★½

The Man with Two Brains (1983, Carl Reiner)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mystery is… blah.

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

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

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

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

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


Pennies from Heaven (1981, Herbert Ross)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shame to waste the truly spectacular Peters performance.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

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

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


Overnight (2003, Mark Brian Smith and Tony Montana)

Overnight is occasionally amusing, often mortifying, never contextualized enough to be interesting, and always compelling. But it’s compelling only if you’re somewhat familiar with the subject of the film, Troy Duffy. Specifically, Duffy’s directorial debut, The Boondock Saints. In 1997, Harvey Weinstein bought the script for Duffy to direct at Miramax and less than a year later put the project in turnaround. Why? It’s unclear. But apparently Duffy pissed off Miramax exec Meryl Poster so much, Weinstein dropped it. How did Duffy pissed off Poster? Unclear. There’s no interviews with anyone like Poster in the film, much less Weinstein. The one person besides Duffy who badmouths him does so with a pixelated face and the producer who actually worked for Miramax on the project has voice distortion.

The documentary, made by Duffy’s band’s co-managers—oh, yeah, Duffy also had a band, which is apparently shitty. There’s none of their music in Overnight (and no clips from Boondock). So if you haven’t heard the music, if you haven’t seen the movie, you’re not going to get the full effect of the documentary because directors Smith and Montona just don’t have the right material to tell the story. It’s also not compelling unless you want to see jackass Duffy show the full shallowness of his humanity. It’s like a puddle with some old dog poop in it.

And Overnight is eighty minutes of it.

The first people Duffy turns on—so his band and ostensibly the documentary makers are all part of his crew. They’re going to take Hollywood by storm. There are multiple scenes where Duffy talks about leading the greatest group of creatives in history because he’s got his younger brother and the two guys in the band and the documentary makers slash band managers. Only once the band signs a deal, they fire the managers. There’s a long scene of Duffy and his brother berating the band mangers (you know, the guys who made Overnight) and telling them they will never get paid. Ever.

Then the movie keeps going. The movie they’re making. So even though there was this falling out, they didn’t fall out. There’s maybe less footage going forward but there’s also less story, just Duffy self-destructing more and their album sucking. Eventually Duffy will fall out with everyone and the movie ends on an upbeat note about how he didn’t get any money from the movie’s eventual video success because his agency screwed up his contracted.

Duffy’s got this conspiracy theory about how Harvey Weinstein is influencing his agency to give him bad deals when really it seems like the agency (William Morris) put an absolute tool (Jim Crabbe) in charge of Duffy’s account. Like, no one comes out of Overnight looking good. At best you’re just a dope. Even co-director Montana, who eventually contributes a lot of onscreen interviews, looks bad. Smith, the other one, he’s somewhat sympathetic still. But the guys in the band are dicks. Jake Busey is a pig. But it really does seem like, from the movie, Crabbe screwed everything up somehow.

Except what really happened was Duffy went out drinking with obviously Miramax would’ve used it as an Ewan McGregor vehicle Ewan McGregor and got in a fight about how Duffy supported the death penalty and people who don’t suck. Like McGregor. Not in the movie. At all. But apparently it’s directly responsible for Miramax dumping the project.

Anyway.

Overnight is adequately executed rubbernecking and nothing else. Kind of good music though—from Jack Livesey and Peter Nashel. It’s better than it needs to be.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written, photographed, directed, and produced by Mark Brian Smith and Tony Montana; edited by Smith, Montana, and Jonathan Nixon; music by Jack Livesey and Peter Nashel; released by THINKFilm.


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).


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