★★½

A Safe Place (1971, Henry Jaglom)

A Safe Place tracks the relationship of apparently financially secure but listless hippie Tuesday Weld and her square of a new boyfriend, Phil Proctor. Weld spends her time presumably stoned—though we don’t see her smoke, her friends are always rolling a joint or smoking one—and dwelling on the past. She can’t get over the lack of magic in the world today (today being 1971); there’s a great segment on how exchange names on telephone numbers were special while numbers are not. At times it feels like Safe Place can’t possibly have been tightly scripted but then other times feels like it must’ve been. The actors do a great job drifting between the two feelings, particularly Weld, Jack Nicholson, and Gwen Welles. Though Nicholson it’s a little different; he always makes it feel spontaneous, in which case extra kudos to Weld for not reacting.

Nicholson shows up at near the beginning of the film but we don’t have any real context for him, though it’s clear he’s a romantic interest for Weld, presumably one in her past. Despite Proctor’s constant pursuit of Weld, they never spark, especially since Proctor can never shut up. Weld wants things quiet so she can drift into her imagined past, to when she was a kid and would watch the magician across the street in the park. Orson Welles plays the magician. He never feels scripted, which is fine, it’s Orson Welles doing a bountiful performance complete with an Eastern European accent. He goes so big, relishing in it so much, you can’t quibble with any of it. The one real trick he’s always wanted to be able to perform is making something disappear. He takes Weld to the zoo and tries it out on the animals, which leads to some amazing moments.

Both Welleses, Orson and Gwen, are establishing tone for Weld to later interact with; the Orson Welles at the zoo stuff is a fun, carefree tone, while Gwen Welles has a phenomenally despondent monologue about being objectified and dehumanized living in 1971 New York. That monologue, which director Jaglom gives a showcase like nothing else in the film gets, not even Nicholson when he shows up proper, needs to be there to fully establish Weld’s ground situation too. She’d never have a monologue like it, it’d be out of character, but her experiences are clearly similar.

Once it becomes clear how the film “works,” how it moves from Weld to her imagined past, when the film’s following Weld there in her mind and when the film’s just going there—Weld’s the lead but not the protagonist, she’s the subject, with Proctor ending up being somewhat closer to a traditional protagonist role but only because he’s takes a lot of action. Or threatens to take action. He’s kind of exhausting in how much action he takes, which gives the film this wonderful sense of empathy for Weld even as she’s (ostensibly) inexplicable. Proctor’s a lot. Clearly he’s a lot.

Jaglom establishes the ebb and flow of the timeline visually, through editing, composition, and direction. Weld frequently looks directly into the camera, watching the world around her unfold. Jaglom also will shoot the Welleses straight on, but for different effect. With Gwen Welles, the eyes mesmerize against her story, offering the viewer a chance to examine her in this bare moment. Orson Welles it’s sometimes for humor, sometimes for magic. Except we already know it’s not real magic but is it something nefarious or just mirthful chicanery. It’s always hard to tell because while everyone exists in the same spaces—mostly around Central Park Lake, or at Weld’s apartment (or on its roof), Orson Welles doesn’t interact with anyone but Weld. The first act has a lot of cuts establishing how he’s been there but isn’t there but is there. He’s there when Weld needs him, but he’s not entirely dependent on her.

Gwen Welles, Proctor, Nicholson, they all interact in one way or another. Proctor’s in the room during the Gwen Welles monologue; his attendance of it is apparently around the time Weld gives up and just lets him in. Some time later, when Nicholson enters the action proper, it’s after Proctor has moved himself into Weld’s apartment and has assumed a male authority figure role, but not one Weld or anyone else takes seriously.

It’s all very intricate, very complex, entirely established and explored through anti-sensical conversations, camera movement, and editing, everything tied together with selections from the Columbia Records songbook playing in the background—Weld’s got a jukebox in her apartment, presumably filled with them, including some fantastic French language cover versions.

Phenomenal photography from Richard C. Kratina—even if you can’t get onboard Safe Place’s jumbled narrative (which still ends up being way too epical), the photography alone can keep interest. Then there’s Pieter Bergema’s editing, which is somehow even more exquisite than the photography.

Weld’s good, Nicholson’s good, Proctor’s okay. The Welleses are good, though Gwen’s better and has a lot more work to do. Jaglom’s direction is aces.

A Safe Place is a qualified success—the third act is way too obvious and Proctor, both in terms of performance and character in the film, isn’t enough—and some absolutely exquisite filmmaking.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Henry Jaglom; director of photography, Richard C. Kratina; edited by Pieter Bergema; production designer, Harold Schneider; costume designer, Barbara Flood; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tuesday Weld (Susan), Phil Proctor (Fred), Jack Nicholson (Mitch), Gwen Welles (Bari), Dov Lawrence (Larry), and Orson Welles (The Magician).


The Daytrippers (1996, Greg Mottola)

There are two profoundly well-directed scenes in the third act of The Daytrippers, including the last one, so you really want to give what you can of it a pass. Daytrippers is very straightforward, even through the various complexities of the third act, but just because Mottola (who wrote as well as directed) knows what he needs to do with the characters at a given point in the story doesn’t mean he knows how to do it with them. The film spends most of its runtime promising to give Anne Meara and Pat McNamara these great roles but instead reduces them both to caricature. Sure, not the initially implied caricatures—she’s an overbearing Long Island housewife and he’s the hen-pecked husband—but changing from one caricature to another isn’t character development. Because Mottola asks for a lot of leeway on Meara, who’s shown as terrible person throughout and one not even deserving of empathy, implying along the way any woman over a certain age are raving harpies, only to make her even worse than predicted.

It’s a lot.

And then Mottola’s done with her because she’s just a distraction. She’s been distracting the film from Hope Davis, the ostensible lead, for the previous seventy minutes or so and then all of a sudden it’s like… oh, yeah, she’s just MacGuffin. Because we couldn’t get Stanley Tucci for anything but a supporting role. Tucci is Davis’s husband. The film opens with them coming home from Thanksgiving and having an intimate moment. The next day, Tucci goes off to work in the city and Davis discovers what appears to be a love letter on the floor. Presumably fell out of his briefcase. So she heads over to mom Meara’s, where we’ve already met the rest of the cast. We get introduced to Meara and McNamara as they make as much noise as possible to wake other daughter Parker Posey, who’s home from college for the holiday with boyfriend Liev Schreiber. Posey and Schreiber are going into the city and waiting for McNamara to give them a ride to the train.

But then Davis arrives with her problems and, counseling against her calling Tucci, Meara decides McNamara is going to drive everyone into the city. Hence The Daytrippers.

The family has various misadventures getting into the city, their journey set to Schreiber summarizing his novel to the mostly disinterested audience. Watching Posey and Schreiber’s relationship slowly implode over the film as the pressure in the car keeps on ratcheting up is one of Daytrippers’s most deliberate and least successful subplots. Eventually Posey meets author Campbell Scott—Tucci’s a literary agent or something—and he’s everything Schreiber wishes he could be—published, self-confident, smarter. The scene where Scott takes Schreiber’s insipid political philosophy out back and beats it with a stick until it crumbles is something else. The Daytrippers always feels very indie, with John Inwood’s realistic (and gorgeous) photography, Richard Martinez’s score, Mottola’s long takes… but the story’s basically a sitcom episode and a lot of the characterizations are similarly shallow. Even Meara’s performance works more appropriately in that context.

Only Mottola is very clearly not directing a sitcom. He directs against the script, which somehow works, but the script’s still got its problems. And then there’s Schreiber, who’s too tall to be puppy dog and a little bit too absurd. Six foot three, Cambridge-educated, mama’s boy fops who work construction in Michigan require a lot of… something. And neither Mottola or Schreiber know how to do that something.

Davis gets very little to do in the first half of the film—see, they can’t find Tucci so they have to traverse the city through the runtime with the aforementioned adventures, which are have limited budgets and often involve parties or at least social gatherings with food and alcohol present—but then she gets a bunch in the third act. Only not a lot of dialogue, just a lot of long takes of Davis thinking. She’s awesome at them and you wish Mottola had been doing them the whole time because they add up while the stuff he had been focusing on did not.

McNamara’s okay. I was expecting more from him, but he’s solid. Posey’s good. Not a great part overall (which is a big problem), but she’s good. Tucci’s great. Great cameo from Marcia Gay Harden.

The Daytrippers is a well-made picture, with a few moments of inspired brilliance. In the end those moments just make you wish Mottola had figured out how to do them sooner. And more frequently.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Greg Mottola; director of photography, John Inwood; edited by Anne McCabe; music by Richard Martinez; production designer, Bonnie J. Brinkley; costume designer, Barbara Presar; produced by Nancy Tenenbaum and Steven Soderbergh; released by Cinépix Film Properties.

Starring Hope Davis (Eliza Malone D’Amico), Parker Posey (Jo Malone), Liev Schreiber (Carl Petrovic), Anne Meara (Rita Malone), Pat McNamara (Jim Malone), Campbell Scott (Eddie Masler), Andy Brown (Ronnie), Paul Herman (Leon), Marcia Gay Harden (Libby), Marc Grapey (Aaron), Douglas McGrath (Chap), and Stanley Tucci (Louis D’Amico).


Erik the Viking (1989, Terry Jones)

Erik the Viking is a great example of when the director doesn’t know how to direct the script. What makes it peculiar is… director Jones wrote the script.

The film, an absurd comedy about a group of Vikings trying to end Ragnarok so they people will stop killing each other, starts with the the very not comedic scene (though the film gets to laughs really quickly, which is rather impressive) of lead Tim Robbins, having completed his looting and pillaging, moving on to the raping part of the Viking code. His intended victim is Samantha Bond. Only Bond’s not into being raped, which throws Robbins for a loop—he’s never done this raping part before and doesn’t have the predilection for it. Instead he and Bond have what becomes a life defining conversation (for Robbins anyway) right before his comrades show up to rape her and he kills them.

And, accidentally, her as well, which throws him into a right funk. He can’t stop seeing Bond’s face, whether in a crowd, in the distance, or laid over another woman his comrades are torturing. Empathy’s a very un-Viking value, something Robbins’s grandfather (Mickey Rooney in a wonderfully unhinged cameo) tries to explain.

Rooney, rightly, doesn’t reassure Robbins, so Robbins heads up into the mountains to talk to recluse Eartha Kitt (in a good but sadly not great cameo, partially just due to the terrible composite shots showing the landscape outside her cave) and she tells him how he’s going to have to quest to the mystic land, Hy-Brasil, retrieve a magic horn, blow the horn to get to Asgard, then again to wake the gods, then again to get home.

To accomplish this task, Robbins has to put the band together. There are tough guy Vikings Richard Ridings and Tim McInnerny, McInnerny’s dad, Charles McKeown (who doesn’t think McInnerny’s tough enough), Christian missionary Freddie Jones (who’s the butt of endless great jokes, even when he’s saving the day), John Gordon Sinclair as the wimp (he’s great), and Gary Cady as the heartthrob blacksmith. Now, turns out Cady doesn’t want Ragnarok to end because he’s a blacksmith and capitalism; you stop the looting, pillaging, raping, and murdering and he’s out of business. So he gets his sidekick, Anthony Sher, to go and narc to local warlord John Cleese (of course) about Robbins’s mission. So Viking is basically Robbins and company on their quest, while avoiding Cleese trying to kill them all.

The quest takes them to the aforementioned magical land, which is a violence-free paradise with Greco-Roman style architecture, ruled by Jones. Imogen Stubbs plays Jones’s daughter, who becomes infatuated with Robbins. The attraction is mutual but only when Robbins forgets his secret mission—to bring Bond back from the dead. The questing will also take the band to Asgard, where they find the gods don’t live up to expectations but are a lot realer than anyone could anticipate. Because Jones, as writer, has a bunch of great ideas and a lot of good sequences, he just can’t figure out how to realize them on screen.

Making it stranger is the fantastic production and costume designs from John Beard and Pam Tait, respectively. Good photography from Ian Wilson, good music from Neil Innes; not good editing from George Akers, but you really get the impression it’s because Jones, as director, didn’t get enough coverage for him. Viking has great sets, great costumes, great make-up, so it never makes sense when it doesn’t look right. Sometimes it’s those bad composite shots—but the miniature special effects are excellent—and then the third act has some really bad optical effects.

I’m zealous about special effects not dating, they just sometimes don’t work and Erik the Viking’s special optical effects for the finale… they just don’t work. And the film relies way too heavily on them. Nicely, the film’s able to—more or less—skate by to the finish, which has this really oddly profound moment for the characters and you wish Jones (the director) could’ve visualized it better onscreen. It works but not enough to lift things up. The whole third act seems rushed and cramped in ways it shouldn’t, both in terms of story and setting.

Good lead performance from Robbins, with great support from some of his comrades; Stubbs is good, Bond’s excellent, Cleese is fun (it’s a fluffed out cameo)… Sher’s really good as the turncoat.

Erik has almost all the right pieces for success; Jones not being able to crack his own script is the dealbreaker.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Terry Jones; director of photography, Ian Wilson; edited by George Akers; music by Neil Innes; production designer, John Beard; costume designer, Pam Tait; produced by John Goldstone; released by Svensk Filmindustri.

Starring Tim Robbins (Erik), Imogen Stubbs (Princess Aud), Richard Ridings (Thorfinn Skullsplitter), Tim McInnerny (Sven the Berserk), Charles McKeown (Sven’s Dad), Gary Cady (Keitel Blacksmith), Antony Sher (Loki), John Gordon Sinclair (Ivar the Boneless), Freddie Jones (Harald the Missionary), Danny Schiller (Snorri the Miserable), Samantha Bond (Helga), Mickey Rooney (Erik’s Grandfather), Eartha Kitt (Freya), Terry Jones (King Arnulf), and John Cleese (Halfdan the Black).


Man and woman talking while teens watch them

Dead End (1937, William Wyler)

If you tilt to just the right angle, for a while you can see Dead End as the tale of three people from a poor neighborhood and how life has worked out for them as they got closer to their thirties. Humphrey Bogart grew from a “not too bad” young punk to a public enemy number one, infamous for killing eight men. Joel McCrea busted his ass to put himself through college, got an architecture degree, hasn’t been able to find a job. Sylvia Sidney has been working since age ten, first taking care of her mother, now younger brother Billy Halop. Unfortunately, it’s eventually impossible to keep the head at that tilt and you’ve got to acknowledge Sidney gets the shaft so the film can focus on Halop and his teen gang. Sort of. They infest the film, nothing better to do with their day–Dead End takes place over a single day—than go swimming in the East River, maybe bully then physically assault and rob rich kid Charles Peck; just kids being kids stuff… because the film’s only willing to go so far with its observations.

Dead End might go after classism and gentrification (back when White people were still gentrifying other White people), but it’s not going to go after toxic masculinity or misogyny. There isn’t a single teenage girl shown in the film—the boys in the gang haven’t discovered girls yet—and the only insight into their situation comes from Bogart and teen love Claire Trevor.

The first hour of the film—it runs just over ninety—is mostly Bogart’s. He’s around the dock, talking with the gang, talking with childhood “pal” McCrea, back home with twenty grand in his pocket in a roll, a new face courtesy the plastic surgeon, trying to see his mom (Marjorie Main) and ex Trevor. Allen Jenkins gets the relatively thankless part as Bogart’s sidekick, who’s there to remind him dames aren’t worth it and run errands as needed.

Most of the time Bogart’s behaving himself and somewhat likable. When he takes a turn for the dark, the film does a good job with it. Sadly the only reason he takes that turn for the dark is because his mom doesn’t want anything to do with him because he’s a stone cold killer who does nothing but bring reporters and cops to her door and shame to her name. Doesn’t help Main’s not good. Whatever she and director Wyler decided she should do with the part was the wrong decision. It’s an awkwardly bad scene. You keep waiting for there to be a point to Main’s take on the character and it never arrives.

Trevor’s in a more complicated situation. She gets a single scene, after Bogart talking about her for forty-five or so minutes; what happens to a girl from the poor neighborhood? She ends up in sex work, possibly with tuberculosis, rejected by psychopath Bogart for not being clean enough for him. As far as the acting goes in their scene, they’re both good. They’re amazing when Bogart’s not pretending he should be rejecting her—clearly the makeup people weren’t going to make Trevor look bad, just mildly cheap but still nice looking—but once he gets put out thinking about her not being virginal, the scene becomes a little rote. If only these women had stayed pure enough, maybe Bogart wouldn’t have to go back to a life of crime. Mind you, he’s checking in on them at age thirty-one after being away for ten years plus however long he was in reform school.

Makes you wish play author Sidney Kingsley and screenwriter Lillian Hellman did something with the female characters except martyr them.

Though there is the poor cleaning woman who steals food from a baby, during one of Wyler’s phenomenal background sequences. They shot Dead End on an elaborate set; mostly it’s just the main cast or gang hanging out, but occasionally there are these sequences showing the daily lives of the residents and Wyler does a great job with them. Beautiful Gregg Toland photography, good editing from Daniel Mandell. Sadly, while Toland’s photography is good (or better) throughout, Mandell’s not as good at cutting the dialogue scenes as the physical action ones. Sure, it’s understandable you’d need to cut around some of Halop and the gang’s acting, but it’s still jerky.

McCrea gets a subplot about kept woman Wendy Barrie—who the film doesn’t slut shame, which is kind of weird given it really sounds like she’s a mistress—who wants to run off with him, away from her rich boyfriend, but only if McCrea can support her right. McCrea’s trying.

Meanwhile, Sidney’s been in love with McCrea since they were kids but McCrea still sees her as a ten year-old. She starts the film with a subplot about striking at work and having to convince the men around her she’s justified and actually deserves to be paid for her work; that subplot shrinks, then disappears, as Sidney eventually just ends up supporting Halop’s youth criminal in training story arc.

The youth gang stuff in Dead End is poorly executed, mostly due to the performances, but also the writing. Their scenes are vaguely from their perspective, but they’re also on display as tragic figures. Except they’re also profoundly likable, whether it’s beating up new kid Bernard Punsly for three cents—trying to convince him to steal from his mother—or when they start beating rich kid Peck with boards. Peck’s an absurdly obnoxious caricature, but then so are all the kids in the gang. Wyler doesn’t seem to want to get into the conversation about how apathetic rich people mocking the trauma of poverty is going to boil over at some point so instead plays the assaults like antics.

Great performance from Bogart, okay ones from McCrea and Sidney. Bogart’s able to overcome his part’s slightness, McCrea and Sidney not so much. Barrie’s not memorable but it’s also a bad part because Barrie’s a woman. Trevor’s excellent, mostly because the film doesn’t keep her around long enough to ruin it. Jenkins is good, Ward Bond’s solid as the doorman to the rich apartment building, and James Burke’s fine as the beat cop.

Dead End’s technically outstanding—Wyler’s direction, Toland’s photography, Richard Day’s set design, Julia Heron’s set decoration—but can’t get as serious as it needs to be about its subject matter. The Code wouldn’t allow some of it, but going the route of piloting a “Dead End Kids” franchise for the teen cast, making Dead End the only “real film” entry in the franchise, is rather disappointing. It just seems like with such a potentially strong cast, such a gorgeous set, Wyler and company could’ve done something more with it than Dead End.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Lillian Hellman, based on the play by Sidney Kingsley; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Daniel Mandell; produced by Samuel Goldwyn; released by United Artists.

Starring Sylvia Sidney (Drina), Joel McCrea (Dave), Humphrey Bogart (‘Baby Face’ Martin), Billy Halop (Tommy), Allen Jenkins (Hunk), Wendy Barrie (Kay), Claire Trevor (Francey), Marjorie Main (Mrs. Martin), Huntz Hall (Dippy), Bobby Jordan (Angel), Leo Gorcey (Spit), Gabriel Dell (T.B.), Bernard Punsly (Milty), Charles Peck (Philip), Minor Watson (Mr. Griswald), James Burke (Mulligan), and Ward Bond (doorman).



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 Anderson, 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).


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