★★½

The Ref (1994, Ted Demme)

Every once in a while, The Ref lets you forget it’s just a comedy vehicle for stand-up comic Denis Leary and so doesn’t need to actually be a good drama and just lets you enjoy the acting. Demme’s direction is simultaneously detached, thoughtful, and sincere. He and editor Jeffrey Wolf craft these wonderful comedic scenes. Sure, they’re usually some mixture of smart and crass and good old shock vulgar, but they’re good. They’re funny. The Ref starts as a straight-faced spoof of a hostage drama. Lovable master thief Denis Leary takes viciously fighting and profoundly unhappily married Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey hostage. On Christmas Eve. Eventually their extended family shows up and the film culminates in Leary, who’s spent the movie refereeing the fighting couple—refereeing, The Ref, a little punny but, you know, fine. Makes you think about sports not the movie actually being a Bergman spoof.

It’s not. I wish it were, but it’s not. It’s a mainstream comedy with just the right amount of jokes at people and with people, once you get over the nastiness between Spacey and Davis. The opening scene is them in marriage counseling—an uncredited BD Wong plays the overwhelmed counselor who’s just there for the eventual movie trailer… and to normalize their behavior. Their exceptionally mean comments to each other. Hateful, spiteful, so on and so forth. The film’s giving us permission to laugh at Spacey and Davis trying to manipulate and hurt one another. It comes right after an Americana intro to the rich, idyllic suburb where the action takes place. We meet the friendly, personable cops, the children looking in the window at Christmas decorations, on and on. There are a lot of disparate pieces to The Ref, like Raymond J. Barry as the weary police chief with the department of lovably dumb cops, the It’s a Wonderful Life anecdote scene with a bunch of those lovably dumb cops, or J.K. Simmons as a blackmailed military school administrator. The movie makes them all fit. Sometimes with help from composer David A. Stewart, but always thanks to Demme and editor Wolf. The Ref’s got a great flow.

So then too is credit due screenwriters Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss; Weiss has a story credit but LaGravenese is top-billed so there’s a story, I’m sure. Maybe it explains why the melodramatic writing for Spacey and Davis—because Spacey and Davis need meat, they need something they can devour. They both get various solo scenes throughout where they get to let loose. Showcases, really. Because in addition to having a lot of funny scenes, The Ref is about watching Davis and Spacey do these character examinations of what would otherwise just be caricatures. They’ve got to be funny being dramatically mean and hateful to each other, while building the foundation to support the performances when the roles finally get stripped to the bone and laid bare for melodramatic purposes. While in what’s basically a sitcom situation involving Leary pretending to be their marriage counselor while he waits for his getaway boat to be ready. See, Spacey’s got an evil mom (Glynis Johns, who’s inexplicably British) and remember it’s Christmas Eve so it’s going to be Johns, apparently Spacey’s moron brother Adam LeFevre—nothing’s more unrealistic in the film than LeFevre and Spacey being brothers; they don’t exchange any lines; it’s like the film wanted to avoid it. LeFevre’s monosyllabic and lives in fear of wife Christine Baranski, who’s nasty to their kids—Phillip Nicoll and Ellie Raab but in a stuck-up White lady sort of way. Yeah… sitcom is the way to describe The Ref, actually.

Anyway.

Then there’s Spacey and Davis’s son, Robert J. Steinmiller Jr., who’s fine. The movie doesn’t ask too much of him and Demme directs him well. He’s a burgeoning criminal mastermind, a sophomore shipped off to military academy. He’s a plot foil more than a major supporting player—basically the film demotes him in the second act because it’s not fun watching Spacey and Davis berate each other in front of Steinmiller, which isn’t a great situation.

The filmmakers do what they can but there’s an inherent unevenness to The Ref. It feigns being different things—wry hostage spoof, hateful family Christmas movie—without ever trying to actually be those things. It’s comfortable just relying on Davis, Spacey, and Leary to get it through.

Because Leary’s the emcee. The film hints at giving him some stand-up rants throughout but soon makes it clear it’ll never interrupts the action for them. It’s a Leary vehicle but not a base one. He’s excellent. Not clearly profoundly talented like Davis and Spacey—which, note, is much different than their performances being profound—but excellent in the part. He’s very good at making room from his more talented, second and third-billed costars.

The Ref’s good.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ted Demme; screenplay by Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss, based on a story by Weiss; director of photography, Adam Kimmel; edited by Jeffrey Wolf; music by David A. Stewart; production designer, Dan Davis; costume designer, Judianna Makovsky; produced by Ron Bozman, LaGravenese, and Jeffrey Weiss; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Denis Leary (Gus), Judy Davis (Caroline), Kevin Spacey (Lloyd), Robert J. Steinmiller Jr. (Jesse), Richard Bright (Murray), Raymond J. Barry (Huff), Glynis Johns (Rose), Christine Baranski (Connie), Adam LeFevre (Gary), Phillip Nicoll (John), Ellie Raab (Mary), Bill Raymond (George), John Scurti (Steve), Jim Turner (Phil), Robert Ridgely (Bob Burley), J.K. Simmons (Siskel), Rutanya Alda (Linda), and BD Wong (Dr. Wong).


The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018, Susanna Fogel)

The Spy Who Dumped Me has, rather unfortunately, a punny title. It’s an accurate title—the film’s about spy Justin Theroux dumping his civilian and not aware he’s a spy girlfriend Mila Kunis—but it doesn’t capture the mood of the film. No doubt, it’s a hard one to title—because even though it starts with Kunis going to Europe to help Theroux on a mission (after a very well-executed gun fight), it becomes more about Kunis and best friend Kate McKinnon as they find their respective knacks in life as spies. Or at least, movie spies, who have to worry about gun fights in public places, evil trapeze artists, and “Edward Snowden” cameos. Spy purposefully goes all over the place (and all over Europe), with the core mystery being engaging enough but never the point. Spy’s all about its performances, not the MacGuffins.

Which makes Sam Heughan’s smooth British spy guy stand out as a fail. He’s fine. He’s even charming at times, but he’s… nothing special. When Kunis has her pick of spies, Theroux or Heughan, she goes Theroux—who’s got his issues too—but at last he’s got some character. Heughan looks like a British spy caricature, acts like a British spy caricature. He’s no fun. Theroux’s not really fun either, but he doesn’t have to be fun. But Heughan? He’s the straight man to partner Hasan Minhaj, whose thing is just being a boring straightedge and he’s so fun at it. Or their boss, Gillian Armstrong, who plays a British spy supervisor caricature and makes it seem like a real character. Heughan’s fine, but he’s a bummer. Theroux’s… a bummer. At least one of them needs to be better.

Nicely, everything else is great so the two supporting dudes being a little lackluster doesn’t matter. And Heughan’s good with the fight stuff; he gets sympathy for being such a surprisingly solid action star. Spy gives Kunis and McKinnon a lot, keeping an undercurrent of humor. Heughan doesn’t really have the humor. Sometimes he’s got Kunis and McKinnon giving audio commentary, which brings some humor, but director Fogel handles it differently. Probably contributes to keeping Kunis and McKinnon in danger. They’re not because it’s still a fish out of water buddy comedy and it can’t kill either buddy but the film’s got to put them in danger for about an hour straight before a resolution. Spy isn’t short—it’s real close to two hours—and it’s really well-paced and keeping tension in an action comedy isn’t easy. Luckily there’s a lot of violence. Spy goes all in on the action violence; lots of great action set pieces; they’re what make the movie work in the first act. It demands attention.

Kunis is a good lead, but McKinnon walks away with it. She’s really funny. Even when the scene isn’t really funny, McKinnon’s really funny. And her third act stuff is impossible and she makes it happen. Fogel’s careful not to showcase McKinnon too much—without not showcasing her either—and giving Kunis her time but… it’s McKinnon’s show. She’s part of all the best material. Kunis gets most of it, but third act is all McKinnon’s. Also Kunis and McKinnon are great together, which makes everything feel a lot more even throughout. It’s just… Kunis gets a romance subplot and McKinnon gets to be hilarious. Shame Kunis doesn’t have better dudes in the triangle. But Heughan’s fine.

He’s fine.

Great cameos from Jane Curtin, Paul Reiser, and Fred Melamed. Ivanna Sakhno’s awesome as the Bond villain assassin out to get Kunis and, especially, McKinnon.

The Spy Who Dumped Me is really good at being really funny and good enough when it’s not being really funny.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Susanna Fogel; written by Fogel and David Iserson; director of photography, Barry Peterson; edited by Jonathan Schwartz; music by Tyler Bates; production designer, Marc Homes; costume designer, Alex Bovaird; produced by Brian Grazer and Erica Huggins; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Mila Kunis (Audrey), Kate McKinnon (Morgan), Sam Heughan (Sebastian), Hasan Minhaj (Duffer), Justin Theroux (Drew), Ivanna Sakhno (Nadedja), Jane Curtin (Carol), Paul Reiser (Arnie), Lolly Adefope (Tess), and Gillian Anderson (Wendy).


Becket (1964, Peter Glenville)

Becket has some genre constraints. Significant ones. It’s a king-sized 70mm Panavision English history epic only it doesn’t feature any big battles. In fact, it goes out of its way not to show battles. It’s also an early sixties historical epic and it’s trying to be a little edgy in how it shows the relationship between King of England Peter O’Toole and his friend and advisor Richard Burton, the title character. Burton doesn’t just help O’Toole drink and carouse, he also advises him with matters of state, giving better advice than anyone else. Are they lovers? Queen Pamela Brown certainly implies it, but she’s also a shrieking evil harpy of a royal who wants to infest the kingdom with her idiot sons. Becket’s real clear—O’Toole might be a tyrant and a rapist, but his wife is even worse; England would be worse off with her having a say.

The film’s a toxically masculine take on certain aspects of toxic masculinity but not others. If O’Toole and Burton were lovers in the film, it’d probably make them more likable. Without, the film just implies Burton helps O’Toole rape comely subjects, sometimes taking part, sometimes not. O’Toole, being a Norman, doesn’t look on the Saxon peasants as human beings—but, you know, does and chooses not to so he can abuse them—and Burton, the only good Saxon in all England, helps him along. See, Burton’s an amoral collaborator. Being amoral and without honor means he can collaborate with a free heart, making him a great sidekick for O’Toole, both socially and politically. The scenes where Burton debates the Church on O’Toole’s behalf—the film’s set in the 12th century, before England split from the Roman Catholic Church—are fantastic. 1160 is about the last time a bunch of ignorant White men debating each other had much purpose and it’s great material for Burton. He excels at being intellectually superior. While O’Toole excels at having fun. Unfortunately, Burton’s arc takes into spiritual superiority, which Becket avoids almost as much as it avoids whether or not Burton and O’Toole got horizontal. O’Toole goes from having funny to being a maniacal, drunken jerk… O’Toole excels at it as well; the second half of Becket is all about the response to the title character, not about the title character’s experiences.

To stop having trouble with the Church, O’Toole—and the actual, you know, King Henry II—gives Burton—Becket—the job of Archbishop of Canterbury, making him the head of the Church in England. O’Toole assumes Burton’s going to be his old self, Burton instead decides he’s got to do it legit and devout. He doesn’t so much find God—or at least not in an overt way, Becket’s not getting into that part—as he finds a moral center. Is he arguing one amoral, exploitative system against another? Sure, but he’s ignorant of the Church’s crimes while party to the State’s. It gives Burton a great part—for a while—because he can sell the heck out of holier than thou; intellectually so, then spirituality so. Shame the movie dumps him in the last third or so.

It’s obviously going to happen—the movie opens with O’Toole talking to Burton’s coffin (spoiler alert)—but when the movie shifts focus from Burton to O’Toole, while introducing nagging wife Brown and nagging mother Martita Hunt, not to mention awful royal sons, it’s clear early on we’re never really getting back to Burton. His experience—in the film named after his character—isn’t important. He goes off and does monk-y things. Even when he’s convinced of his inevitable martyrdom, it comes at the literal end. Nothing of his experience of living with it. Becket, Becket decides, is a mystery. Even if Burton was doing a perfectly good job of explaining him.

It’s like the film doesn’t want to think too hard about anything. Other than giving its stars some good scenes. It’s a historical epic, after all. Director Glenville’s pretty plain, direction-wise; when he does have a really good shot, it’s a surprise. Geoffrey Unsworth’s photography is solid, but for an epic, not a character drama. Glenville’s not directing a character drama, but the stars are acting in one. The film, based on a stage play, never feels stagy enough. Good epic music from Laurence Rosenthal. Becket’s an event instead of an achievement, leveraging Burton and O’Toole without ever facilitating them.

John Gielgud’s awesome as the King of France. Otherwise no one in the supporting cast is really up to Burton or O’Toole’s level. Definitely not Burton’s monk sidekick David Weston, who’s… fine. Fine for a not entirely unsuccessful historical epic.

Burton and O’Toole could do more with more. They do quite well with what they have but Burton getting the second-half shaft causes unsurmountable damage.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Glenville; screenplay by Edward Anhalt, based on Lucienne Hill’s translation of the play by Jean Anouilh; director of photography, Geoffrey Unsworth; edited by Anne V. Coates; music by Laurence Rosenthal; production designer, John Bryan; costume designer, Margaret Furse; produced by Hal B. Wallis; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Peter O’Toole (King Henry II), Richard Burton (Thomas Becket), David Weston (Brother John), Donald Wolfit (Bishop Folliot), Martita Hunt (Empress Matilda), Pamela Brown (Queen Eleanor), Siân Phillips (Gwendolen), Gino Cervi (Cardinal Zambelli), Paolo Stoppa (Pope Alexander III), and John Gielgud (King Louis VII).


The King’s Speech (2010, Tom Hooper)

There’s a lot of fine direction in The King’s Speech. Hooper does exceedingly well when he’s showcasing lead Colin Firth’s acting or showing how Firth, who starts the film as Duke of York and ends it King of England, moves through the world as this sheltered, unawares babe. Of sorts. These successful sequences would stand out even if there weren’t Hooper’s really, really, really questionable distorted camera lens thing he does when he’s trying to show how uncomfortable Firth feels existing with his stammer. The film’s about how Firth, as the man who would be King George VI, gets help with his stammer leading up to him becoming the king as well as the country going to war with Germany. There’s a prologue set in the mid-twenties, the first time Firth has a public speaking engagement—in addition to everything going on with Firth’s complicated ascension to the throne, the Nazis coming to power, there’s also the radio revolution (David Seidler’s script does bite off a lot to chew)—with most of the film set in the middle thirties, as Firth starts working with speech therapist Geoffrey Rush.

The film gets a lot of humor playing Firth and Rush off one another. Rush is this patient, thoughtful, compassionate guy while Firth’s prince (most of the film occurs before he’s king) is sullen, quick-tempered, but incredibly gentle-hearted. Rush’s Australian doesn’t go in for the pomp and circumstance when it comes to treating royals, whereas Firth doesn’t have any idea how to interact with anyone not breaking their back coddling him. The film’s already established Firth’s gentle nature—with this devastating scene (for Firth anyway) where he tells his daughters a story, working his way through his stammer, the frustration and regret and adoration all over his face. Firth’s performance is magnificent. Rush’s great and all—so’s Helena Bonham Carter as Firth’s wife—but Seidler doesn’t give them great parts. Firth doesn’t even have a great part. He just gets to have this great performance. Speech is all about the change in Firth’s character and the resulting development of the performance. It’s all about the acting, even if the part itself is fairly thin. Yes, he gets to show vulnerability and Speech even goes as far to imply emotional abuse and bad parenting caused his nervous condition, which in turn caused his stammer, but the movie never gets too far into it. Speech avoids a lot. Like delving too deep on Firth, or giving Bonham Carter anything to do except fret about him, or continue Rush’s subplot—he gets more to do in the first act than anywhere else. The rest of the time he’s just Firth’s sidekick.

There are a lot of familiar faces in the supporting cast, some more successful than others. Michael Gambon is great as Firth’s father, Derek Jacobi isn’t as the archbishop; Timothy Spall’s in between as Winston Churchill. Guy Pearce plays Firth’s brother, first in line for the throne but willing to throw it all away for married American girlfriend Eve Best. Pearce is in some weird makeup, which does most of the acting for him. Sadly it doesn’t do a particularly good job of it. Best is merely ineffectual more than anything else. She’s not in it enough. Like many of the subplots, she and Pearce just disappear from the film when they stop being useful. You get through Speech seeing all these major events—some for everyone, some just for the royal family—without ever getting Firth’s prologued reaction to them. He’ll bitch to Rush about Pearce, but finding out Best is a Nazi sympathizer has no substantial effect. Because Seidler’s not willing to get into Firth’s head too much. Speech is the inspiring tale of an unlikely king who managed to overcome a not insignificant disability. Seidler or Hooper never do anything without that purpose in mind.

Including all the distorted camera lens.

Other than not telling Hooper those shots are a bad idea and simultaneously condescending and insipid, cinematographer Danny Cohen does an excellent job. Hooper has got a handful of really excellent shots, which Cohen executes flawlessly. There’s one great exterior shot of Firth walking where I kept waiting for it to cut away but Hooper kept holding it, every second making it better. Because even though the lengthy shot is unlike a many of Hooper’s other shots, it showcases Firth’s performance, which Hooper does a superb job with. Except when the lens are distorted.

The only other significant supporting cast member is Jennifer Ehle, as Rush’s wife. It’s a too small part, with Ehle not getting anything much to do when she’s in the film, but she’s good and rather likable. It’s a shame Speech didn’t take more time with Rush. Not even once he and Firth form a sincere friendship; it’s all about Firth, not about Firth and friend. So certainly not about Firth’s friend’s family life. Other than the occasional sweet scene.

The film looks great—sets, costumes—sounds great; even though Alexandre Desplat’s score is a little bland, the sound design itself is outstanding. It’s a good production.

The King’s Speech showcases a spectacular performance from Firth, which is basically all it needs to be a success (as far as its own ambitions go). Rush and Bonham Carter both being excellent as well—Bonham Carter and Firth are lovely together—doesn’t really matter. It’s a shame Seidler and Hooper weren’t more ambitious but they still got that phenomenal Firth performance.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Tom Hooper; written by David Seidler; director of photography, Danny Cohen; edited by Tariq Anwar; music by Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Eve Stewart; costume designer, Jenny Beavan; produced by Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, and Gareth Unwin; released by The Weinstein Company.

Starring Colin Firth (Bertie), Geoffrey Rush (Lionel), Helena Bonham Carter (Liz), Guy Pearce (David), Jennifer Ehle (Myrtle), Derek Jacobi (Archbishop Lang), Timothy Spall (Churchill), Eve Best (Mrs. Simpson), and Michael Gambon (King George V).


Fast Color (2018, Julia Hart)

Fast Color spends most its runtime saying it’s not a superhero movie—it’s just about people who happen to have superpowers—only for the third act to play like a low budget X-Men outing. And it’s not just the not-battle-in-the-streets battle-in-the-street resolution, it’s also how lead Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s character arc becomes all about her superpowers and not her returning to her abandoned home, abandoned mother (Lorraine Toussaint), and abandoned tween daughter (Saniyya Sidney). It’s also not about how Mbatha-Raw’s gotten sober—drugs help keep her out-of-control powers in check—or how the world hasn’t had rain in the last seven or eight years. There’s a lot going on in the world of Fast Color and director Hart does a great job showing its more mundane side—utilizing the limited budget well—but engaging with the superhero movie tropes after promising to avoid them… it doesn’t undue the work of the film through most of its runtime, but it does leave the potential unrealized.

For instance, just when Mbatha-Raw and Sidney could be really connecting, the film concentrates on the superpowers. And it doesn’t even go all the way with the superpowers. It doesn’t just not show them, it doesn’t show their effect on anyone, so it’s like they’re not even there. Sorry, Fast Color’s finish is about the only disappointing thing in the film (as it compounds the problems with Toussaint’s part). Hence the harping.

The film opens with Mbatha-Raw on the run. She’s got some kind of earthquake power, which she can’t control at all but she at least tries to mitigate the damage. Water is an expensive item because of the lack of rain fall, but there’s still booze, eggs, electricity, all sorts of things just no smartphones. The whole no more rain subplot is fine but doesn’t add anything to the film. It mostly ends up serving as a budget limiter; so fine. But just fine.

Pretty soon we discover nerdy government scientist Christopher Denham is after Mbatha-Raw but also she’s gotten to her hometown, which he doesn’t realize. So she goes to mom Toussaint’s farm, even though Mbatha-Raw’s never met Sidney and Sidney doesn’t have any expectation of ever meeting Mbatha-Raw and then Toussaint makes Mbatha-Raw sleep out in the barn because her powers are so out-of-control. The film never directly addresses how Mbatha-Raw’s terrible life, on the run but also before, instead focusing on what she can do to improve her footprint, which is fine because it centers itself around Sidney’s well-being. Mbatha-Raw’s motivations and thoughts play out in her expressions versus actions or dialogue. She’s haunted by flashback sequences too. Mbatha-Raw gives an excellent lead performance but her part isn’t really enough the lead as far as the plot goes.

Most of the film is about what’s going to happen without raising much expectation. David Strathairn plays the local sheriff who’s also on Mbatha-Raw’s trail, trying not to let Denham and the feds take his case. Given how much the film ends up leveraging Strathairn, at the expense of other characters (and their actors), it’d have been nice if Strathairn weren’t involved in one of Fast Colors big secrets. The film has a lot of big secrets—well, either secrets or lies, because Toussaint wants to keep Sidney sheltered. See, Toussaint and Sidney also have powers, but they’re not as potentially damaging or affecting as Mbatha-Raw’s. When Mbatha-Raw bonds with Sidney, it’s over the powers, which is weird but the acting’s good—Sidney’s phenomenal—so Color can do whatever it wants as long as it stays focused on the characters.

The end abandons that focus and… the film suffers.

Technically, the film’s outstanding. Save the occasionally too DV night time photography. Many of photographer Michael Fimognari’s night time shots are fantastic, but when there’s a lot of movement on the screen… it looks off. Martin Pensa’s editing is good, Rob Simonsen’s music is good, Hart’s direction is good… Fast Color’s got all the pieces—well, okay, not Denham (who’s way too eh)—the script just doesn’t quite get them assembled right at the end.

The film gives Mbatha-Raw a solid lead, Sidney an okay supporting showcase (Sidney could handle more), and Toussaint a disappointing one. The film utilizes her but doesn’t showcase her, which really hurts in the third act.

Fast Color’s successful without exactly being a success.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Julia Hart; written by Hart and Jordan Horowitz; director of photography, Michael Fimognari; edited by Martin Pensa; music by Rob Simonsen; production designer, Gae S. Buckley; produced by Horowitz, Mickey Liddell, and Pete Shilaimon; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Ruth), Lorraine Toussaint (Bo), Saniyya Sidney (Lila), Christopher Denham (Bill), and David Strathairn (Ellis).


Blinded by the Light (2019, Gurinder Chadha)

What’s not clear about Blinded by the Light is how much of the film’s success is because of lead Viveik Kalra or because about ninety straight minutes of soundtrack consists of The Best of Bruce Springsteen. The film, based on an actual British Pakistani Springsteen stan, is about teenager Kalra discovering Springsteen at just the right time in his life—it’s 1987, Thatcher’s England has no jobs and overt skinheads (it’s also funny how this film, set in the 80s and in the UK, feels very 2019 for the US), Kalra’s got a controlling dad (Kulvinder Ghir, in the film’s most troubled part), he’s starting at a new school, his best friend (Dean-Charles Chapman) has got a Pet Shop Boys knock-off band and accompanying style. Kalra’s feeling caged and, after a chance encounter with the only other East Asian guy at his new high school—Aaron Phagura, who’s appealing enough but literally has no personality beyond a smile. Phagura loans Kalra a couple Springsteen tapes; it takes him a few days and a few significantly severe new problems in his life to listen.

Once he does, Light becomes an attempt at visualizing how a person connects with a song. It’s obvious stuff—emphasized lyric excerpts on the screen with some Adobe animation on the text itself—but director Chadha goes all in on it. Get over whether to not it’s creative enough and focus on whether or not it’s functional enough. Because the film tries to avoid ever actually talking about politics. It shows the politics. It shows Ghir gets attacked by Neo-Nazis; they’re matching and blocking the way to Kalra’s cousin’s wedding. But it doesn’t get close to the characters as they experience it. There’s a detached narrative distance, which gets stylized to some degree with the music, but the film never explicitly ties the events surrounding Kalra to the accompanying Springsteen songs. It seems like there’s an intentional clue from Chadha on how to watch the film at one point—Kalra is in an East Asian dance club and puts on Springsteen and watches how the sixteen year-old working class Pakistani girls really are just the sixteen year-old working class American girls in the song. And so on. It’s a great moment, though Chadha doesn’t know how to amplify it. Though Light’s even keel, tone-wise, is one of its most consistent successes. Other than Kalra. And the accompanying Springsteen songs doing their job because they’re Springsteen songs.

The film’s got a lot of inconsistent successes. Something works here for a while, stops working for a while, starts working again. Or something working goes away then comes back, still working. The plot is better than the script, which is most exemplified with dad Ghir. Ghir’s got the film’s biggest personal journey—Kalra’s Bruce Springsteen obsession is indicative of far more serious problems—and Light is way too comfortable letting Ghir be a caricature. When it’s time for Ghir to get a moment to act and not react to someone else, the film cuts away. By the time Ghir starts putting his foot down about Kalra’s very un-Pakistani attitudes, it’s too late for the scene to carry much weight. The film actively encourages everyone involved to give up on Ghir because even as he’s a Springsteen song character too… the way the film grafts it with the working class Pakistani father in the eighties story doesn’t give Ghir much agency. It’s a really effective performance from Ghir, but it’s not a good part.

To be fair, there aren’t a lot of good supporting parts. There are lots of good supporting performances, but the parts are all rushed; if you’re a supporting cast member, you don’t get a complete story arc. You’re lucky if you get even a brief subplot—like Kalra’s sister, Nikita Mehta, clubbing and having a boyfriend—or Kalra’s eventual love interest, Nell Williams, and her struggle against her conservative parents. Williams is a great eighties movie character—the costuming in Light are fantastic, ditto the production design. By Annie Hardings and Nick Ellis, respectively. Director Chadha is definitely able to realize a comprehensive vision here, it’s just a very safe one. The film doesn’t go hard on the musical stuff; there are some musical numbers, which are good, but they go away pretty soon in the second half, replaced by montages, which are different. It also doesn’t go hard on the political stuff. Outside the fight with the Neo-Nazis, Kalra and Ghir are always keeping a stiff upper lip and turning the other cheek as far as the racism goes. And Light never gets into the characters’ heads for their reactions to it.

So the good supporting performances—Mehta, Chapman, mom Meera Ganatra (who gets the film’s worst part, but kind of because it should be from her perspective instead), Williams; Phagura’s fine. He’s got nothing to do but he’s likable. The only iffy performance is Tara Divina as Kalra’s cousin who comes to live with them recently before the movie it seems like… maybe? There’s something murky in the ground situation but she’s a brat and Divina’s too thin about it. Great cameos from Rob Brydon, Hayley Atwell, David Hayman.

Blinded by the Light hits its target but isn’t aiming high enough; it’s just too middle of the road, leveraging Kalra and Springsteen instead of informing them.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Gurinder Chadha; screenplay by Sarfraz Manzoor, Chadha, and Paul Mayeda Berges, based on a book by Sarfraz Manzoor and inspired by music by Bruce Springsteen; director of photography, Ben Smithard; edited by Justin Krish; music by A.R. Rahman; production designer, Nick Ellis; produced by Jane Barclay, Chadha, and Jamal Daniel; released by Entertainment One.

Starring Viveik Kalra (Javed), Kulvinder Ghir (Malik), Dean-Charles Chapman (Matt), Nell Williams (Eliza), Meera Ganatra (Noor), Aaron Phagura (Roops), Nikita Mehta (Shazia), Tara Divina (Yasmeen), David Hayman (Mr. Evans), Hayley Atwell (Ms. Clay), and Rob Brydon (Matt’s father).


Biloxi Blues (1988, Mike Nichols)

Biloxi Blues has some rather peculiar, rather significant third act problems. Like, it doesn’t have a third act. Did they cut a bunch to keep the PG rating or something? Because at a certain point the rising action stalls out and the film goes into montage summary overdrive. After giving lead Matthew Broderick and ostensible love interest Penelope Ann Miller an amazing “meet cute” first dance, full of chemistry and energy, Miller never gets another line. She’s in a few montage shots, as Broderick romances her, but she’s not even present in the film, just visible. It’s a very weird development, especially considering how phenomenally director Nichols shoots that dance scene.

And Nichols has a lot of very thoughtful direction in the film, which is another reason it feels like it doesn’t have a third act. None of the direction is thoughtful. In fact, it’s tonally regressive. The end of the film—the last real scene—turns everything into a smile, with writer Neil Simon and Nichols running as far away from every question or difficult thought they raised as fast as they can. It just doesn’t make any sense. Unless Simon didn’t have an ending to the movie and for some reason everyone—Nichols, the producer, the studio—just shrugged and said, “Yeah, Matthew Broderick can sell it with narration, he’s Ferris Bueller, it’ll be fine.”

Is Broderick’s narration read good? Yeah… it’s not bad. It’s not great, but it’s not bad. It’s also not his fault because Simon doesn’t give him anything to say really. Whatever lessons Broderick learned from his time in boot camp in 1945 Biloxi don’t come through in the narration. Or Broderick’s onscreen performance. It also turns out he’s supposed to be narrating it from the present, which seems weird with the accompanying shots. There’s got to be a story behind Blues’s production. There’s just got to be.

Because no one has a full character arc in the entire film. Not even Christopher Walken, who’s about one great scene away from a fantastic performance. He never gets his great scene, never unconditionally. It’s usually a combination of script and Broderick; Broderick, not in performance or in role as written, never gets to honestly react to Walken. Walken hounds Broderick for much of the film, because Broderick’s a New York smart-ass and, well, he’s also Jewish. Walken’s not going to take a cheap shot about the Jewish thing, but it’s there. Anytime Walken and Broderick have some kind of showdown where you want to see Broderick’s reaction—or, hell, Walken’s—the action goes to the rest of the platoon.

The rest of the platoon is alpha Matt Mulhern, wannabe alpha Markus Flanagan, average guy Casey Siemaszko, popular but good guy Michael Dolan, and super-nerd (and fellow Jewish guy) Corey Parker. All of the performances are good. It’s exceptional Parker’s able to get away with such an exaggerated stereotype, especially since there’s not a lot of consistency with the character in the script. He starts the film constantly farting and having to take a crap. Apparently it stops being a problem after he starts eating the army food. He’s also supposedly having all sorts of run-ins with Walken; we see some of them, but never the fallout. It’s just like with Broderick… Simon’s not interested in the characters developing from their experiences in Blues.

But Nichols directs for it. The way he positions the actors—Broderick, Parker, Mulhern, Flanagan, Siemaszko, Dolan—Nichols has got a distinct focus. Only then the script goes somewhere else and Nichols lets the film lose that focus. As a result, it always feels like something’s missing. Especially with Walken; especially after the “third act” reveals on Walken. Biloxi Blues should given Walken a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and doesn’t.

Mulhern’s really good. Dolan’s really good. Flanagan and Siemaszko are sort of flat good; the script doesn’t really give them enough. In Siemaszko’s case, Simon forgets about him too.

Great cameo from Park Overall. Good photography from Bill Butler, good music from Georges Delerue, great production design from Paul Sylbert. The forties soundtrack selections aren’t great and tend to be during the ill-advised “for laughs” sections, but they also make the film seem artificial and vaguely insincere, which is definitely not what it ought to be doing.

Biloxi Blues should be really good. It’s got the pieces to be really good. Instead, it’s decent, but a misfire.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mike Nichols; screenplay by Neil Simon, based on his play; director of photography, Bill Butler; edited by Sam O’Steen; music by Georges Delerue; production designer, Paul Sylbert; produced by Ray Stark; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Matthew Broderick (Eugene Morris Jerome), Christopher Walken (Sgt. Toomey), Matt Mulhern (Joseph Wykowski), Corey Parker (Arnold B. Epstein), Markus Flanagan (Roy Selridge), Casey Siemaszko (Don Carney), Michael Dolan (James J. Hennesey), Penelope Ann Miller (Daisy), and Park Overall (Rowena).


Black Orpheus (1959, Marcel Camus)

There’s a lot to love about Black Orpheus. Director and co-writer Camus does a bunch of great stuff, just not when it comes to how he and Jacques Vito adapt the legend part. Orpheus is about, you know, Orpheus (Breno Mello), who is now a Brazilian trolley car driver slash musician slash dancer, and Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), who is now a… young woman who comes to Rio trying to avoid a stalker (Adhemar da Silva). They meet and Mello is immediately infatuated, which is complicated by his impending nuptials to Lourdes de Oliveira. For her part, Dawn doesn’t fall for Mello until she hears him singing.

Now, Camus and Vito go rather on the nose with the adaptation—de Oliveira and Mello hear about the legend from the marriage license clerk. Apparently Mello has never heard of it before, which seems… if not impossible, at least improbable. If Dawn knows about the legend or hears about it during the film’s present action, it happens off screen.

But it’s not clear how much this matter-of-fact handling of the source plot is going to affect the film until the finale, when it turns out Camus and Vito don’t have anything up their narrative sleeve. Mello’s trip to the underworld—updated to late 1950s Brazil—is perfunctory. Narratively, Camus and Vito have spent most of the film building the subplots; even though Dawn knows she’s on the run from this stalker and in danger, she doesn’t get to be the protagonist when it’s important. She does for the chase scenes (one of them), but Camus and Vito’s narrative distance doesn’t really allow for traditional protagonists. Mello, for example, is a constant mystery. First, you wonder how he’s got it worked out in his head de Oliveira is going to be okay with him throwing her over for literal stranger Dawn on the day they get their marriage license. It’s also a little weird Dawn’s cousin, Léa Garcia, is so supportive of Mello’s conquest—though, some of it might just be every woman in Black Orpheus secretly hates every other woman in Black Orpheus, at least if they’re not related. The parts are fifty percent good, fifty percent iffy.

Visually, most of the film is about movement. It’s Carnaval. It’s time to sing and dance and there’s a lot of it going on. Camus and editor Andrée Felix do a fine job editing together these sequences, which are often focused on the dancers’ expressions (and how they convey the experience) rather than their footwork. But there’s some very impressive footwork. Mello’s great.

And the third act loses that movement. Sure, Camus still focuses on some movement, but they’re smaller scale movements. For example, when Mello’s at a de facto seance, Camus showcases someone who’s got the spirit and is speaking tongues. Is their movement important to the scene overall? Not really, but it gets even worse when it turns out it’s all a foreshadowing MacGuffin.

Of course, the third act loses a lot more. Camus and Vito drop supporting cast, but they also turn the cast they’ve got into avatars at best and caricatures at worst. They all become functional, losing their personality. It’s worst with kids Jorge Dos Santos and Aurino Cassiano. They’re omnipresent in most of the film; they think Mello’s awesome and follow him around, trying to get him to play guitar for them; they think Dawn’s amazing and follow her around, trying to help with her burgeoning romance with Mello. But then they lose most of their agency in the final third, inexplicably separated on the way to Carnaval just to provide for a reuniting moment at Carnaval. It ought to be foreshadowing things might not go well for the wrap-up, something further confirmed when it turns out the value the characters place on human life is… shockingly low. That and manslaughter. And guilt.

The best acting is from Garcia, de Oliveira, and the kids. Mello and Dawn are both likable but their performances aren’t particularly deep. They’re never able to convincingly convey their characters apparent desires, though everyone around them is fine doing so. Maybe it’s how they’re written.

Great photography from Jean Bourgoin, great music from Luiz Bonfá and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Feix’s editing is uneven but only because there are constantly shots where the cast is clearly looking at someone for direction. Not clear if Feix just didn’t cut right or if he didn’t have an alternative.

As far as the surface goes—setting Orpheus in modern-day Brazil during Carnaval—Black Orpheus does fine. But it definitely doesn’t fully utilize its available resources.

And the big dramatic finish seems way too rushed in how Camus shoots it.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Marcel Camus; screenplay by Camus and Jacques Viot, based on a play by Vinicius de Moraes; director of photography, Jean Bourgoin; edited by Andrée Feix; music by Luiz Bonfá and Antonio Carlos Jobim; production designer, Pierre Guffroy; produced by Sacha Gordine; released by Lux Compagnie Cinématographique de France.

Starring Breno Mello (Orfeo), Marpessa Dawn (Eurydice), Lourdes de Oliveira (Mira), Léa Garcia (Serafina), Waldemar De Souza (Chico), Alexandro Constantino (Hermes), Jorge Dos Santos (Benedito), Aurino Cassiano (Zeca), and Ademar Da Silva (Death).


Adam’s Rib (1949, George Cukor)

Adam’s Rib has a great script (by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin), but outside director Cukor not being as energetic as he could be—he might’ve been able to compensate—the script is the biggest problem with the film. There are the really obvious problems, like when Spencer Tracy gets reduced to a supporting role in the third act but instead of giving that extra time to Katharine Hepburn, which would make sense because she’s the other star, it spreads the time out way into the weeds. Not the courtroom resolve, of course, but every other scene is just contrived to not get too close in on the lead characters. And there are some communication issues—like were we supposed to get Tracy’s bigger philosophical objection to Hepburn taking her case, which is his case too.

Let me back up.

The movie opens with this great exterior sequence in New York City, following Judy Holliday as she stalks some guy (Tom Ewell). Turns out he’s her husband and he’s cheating on her so she’s got a gun and she’s going to do something about it. He doesn’t die; she’s arrested and charged with attempted murder. Hepburn wants to defend her—the jilted husband gets a pass on shooting at cheating wives and their lovers, why not women too. Tracy’s the assistant district attorney. He doesn’t agree with Hepburn’s opinion, then really doesn’t agree with her becoming Holliday’s defense attorney.

Most of the movie is them fighting it out in the courtroom, then catching up with them in the evenings, seeing how the professional competition is taking a toll on their marriage. But a comedy.

A comedy with what turn out to be a lot of big ideas, which it would’ve been nice if they’d talked about during the movie instead of doing a big subplot around Tracy and Hepburn’s neighbor, David Wayne, who’s a popular musician; he’s also got the hots for Hepburn and sees his chance as the case starts to destabilize the usually wonderful marriage.

That usually wonderful marriage is what makes Adam’s Rib so much fun. Tracy and Hepburn are phenomenal together. Their married banter, thanks both to the actors and their script, is peerless. And they’ve got a great relationship. The script does a great job in the first act establishing their wedded bliss separate from their careers, which then collide and spill over, but not in a way the first act’s handling would predict. The script’s much tighter in the first act as far as establishing the ground situation but it doesn’t do anything to set up the character development. Again, great script, but a big problem one too.

Also in the first act the film seems like it might take Holliday’s murder trial seriously. Like as a procedural. Because the film tries not to utilize screwball humor. It can’t resist, which is a problem as the film’s set up to not be screwball so the screwball scenes don’t play. That lower energy Cukor direction; he respects and enables the actors but nothing else. He doesn’t even showcase them as much as their ability to execute the routine. Good, but not as good as it should be.

Anyway, Holliday—who’s sort of the protagonist of the whole thing, or ought to be—disappears into background. She’s great, but she gets almost nothing to do. There’s potential for some kind of relationship, though not friendship, between Holliday and Hepburn—even a client and attorney one—but the film doesn’t do anything with it. And Tracy never gets shown presenting his case. Or working on his case. So not a good procedural, which is a bummer since—once the finale reveals Tracy’s motivations—it could’ve been a great courtroom drama.

Instead, it’s a wonderfully charming and almost always entertaining Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn picture. The production values are strong, Cukor’s more than adequate, the script’s great, Holliday’s excellent, Wayne doesn’t get too tiresome even though it seems like he might, George J. Folsey’s photography is nice, George Boemler’s editing not so much, but… it works. It all works. It just doesn’t try hard enough. Maybe some of it is Production Code related. But the way the script compensates really doesn’t work, leaving Tracy and Hepburn with good roles in a fun comedy instead of great parts in a better film.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by George Cukor; screenplay by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin; director of photography, George J. Folsey; edited by George Boemler; music by Miklós Rózsa; produced by Lawrence Weingarten; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Adam Bonner), Katharine Hepburn (Amanda Bonner), Judy Holliday (Doris Attinger), Tom Ewell (Warren Attinger), David Wayne (Kip Lurie), Jean Hagen (Beryl Caighn), Hope Emerson (Olympia La Pere), Eve March (Grace), and Clarence Kolb (Judge Reiser).



Downton Abbey (2019, Michael Engler)

I’m trying to decide if Downton Abbey is wholly incomprehensible to someone who didn’t watch the television show, or if they’d appreciate it. Julian Fellowes’s screenplay is very tidy, no loose strings, always the right mix between A, B, and C plots, so one can at least appreciate the pacing without knowing exactly why it’s so especially funny when footman Kevin Doyle makes a fool of himself in front of the King and Queen, but one would still get the surface humor. Downton’s got a bunch of great surface humor, including Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton, which is a rather impressive feat for Fellowes, Smith, Wilton, and director Engler because the film doesn’t do any setup. There’s not just very little ground situation establishing going on, there’s none. The movie opens with the hook—the King and Queen send a letter to Downton Abbey, let’s watch the letter get there via 1920s transportation, oh, how lovely and quaint, thanks to Ben Smithard’s gorgeous photography (they go Panavision for the movie, which is full of lingering shots on the country house itself, also showing off the increased helicopter budget)—plus the letter getting to the town and the familiar sights before the house itself. Maybe, with the quaintness, the lovely photography, and John Lunn’s always very effective theme… an unfamiliar could get in the right mood.

Because while it’s impressive how successfully Fellowes writes the almost two hours, with the fifteen or twenty person principal cast, it’s not a surprise he’d accomplish it. Fellowes wrote many years of the show, including some extended length holiday specials. Downton Abbey: The Movie feels very much like a very special holiday episode. There’s not a lot of progress from when the show ended, at least not in terms of new cast. There aren’t any new regulars, there are a lot of previously emphasized, sort of unresolved subplots examined—Sophie McShera still hasn’t decided if she’s getting married, Robert James-Collier’s still miserable in the closet, and… um. Okay, maybe there’s not a lot on that front. But James-Collier gets one of the bigger B plots, and McShera’s got a solid C. The only reason James-Collier’s subplot, involving actual romance for him, isn’t an A plot is Fellowes keeps it on low until the third act when he needs some drama to juxtapose with the chaos at the royal dinner. It’s a very smart script, just self-indulgent enough, just pleasant enough.

Is it particularly ambitious? No. The biggest A plot—besides everyone in the movie preparing for the royal visit in one way or another—is Allen Leech. Leech gets to do the “Irishman under investigation” subplot and he gets to do a “maybe the widower finally move on” subplot. Laura Carmichael gets a solid B plot. Michelle Dockery, however, is seated at the “here to support other people’s plots with none of my own” table, along with Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern. There are good moments for everyone and all the acting is good, they just don’t get anything special to do. No heavy lifting.

Though Dockery does get a little at the end, as she’s the one who gets to have the big moment with Maggie Smith. In its last few minutes, Downton: The Movie unintentionally reveals its great potential would not have been as an extended, Cinemascope holiday special, but as something from Smith’s perspective. The ambition isn’t there though. The film’s got just the right amount of fan service as well as new material.

Technically the only complaint is, occasionally, Engler chooses the wrong character to—literally—focus on in a shot. It’s like he doesn’t have the right sense of some scenes’ emotionality. And, of course, it’s over too soon. It’s not too short. But it is over too soon.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Engler; written by Julian Fellowes; director of photography, Ben Smithard; edited by Mark Day; music by John Lunn; production designer, Donal Woods; produced by Fellowes, Gareth Neame, and Liz Trubridge; released by Focus Features.

Starring Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), Allen Leech (Tom Branson), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Talbot), Maggie Smith (Violet Crawley), Elizabeth McGovern (Cora Crawley), Hugh Bonneville (Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham), Penelope Wilton (Isobel Merton), Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes), Jim Carter (Mr. Carson), Robert James-Collier (Thomas Barrow), Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates), Brendan Coyle (Mr. Bates), Sophie McShera (Daisy Mason), Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore), Michael Fox (Andy Parker), Raquel Cassidy (Miss Baxter), Kevin Doyle (Mr. Molesley), Harry Hadden-Paton (Bertie Hexham), Imelda Staunton (Maud Bagshaw), Tuppence Middleton (Lucy Smith), Kate Phillips (Princess Mary), Geraldine James (Queen Mary), Simon Jones (King George V), Max Brown (Richard Ellis), Stephen Campbell Moore (Captain Chetwode), Susan Lynch (Miss Lawton), David Haig (Mr. Wilson), Mark Addy (Mr. Bakewell), Philippe Spall (Monsieur Courbet), and Richenda Carey (Mrs. Webb).


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