades of comedic absurdity in the second act, whereas the first just has echoes of magical realism (via the mechanical). Del Toro needs to keep things relatively loose.

Luppi becomes immediately addicted to the device, something he hides from wife Isabel but granddaughter Shanath finds out right away. Shanath’s not in favor of the Cronos device, but eventually relents enough to allow Luppi to keep it (as opposed to her hiding the device from him). Unfortunately, bad guys Claudio Brook and Ron Perlman also want the device and they’re willing to get violent about it.

Brook’s an old rich guy living in a sterile room in an industrial district with only American nephew Perlman to care for him. Perlman’s an errand boy, waiting for Brook to die for some inheritance. Brook doesn’t even tell Perlman why they’re looking for the device; besides the opening narration, all the exposition about the device comes from Brook, who never tells Luppi quite enough to make informed decisions.

Because pretty soon, Luppi starts noticing he’s lusting for human blood. He’s also lusting for Isabel, reinvigorated, clean-shaven, horny. Shanath really doesn’t like the amorous grandad, though Isabel doesn’t seem to notice the severity of the change.

At this point in the film, however, Cronos completely shifts gears as it prepares for the third act, which is all about Shanath having a grandfather who’s a vampire. There’s a lot of cute stuff with Shanath having a grandfather who’s a vampire, even though Luppi’s face is literally molding off. Isabel, who’s always a distant fifth in the film, disappears for the most of the last thirty minutes. It’s all about Luppi and Shanath trying to get things sorted out with Brook and Perlman, which seems like it’s the most important thing in the third act, but really isn’t. Despite being murderous, Brook and Perlman aren’t particularly threatening.

Probably because del Toro plays them for laughs a lot. Perlman’s doing a mostly comedic part. Brook’s doing a Mr. Big thing, only his performance is weak and his moments are where Cronos feels a tad cheap.

The film’s got a low budget and del Toro’s inventive with compensating for it, often successfully, but the cartoon villains are a mistake. Though as Cronos winds down, it seems like everything’s gotten to be a mistake, even Álvarez’s usually excellent score. Del Toro tries for something with the finale and misses, ending the already run down, deus ex machina’d Cronos on a shrug. Some of it’s the composition, with del Toro going in too tight on some of the shots—again, might just be budgetary, he and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro have some need cost-saving tricks throughout—but even so qualified, it’s a miss. The wandering narrative distance doesn’t do the film any favors.

There’s some great color palette stuff throughout from Navarro—the blue nights, the colors on the costumes, especially Shanath’s, then Shanath’s green glow stick, which becomes a familiar visual trope—but also some bland photography.

Cronos isn’t a failure by any means, but it’s also not the success it ought to be. Perlman’s bold comic villain turn, for example, is never as successful as it should be. Luppi’s turning into a vampire takes away all the subtext in his performance, replacing it with the inevitable inevitable blood lust. Isabel’s good but barely in it. Shanath’s in a similar situation. She’s always around but rarely the focus, even though it’s her story.

Del Toro does a great job stretching the budget, which is where Cronos is the most impressive. But that success really shouldn’t be the film’s most impressive feat.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro; director of photography, Guillermo Navarro; edited by Raúl Dávalos; music by Javier Álvarez; production designer, Tolita Figuero; costumer designer, Genoveva Petitpierre; produced by Arthur Gorson and Bertha Navarro; released by Ventana Films.

Starring Federico Luppi (Jesús), Tamara Shanath (Aurora), Ron Perlman (Angel), Margarita Isabel (Mercedes), and Claudio Brook (De la Guardia).


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).


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