Ashfall (2019, Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun)

I don’t know how long it would’ve taken me to see Ashfall if it hadn’t been for a blogathon. Maybe never. While I’m a Ma Dong-seok fan because how can you not be, I’ve always been lukewarm on top-billed Lee Byung-hun. Lee’s not actually the lead; the lead is Ha Jung-woo, who I don’t follow. So, yeah… probably wouldn’t have seen Ashfall if I hadn’t specifically been looking for a disaster movie and also wanted to watch a (relatively) new South Korean movie.

So I’m glad I saw Ashfall, against the various odd. Writers and directors Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun don’t have many—or possibly any—original ideas in the film, which has a real-life volcano Baekdu Mountain erupting and threatening all life on the Korean Peninsula, North and South. Lee’s a North Korean double agent (or triple agent), it’s never clear. Possibly quadruple. Ma is a Korean-American scientist who finds himself drug into the government response because he’s the one who’s been trying to tell them the volcano is dangerous—I wonder if it’s the Korean equivalent of a Yellowstone “vulcanist”–for years. Ha is the Army bomb tech who’s got two days left on his compulsory military service. Ha’s a bit of an eccentric who can never remember his appointments with pregnant wife Suzy Bae, who doesn’t quite look sixteen years younger than Ha but definitely looks a little younger. They try to play it off with Ha being just immature but… he’s more like just unreliable. It’s unclear.

So the President (Choi Kwang-il very good in a small part) puts Jeon Hye-jin in charge of figuring out how to not go the way of Pompeii and she brings in Ma, who’s got a plan involving detonating nuclear warheads in a copper mine because Ma really likes Broken Arrow, but South Korea doesn’t have any nukes so they have to go steal some from North Korea even though they’re really friendly in this nearish, post-nuclear North Korea, but also pro-disarmament North Korea. Not important. What’s important is spy Lee knows where there are some nukes and they know where Lee’s at because he’s got a GPS tracker in him. The real Army is going in to extract him and go find some nukes, Ha’s team is there to get the nukes transferred into a special case to nuke the volcano.

It’s kind of a Lee and Ha buddy movie, also kind of not because they don’t have any common foes. Not really. The U.S. Army shows up to humiliate South Korea, which Lee finds really amusing, but they’re not really a plot impediment. They’re just something else the movie throws into the batter, albeit with a lot of overt subtexts. Robert Curtis Brown is actually find as the shitty American ambassador, which fooled me into thinking it wouldn’t be crappy American acting in a South Korean movie for the rest but then, of course, it was crappy American acting in a South Korean movie for the rest. Michael Ray is profoundly bad as the general. Though Jai Day could be worse as the guy on the ground.

So most of it’s just Lee and Ha being awful to one another while getting through “Mission: Impossible: Bomb Disposal Unit” with some earthquake stuff thrown in. There’s some great CGI disaster shots in Ashfall but there’s also a lot of bad directing during the disaster scenes too. Kim and Lee are far more successful combining narrative tropes than they are executing mix and match action set pieces. The first one, Ha in a car chase type sequence during the first earthquake, shows they clearly don’t have it cracked and nothing else in the film is ever any better. You eventually just have to give it a pass on that type of action because at least the visuals are interesting. Ashfall’s an odyssey. Lots of different locations and settings. And it often looks great—Kim Ji-yong’s photography, whoever does the CGI; Ashfall’s a fine looking film.

Well, except when it looks like Kim’s got the “soap opera mode” turned on and the artifice shines bright, which happens more in the second half than the first. The first has the most successful visual sequences. The second half is when it needs to have the action sequences….

Unfortunately, the directors just aren’t very good at directing action scenes. It would help immensely.

The acting’s all fine or better. Ma and Jeon have the worst parts of the top-billed but still give the best performances. The material’s so weak. It’s a wonder what they do with it. Lee’s good enough I’m going to have to give him another chance, but he’s also a lot better than Ha, which isn’t what the movie needs.

It’s too long by twenty minutes, but Ashfall’s more than a good enough action-spy-disaster movie.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun; director of photography, Kim Ji-yong; music by Bang Joon-seok; production designer, Kim Byung-han; produced by Kang Myung-chan; released by CJ Entertainment.

Starring Lee Byung-hun (Lee Joon-Pyeong), Ha Jung-woo (Jo In-Chang), Jeon Hye-jin (Jeon Yoo-Kyung), Ma Dong-seok (Kang Bong-Rae), Suzy Bae (Choi Ji-Young), Michael Ray (General Michaels), Robert Curtis Brown (Ambassador Wilson), and Choi Kwang-il as the President.



Vampira and Me (2012, Ray Greene)

For its protracted 106 minute runtime, Vampira and Me is a combination of tragic, frustrating, annoying, and enthralling. The problem with the whole project is writer, producer, editor, director, and narrator Greene. Well, okay, the problem with any project about Vampira (Maila Nurmi) is the lack of extant footage of her television show, “The Vampira Show,” which ran in the mid-fifties. Nurmi was an immediate hit—the first glamour ghoul—but broadcasts were live and no recordings were made. Watching Me, there’s just enough remaining footage to show Nurmi as an excellent early television comedian, who kept up and outpaced her costars, and it’s an exceptional bummer the footage just isn’t here.

Much of Vampira and Me is an at least hour-long interview Nurmi recorded with Greene when he was working on another project. Greene, as narrator, says Me is going to be all about how Nurmi isn’t “just” Vampira, so the Vampira in the title is a little weird… ditto the Me, actually, because Greene barely has any anecdotes about his friendship with Nurmi. Except one where he emphases her emotional problems. It’s a weird choice. But Vampira and Me is full of weird choices, like Greene using a bunch of unrelated but contemporary footage because none exists of Nurmi. So you’re watching some commercial from the fifties and supposed to pretend it’s Nurmi or something. Plus he then goes on to add sound effects to actual recordings of Nurmi monologuing. And there are sound effects all the time.

It’s annoying. Like I said, frustrating, tragic, enthralling, annoying.

Nurmi herself—based on the filmed interview material—is a natural raconteur. She knew Orson Welles back in the day and you can imagine they’d have done great banter if given the opportunity. She was also good friends with James Dean during his meteoric rise, which gets a lot of coverage in the film but very little insight. Nurmi was into New Age woo and Greene’s not a good enough interviewer to get through that murky pool to actual insight. The biggest bummer of the film itself is the interview, which a better filmmaker could’ve incorporated into a far better project. The lack of other interviewees is a big problem.

But then there’s Greene’s narrative construction. He jumps ahead to the sixties at one point, then pulls back to the fifties. The timeline wouldn’t be muddled if Greene just did a better job presenting it. He also doesn’t get anything out of the jump ahead and fall back. It also contributes greatly to the slog of the second half.

Then there’s Greene “killing off” his subject; at the beginning of the film, he implies this rare, exclusive interview is going to be the emphasis and everything else will serve to annotate it. Nope. Greene doesn’t cover a lot of Nurmi’s rougher days—she spent almost fifty years in abject poverty, screwed out of continuing popularity because of a dispute with the TV station (they wanted to syndicate with other Vampiras in local markets, she apparently wanted to be Vmapira in all of them—not clear because Greene didn’t think to ask, apparently). He’s got some line about how she went on to a somewhat happy ending at the end and then doesn’t show it or talk about it… she just dies and it’s funeral footage, which is weird.

Also weird is the clips of a dancing fifties girl who looks a lot like Carolyn Jones, who played Morticia Addams on “The Addams Family” TV show. Nurmi got her idea for the Vampira costume from the Addams Family cartoon strip. She was trying to get noticed by producers to do an Addams Family adaptation, not “The Vampira Show.” And given the Elvira vs. Vampira stuff, which barely gets covered—and Greene at one point makes it sound like Cassandra Peterson (Elvira) was a reluctant nemesis… you’d think he’d clarify. Nope.

But then it turns out Greene’s not a very honest documentarian.

He implies Nurmi’s “Vampira” show was up against “I Love Lucy” in the 1955 Emmy’s when Nurmi was actually nominated for a local Emmy. What makes that deception so galling is the James Dean friendship, which was in contention for years because of a Hedda Hopper book and Nurmi had to fight to be believed. Documentation backs Nurmi up, but it took decades.

Greene’s got a great chance to look at fifties Hollywood and the ephemera of television–the first viral sensations—and he has a handful of good observations, they just don’t go anywhere. And they’re really early in the film.

It’s a testament to Nurmi as a storyteller and personality she’s able to surmount this wanting “homage” just in the single camera interview and a few surviving clips.

1/4

CREDITS

Written, directed, produced, and edited by Ray Greene; directors of photography, Larry Herbst, Sean Peacock, and Greene.


Solo (2018, Ron Howard)

Solo: A Star Wars Story is juvenile, which might be what manages to save it. It’s got nothing but problems—a troubled production (director Howard took over from fired “executive producers” Christopher Miller and Phil Lord and shot seventy-percent of what’s in the film), an uninspired screenplay (by Empire and Jedi screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and his son), the worst Star Wars music since A Day to Celebrate (“courtesy” John Powell), and a hilarious miscast “lead,” Alden Ehrenreich.

Ehrenreich is playing young Han Solo, almost forty years after Harrison Ford originated the part and became a megastar. Howard never directed Ford in anything—they did fight over Shirley Feeney in 1962 Modesto—and maybe it would’ve helped if Howard had any experience with him. But the script is so talky—the Kasdans write Ehrenreich is a cocky jabberer (and I’m not sure they realize with juxtaposing him with whiny Mark Hamill from the original Star Wars is a bad idea)—and Ehrenreich so bland he can’t even figure out how to get his hair to do the acting for him, which means he couldn’t have worked in the seventies, it was never going to work. Solo tries to ignore itself instead of embrace itself and ends up rotting on the vine.

The only performance the film needs to have right and has right is, arguably, Donald Glover, who’s playing Billy Dee Williams playing Lando Calrissian. Glover doesn’t mimic Williams’s mannerisms, but the voice inflections are spot on. And Glover manages to have a sincere subplot. Not in the script, but in his performance.

Miscast or not, Ehrenreich shouldn’t be getting shown up as far as sincerity goes. Especially not after now bad girl ex-girlfriend Emilia Clarke tells Ehrenreich he’s secretly the good guy. If we’re finding out Solo is going to come back and save them at the Death Star, we need to see it. We don’t see it anywhere.

Though Solo’s particularly bad at showing things. Cinematographer Bradford Young is anti-contrast; everything looks a little muddy, a little muted. Whatever Young and Howard thought they were doing with the colored lighting doesn’t work either. Especially not when the movie starts pretending it’s Empire Strikes Back, which leads to some okay spaceship flying shots and some really bad attempts from composer Powell to integrate John Williams music for nostalgia’s sake.

But at least they’re trying something.

And the trying is what “saves” Solo; albeit conditionally.

The movie opens with thirty year-old teenagers Ehrenreich and Clarke growing up in a Star Wars version of Oliver Twist. When they finally get to escape, only Ehrenreich can make it. He’s going to come back for her, he promises.

Fast forward three years and Ehrenreich hooks up with Woody Harrelson’s intergalactic thief crew. It’s Harrelson, Thandie Newton, and Jon Favreau voicing the CGI action figure. Harrelson initially seems like he’s having fun and it’s not translating to a good performance. Then it seems like he’s not having fun and it’s still not translating to a good performance. Newton’s okay but she’s got the nagging girlfriend part–Solo goes out of its way to fail Bechdel and its “equality for droids” subplot is problematic and the slavery stuff is icky too. It’s not malicious, just exceptionally thoughtless.

Though, obviously, the whole thing is exceptionally thoughtless. It’s not like there’s some gem of a chase sequence or the big redeeming action set piece.

In not trying, however, Solo manages not to fail. Occasionally. There’s the broad fail of the concept, the broad fail of Ehrenreich, but Glover’s… captivating in his impression or performance or whatever. Clarke’s got a thin part written a piece of fortune cookie paper but she’s sympathetic.

Even if she apparently said no to Star Wars costumes and just wears a dress.

Paul Bettany’s villain isn’t… good but Bettany’s not sleeping through the performance. He’s not Harrelsoning it. And Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s droid activist really does seem to be there for a bunch of White men to laugh at civil rights, but Waller-Bridge’s great. And her comedy timing is better than anyone’s, though she presumably recorded the droid’s voice in post-production and didn’t have to suffer the set.

Solo is bland, long, boring—the first act is particularly dreadful, mostly because Ehrenreich’s so prominent and so disappointing—but it’s also not… predictable. The Kasdans’ script does make a lot of bad narrative decisions but they are decisions. And there are a lot of them. Event-based plotting might be the way I’d have described it as a teenager in an effort to justify liking it.

Plus there’s an Elder God.

Also… and I didn’t manage to work this anecdote in anywhere because I didn’t trend mean enough… Ron Howard? Bringing in the guy who infamously failed with Willow is a choice. Bringing in the guy who caped for Jake Lloyd’s performance in Phantom Menace is a choice.

And none of it even matters: Solo never had a chance. You might be able to recast Harrison Ford, but you can’t recreate Harrison Ford as Han Solo.

Though maybe they should’ve let Donald Glover try.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Howard; screenplay by Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan, based on characters created by George Lucas; director of photography, Bradford Young; edited by Pietro Scalia; music by John Powell; production designer, Neil Lamont; costume designers, David Crossman and Glyn Dillon; produced by Simon Emanuel, Kathleen Kennedy, and Allison Shearmur; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Alden Ehrenreich (Han Solo), Emilia Clarke (Qi’ra), Woody Harrelson (Beckett), Donald Glover (Lando Calrissian), Joonas Suotamo (Chewbacca), Thandie Newton (Val), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (L3-37), Jon Favreau (Rio Durant), Linda Hunt (Lady Proxima), and Paul Bettany (Dryden Vos).


Ginger Snaps (2000, John Fawcett)

Ginger Snaps is almost there. Karen Walton’s script is almost there, Fawcett’s direction is almost there, Emily Perkins’s lead performance is almost there, Katharine Isabelle’s is… okay, it’s not almost there by the end, when Isabelle’s acting through latex makeup, but she’s good in the first act. Ginger Snaps coasts on the first act for quite a while.

It’s just a little long. The third act drags as Perkins and Isabelle go from points A to B to C as the movie tries to finally get to the ending. Ginger Snaps is a werewolf movie, with some of the tropes but not all of them. It rejects a few of them, embraces a few others. Isabelle is the werewolf-to-be, Perkins is the sister who tries to fix all the problems resulting from Isabelle’s lycanthropy, escalating from dead neighborhood dogs and scary nails to dead classmates and a tail growing out of Isabelle’s spine. Perkins and Isabelle never find a Maria Ouspenskaya; they’re on their own figuring out Ginger Snaps’s werewolf rules, with Perkins getting some neighborhood drug dealer Kris Lemche. See, after the werewolf bites Isabelle—on the night of her first period, which seems like it ought to be way more symbolic than it plays in the movie (like, seriously, read Swamp Thing #40)—it chases her and Perkins and Lemche hits it with his truck. Perkins and Isabelle don’t stick around to see Lemche discover he’d hit a some kind of Canis lupus… just one with a circumcised human penis, which does not get enough of a close-up when he finds it. I can’t actually remember if it’s even distinct in the shot.

But the period stuff isn’t the only place Walton’s script drops the proverbial subplot ball, the film also ditches—for all intents and purposes—the sisters’ suicide pact. Even though it’s never quite clear exactly how serious they are about it. The opening credits are all these images of Perkins and Isabelle dead from suicide in creative uses of suburban symbolism. Turns out it’s for a class assignment about living in their crappy suburb, which the first act also suggests is going to be more of a thing. Metaphors for suburban malaise. By the end of the movie, whenever there’s even a nod to the earlier material—like the suicide pact—it doesn’t play because Isabelle is literally inhuman (and eating people) and Perkins is past believing she can save her sister. There are a bunch of opportunities for the movie to have some pay-off with the subplots, never takes them. Not a one.

Especially not anti-helicopter parents Mimi Rogers and John Bourgeois. Rogers gets a whole arc about discovering her daughters’ are hiding a bigger secret than just Isabelle getting her first period and it goes absolutely nowhere. The clues Rogers keeps dropping suggesting she too might be a werewolf—the sisters get their periods late, apparently at sixteen—so Isabelle, while Perkins is a year younger, skipping a grade because smart–and if it’s a metaphor, well, there’d be some maternal connection. Right?

The movie’s a tad tedious, especially in the third act, but Perkins is a solid lead. Lemche would be a lot better with just a little bit better direction. Isabelle just needs a better arc. The movie gives her enough time to not just be “the beast” but then gives her nothing else to do but be the beast. Not counting her horny teen werewolf-to-be thing, which elevates Jesse Moss from background bro to supporting player. He’s not very good. Danielle Hampton’s an excellent mean girl.

It’d help if Mike Shields’s music were better or Thom Best’s photography. Brett Sullivan’s editing is all right. And the final werewolf isn’t groundbreaking or startling but it could be a lot worse.

Even when it’s not at its best, Ginger Snaps could be a whole lot worse.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by John Fawcett; screenplay by Karen Walton, based on a story by Fawcett and Walton; director of photography, Thom Best; edited by Brett Sullivan; music by Mike Shields; production designer, Todd Cherniawsky; costume designer, Lea Carlson; produced by Karen Lee Hall and Steven Hoban; released by Motion International.

Starring Emily Perkins (Brigitte), Katharine Isabelle (Ginger), Kris Lemche (Sam), Mimi Rogers (Pamela), Jesse Moss (Jason), Danielle Hampton (Trina), John Bourgeois (Henry), and Peter Keleghan (Mr. Wayne).


The Appaloosa (1966, Sidney J. Furie)

The Appaloosa could be worse. Director Furie apes styles he doesn’t understand how to use—his Leone-esque angles, the Acid Western—with what’s a fairly traditional Western, albeit just with a Mexican supporting cast. Well, okay, so Marlon Brando is the only gringo playing a gringo. All the other White people are supposed to be Mexican. You can tell from their makeup. Even the actual Hispanic actors are wearing a pound of makeup. The scene where Brando tries to darken his skin—it’s not clear he’s trying to actually appear Mexican, it seems like it has more to do with his monologue about his adoptive (Mexican) father and wishing he looked like him or something. But it turns out it’s not. Anyway, in the scene Brando uses coffee grounds to do it and sister-in-law Miriam Colon tells him it doesn’t work; you wish he’d just asked her what she was using.

Colon is married to Rafael Campos, Brando’s adoptive little brother. Or whatever. Campos isn’t good. You feel like it’s not his fault. The whole thing with Campos and Colon’s family is really forced. Maybe because Campos is exaggerating everything—exaggerated Mexican accents are going to be a thing, Appaloosa establishes real early on—but also because Brando’s in this goofy wig, fake beard thing. With the Western hat version of a Robin Hood hat. Brando’s appearance itself is distracting. It takes him a while to clean up too, long enough it seems like he might be in the makeup the whole movie. It’s distracting. You can’t watch him without wondering if they really thought the beard looked real enough.

But he does clean up. Just in time to do a Speedy Gonzales impression. See, it’s not clear Brando’s trying to appear Mexican when he decides to go into Mexico to get his prized horse—the titular Appaloosa—back from bandit leader John Saxon. Not until he’s sitting in a bar and bad guy Alex Montoya forces Brando to drink pulque to show he’s tough enough to be in bar. Montoya comes over to chit chat after Brando shows he’s legit and Brando goes into full Speedy Gonzales. It’s kind of beyond cringe, quickly getting into the “Greatest American Actor” humiliates himself in studio Western territory. Like, Brando wasn’t doing too great to start—the fake beard gets in the way of his mouth and the wig’s goofy—but he wasn’t doing a hideously bad Mexican accent opposite a Hispanic actor also doing an amped up Mexican accent. It’s like exploitation in action.

And it’s also bad. Montoya’s a lousy villain. Though I guess it doesn’t matter because Brando’s a lousy hero, going towards that Acid Western turf; he wants to get his horse back because it’s the key to him finally repaying Campos for everything his father did for Brando and he acts like a badass—he starts the movie confessing to a priest about all the men he’s killed—but it turns out, it’s all talk. Brando’s best scene—maybe only good scene—is when he talks about his inability to accomplish his mission. There’s some halfway good scenes in other parts, but it’s hard because Saxon’s effective without being good and Brando’s good without being effective.

A lot of the problem is the script—by James Bridges and Roland Kibbee–which tries not to be exciting. But then you’ve got Furie trying to bring tension to everything; he and editor Ted J. Kent also don’t know how to time the action for tension. It might just be Brando’s too laidback. The whole thing’s hard to take seriously. Again, if Furie knew why he was using the techniques he was using… it’d be better. The film’s sound design is way too bland. And the inserts in the third act—cutting from medium shots to close-ups—never match. Brando and sidekick Anjanette Comer are in one position in the two shot, in obviously different ones in their close-ups.

Comer’s a whole other thing, playing Saxon’s “wife.” She’s in a pound of brown face, she’s not very good, and her backstory is a mess.

Half okay, half bad music from Frank Skinner.

Good photography from Russell Metty.

The first act has its cringe moments, the second act’s plodding, but the movie does seem like it’s at least going to do something interesting. Then the third act is rushed and the finish itself pointlessly cops out. Unless Brando refused to shoot an actual ending.

But, yeah, could be worse. Probably couldn’t be any better though.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Sidney J. Furie; screenplay by James Bridges and Roland Kibbee, based on the novel by Robert MacLeod; director of photography, Russell Metty; edited by Ted J. Kent; music by Frank Skinner; produced by Allan Miller; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Marlon Brando (Mateo), John Saxon (Chuy), Anjanette Comer (Trini), Miriam Colon (Ana), Rafael Campos (Paco), Emilio Fernández (Lazaro), Alex Montoya (Squint Eye), and Frank Silvera (Ramos).


You Can’t Get Away with Murder (1939, Lewis Seiler)

The You in You Can’t Get Away With Murder refers to Billy Halop, nineteen year-old punk kid who doesn’t respect what sister Gale Page sacrifices for him and instead runs around with neighborhood tough Humphrey Bogart. They knock over gas stations, they play pool, it’s a good life… at least until things go wrong during a hold-up—with Bogart’s not billed victim using what looks like (but sadly can’t be) a Krav Maga disarm on him, forcing Bogart to use the gun he took off Halop instead of his regular piece. Only Halop got his gun from sister Page’s boyfriend’s apartment. Harvey Stephens is the boyfriend, some kind of reserve cop or security guard. It gets established by the car Stephens is driving in the first or second scene… I wasn’t paying attention. I thought he was a cabbie.

As Halop and Bogart get pinched for a different hold-up, the cops gossip about Stephens’s getting arrested for the murder Halop knows Bogart committed. End first act, let’s go second.

Bogart and Halop are in Sing Sing for five year sentences—the film, which looks like an A picture from time to time, usually thanks to Sol Polito’s gorgeous photography and Bogart’s phenomenally slimy performance, has a great introduction to Sing Sing with a tour boat introducing it. Things are fine enough, save Harold Huber trying to convince Bogart to dump Halop and make Huber his number one pal, which eventually becomes important but never to character development. There isn’t any character development in Murder. It’s important because after Stephens gets sent to the prison’s death house and Halop starts feeling pangs of guilt at not telling the truth, Huber’s able to poison an increasingly suspicious Bogart against his buddy.

It does help Bogart loses Halop to the prison library, where kindly, aged inmate librarian Henry Travers works toward rehabilitating the lad best he can without ever being able to say the word, “Jesus.” Having Travers get to lay in with religious indoctrination instead of just vague “you won’t be able to live with yourself if you don’t tell the truth” business probably wouldn’t improve Murder, but it might give Travers something to chew on in his performance. What he’s got is pretty thin; three screenwriters—Robert Buckner, Don Ryan, Kenneth Gamet—and they can’t come up with good monologues. I do wonder if one of them came up with the train car in the middle of the prison yard for the breakout standoff, or if it was a group effort.

Because once Page realizes Halop knows something, she tries to get him to save Murphy too, which Halop resents. Maybe if Murder went a different way—i.e. not into prison—it’d be able to get through with Halop, but he’s never good. Like… just… no. He’s never good. Sometimes when he’s doing his fidgeting stuff it seems like it could lead to something good—if he weren’t talking in bad Jimmy Cagney impressions—but he never breaks from the exaggerated deliveries. Bogart’s able to amp it up, quiet it down like none other. He’s awesome. No one else is even close. I mean, Huber and Travers are only good about thirty percent of the time, which isn’t a lot given their importance.

Page is fine. She’s got nothing to do but moon over Stephens, who’s eh (you can see why Halop doesn’t like him), and fret over Halop.

If the movie didn’t treat him like a racist caricature, Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson would win for actor you most like to see onscreen. But the movie cranks the racism from about a two (for 1939) to about a six, which is way too much. Wasting Anderson’s voice is bad enough.

And George E. Stone isn’t good as the main prison gossip, who’s always around to advance the plot. He’s ineffectual. Against Halop, which is incredible.

Even if Halop were good, even if Seiler didn’t get weird with almost all the close-ups—the medium shots are fine, the close-ups are intentionally but pointlessly askew—the script would still be blah. Even with Bogart being great… well, there are better movies to see Bogart doing the same thing in.

That Polito photography is fantastic though. Especially at the end.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Lewis Seiler; screenplay by Robert Buckner, Don Ryan, and Kenneth Gamet, based on a play by Lewis E. Lawes and Jonathan Finn; director of photography, Sol Polito; edited by James Gibbon; music by Heinz Roemheld; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Billy Halop (Johnnie Stone), Humphrey Bogart (Frank Wilson), Gale Page (Madge Stone), Harvey Stephens (Fred Burke), Henry Travers (Pop), Harold Huber (Scappa), Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson (Sam), and George E. Stone (Toad), Joe Sawyer (Red), Joe Downing (Smitty), and John Litel (Attorney Carey).


Annihilation (2018, Alex Garland)

The two most bewildering things about Annihilation are director Garland’s inability to frame for Panavision aspect ratio—did cinematographer Rob Hardy just not want to tell him he was reusing the same three close-up shots, with his subject on one side of the frame, looking off, the other three-quarters empty, or did Hardy not see a problem with it (given the amount of post-production filtering and CG enhancing, it’s hard to guess what they actually shot)—and Jennifer Jason Leigh being a supporting player and not the lead.

Natalie Portman is the lead of Annihilation. She’s a Johns Hopkins professor, married to a special forces guy (Oscar Isaac), who has been dead for a year. We know he’s been dead for a year because Garland (as screenwriter, adapting a novel) has a whole bunch of exposition dumps in the film. We’ve already seen a meteor (or something) crash into the planet Earth, targeting a lighthouse because… V’Ger had a series of romance novel covers on it too and then Portman in an isolation room, with a fantastic Benedict Wong interrogating her, then we flashback to before the isolation room, after the meteor. Isaac’s been dead a year, Portman’s friend at work, David Gyasi, invites her to a barbecue but she can’t because it’s finally time to paint she and Isaac’s bedroom.

Cue flashbacks of Portman and Isaac’s idyllic, playful sex life.

We’ll soon find out—because Isaac interrupts her painting the bedroom—he hasn’t been dead, he’s just been missing. In fact, the Army hasn’t even officially classified him M.I.A.—though Annihilation plays real loose with what one might consider military protocol, there are Chuck Norris movies with a heck of a lot more reasonable verisimilitude as far as military operations go. But something’s obviously wrong with Isaac, even before he starts bleeding uncontrollably. When Portman tries to take him to the hospital, a bunch of stormtroopers intercept the ambulance and kidnap them.

She wakes up in what seems like a hospital room, talking to a psychiatrist (Leigh), and quickly learns Isaac had been missing because he went inside the strange, growing zone of something or other around the lighthouse where the meteor (or whatever) hit in the opening. It’s been three years, this zone, called the Shimmer, has increased exponentially in size and overtaken the towns, military bases, shacks, and who knows what else. No one has ever come back from the Shimmer, except Isaac (and Portman, as the frequent flash forwards to the interrogation remind—it’s not a bookend device, but a narration one)—and, well, Leigh’s putting the next team together.

Leigh, secretly dying of cancer, is sick of sending men to their apparent deaths and is going to go in now. It’s going to be an all-female team; her, paramedic Gina Rodriguez, scientist Tuva Novotny, other scientist Tessa Thompson. And wouldn’t Portman make a great fifth, being a not just a Johns Hopkins biologist, but also a former soldier. There’s a (bewildering) scene where Novotny asks Portman about her CV and Portman says she was in the military so Novotny can ask which branch so Garland can kill another fifteen or thirty seconds of the runtime, which is supposedly okay because the mise en scène of life in the Shimmer—a Florida swamp with lots of colorful plant mutations–not to mention Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s emotive score, is so compelling.

Is the Shimmer visually compelling? Sure? Garland’s not great at establishing shots. Annihilation feels very much like someone aping Terrence Malick aping 2001 but without the commitment to either. Mark Digby’s production design is good enough it’s too bad Garland’s not patient enough to explore it. Whether Digby is a Vertigo Swamp Thing fan or it just happens to always looks like panels (or covers) from that series aside… it’s a great proof of concept for an adaptation of the comic because a bunch of it is straight from those comics. But Garland avoids visualizing too much, instead sticking close to Portman’s perception of things unless he’s got to manipulate the audience to make the next narrative twist work.

At a certain point, Annihilation peaks and then plateaus. The thirty minutes (it runs just under two hours) before they get into the Shimmer isn’t great, especially since Portman’s protagonist is flat. We keep learning more and more about her and Isaac throughout and all of it’s boring. Same goes for the rest of the team (save Leigh, who gets so little onscreen character development it does gin up curiosity). But Novotny, Rodriguez, and Thompson? They’re shadows of caricatures, Rodriguez and Thompson the most. Maybe Garland couldn’t figure out how to write them in a reality where no one in the world noticed a whole section of Florida disappear, which would be visible from space. Maybe he really thought Portman was somehow the most compelling.

Doesn’t matter. Like his framing, like his downgrading of Leigh’s character, like his choice of composers… he was just wrong and it doesn’t work.

Kind of like Oscar Issac doing a Southern accent. No matter how much CGI you throw at it, no matter how much scary gross you make it, somethings just aren’t going to work.

Annihilation desperately wants to be heady, lush, hard sci-fi and is willing to sacrifice everything else to get there.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Alex Garland; screenplay by Alex Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer; director of photography, Rob Hardy; edited by Barney Pilling; music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury; production designer, Mark Digby; costume designer, Sammy Sheldon; produced by Eli Bush, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Natalie Portman (Lena), Oscar Isaac (Kane), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Dr. Ventress), Gina Rodriguez (Anya Thorensen), Tuva Novotny (Cass Sheppard), Tessa Thompson (Josie Radek), David Gyasi (Daniel), and Benedict Wong (Lomax).


Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018, J.A. Bayona)

After a strong dinosaur suspense opening, with some futuristic submersible entering the closed Jurassic World bay to get something off the seafloor, Fallen Kingdom shockingly quickly becomes a remake of the first Jurassic Park sequel, Lost World. Like, so much you wish there were more in it so David Koepp got a credit through forced arbitration or whatever.

This time, there’s a calamity on the island—a volcano—and Bryce Dallas Howard, now a dinosaur rights activist, wants to get them off the island somehow. Snap of the fingers and in comes Rafe Spall (in for Arliss Howard) who works for rich guy and ret-conned in co-father of dinosaur cloning, James Cromwell. As a British guy. Fallen Kingdom will have some amazing casting finds and choices, but obviously American James Cromwell as a British guy. I wonder if they tried for Sean Connery. Fallen Kingdom is a big Spielberg homage, fifteen or so minutes in to finish. Like, a perfect one; Bayona gets how to do the scenes, gets how to direct the action. And Fallen Kingdom has—unbelievably—a great score from Michael Giacchino. Never thought I’d type those words in that order.

It’s a total rip of John Williams, but a brilliant one. Giacchino doesn’t just lift from Jurassic Park, he lifts from everywhere in Williams’s career, which is very good for Chris Pratt, who’s definitely doing an Indiana Jones audition. The first act reuniting with Howard and Pratt is unsteady; they really needed to have the “relationships based on tense experiences never work” conversation onscreen but don’t. Instead they just turn it all into a joke, which ends up working. Most of the jokes don’t land, but the actors seem a lot more comfortable pretending to be ex-dinosaur amusement park employees than current dinosaur amusement park employees. Fallen Kingdom’s light on establishing the ground situation. It doesn’t ask a lot of questions, it doesn’t encourage many, but it keeps a good pace. The film’s lean and nimble when it needs to be—not easy considering editor Bernat Vilaplana has a concerning lack of timing—which helps it get through the major story shift.

See, Fallen Kingdom’s not a remake of Lost World, it’s not a volcano disaster movie with dinosaurs (though it seems like one for about twelve minutes; may haps a nod to Son of Kong or, dare I say it, People That Time Forgot), it’s actually a haunted mansion movie. The thing haunting the mansion just happens to be a genetically modified raptor. Because the real lead of Fallen Kingdom, at least as far as narrative arcs go (or the implication of them), is Isabella Sermon. She’s Cromwell’s treasured granddaughter and she’s suspicious of Spall because Spall’s a creep caricature. He’s occasionally effective, but not after the first half for sure. Once he teams up with an ill-advised Toby Jones, he just gets more obnoxious. Great comeuppance though, with Bayona digging deep into franchise favorites.

But, yeah, it’s all about Sermon solving the mystery of the basement or whatever. Only the film never does any work to establish it; there’s nothing about Sermon being scared of raptors for some reason or being scared of the gargoyles on the giant scary mad scientist mansion where she lives; there’s not even a sequence establishing she scales the exterior walls of the mansion because she’s a badass kid. She’s in the first scene at the mansion–Kingdom doesn’t bring back the kids from the previous movie, like the original Park did because clearly the filmmakers realized no one liked those kids and instead made a great kid character with Sermon.

Bayona directs that section of the film beautifully. It’s terrifying. Excellent photography from Oscar Faura. And all the rest of it, with the dinosaurs getting to civilization finally–seventeen years after III didn’t deliver it—works out. Bayona and Giacchino make you think you’re watching Spielberg figure out how to do a B-movie dinosaur movie for pure fun.

Acting-wise, Pratt and Howard average out to be fine. He’s usually a little better, she’s usually a little worse—once Sermon teams up with Pratt and Howard, Howard takes a back burner to Pratt being the lovable alpha protector of Sermon, so it’s probably not all Howard’s fault. Spall’s low eh. Justice Smith and Daniella Pineda are both fun as the science nerd sidekicks. Ted Levine’s cruel great white hunter guy is a disappointment; he’s not just no Pete Postlethwaite, he’s not even Peter Stormare.

Good small turn from Geraldine Chaplin, good cameo (though nonsensical) from Jeff Goldblum; pretty much no one else makes an impression. The script’s mercilessly efficient and actually rather impressive in how much it gets done in two hours. And Bayona’s good, Giacchino’s good, the photography’s good, the editing’s not. It’s a surprise once Fallen Kingdom starts getting good, but then it’s not a surprise when it stays good. The film inspires confidence in itself and, potentially, the franchise.

It’s a series of Spielberg action homages strung together with some effective screaming dinosaur mauling victims, with a great John Williams score. What could be better.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by J.A. Bayona; written by Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow, based on characters created by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Oscar Faura; edited by Bernat Vilaplana; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Andy Nicholson; costume designer, Sammy Sheldon; produced by Frank Marshall, Patrick Crowley, and Belén Atienza; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bryce Dallas Howard (Claire Dearing), Chris Pratt (Owen Grady), Isabella Sermon (Maisie Lockwood), Rafe Spall (Eli Mills), Justice Smith (Franklin Webb), Daniella Pineda (Zia Rodriguez), Ted Levine (Ken Wheatley), Toby Jones (Mr. Eversoll), Geraldine Chaplin (Iris), James Cromwell (Benjamin Lockwood), and Jeff Goldblum (Ian Malcolm).


Source Code (2011, Duncan Jones)

Source Code is very much MacGuffin as movie. Numerous plot details exist solely to justify (and qualify) certain creative decisions; the film takes a bunch of familiar and somewhat familiar—depending on the viewer’s preferences—sci-fi tropes, devices, and gimmicks, streamlines them, then combines them in those spared-down states. For example, a time traveller in the future “jumping” into the past to learn from it; someone jumping into the past while aided by someone in the present giving direction. The time traveller not having as much information… I mean, okay, basically Source Code functions like it’s “Quantum Leap,” just with different technology and rules.

The film avoids going too deep on those rules and—especially—the technology because director Jones only wants to keep the viewer engaged and engaged enough to forgive the various logic problems. And until the overwrought ending, Source Code does an excellent job of keeping one engaged. Jones is working against a lot of constraints—the ninety minute runtime, the budget, Ben Ripley’s script; most of the film’s cheaper creative decisions come from that script. Like lead Jake Gyllenhaal being a decorated but soulful soldier with a really macho name. The soldier bit doesn’t actually play into the movie besides lip service—including unironic uses of both “War on Terror” and “Thank You For Your Service”—which maybe is required in a movie about a terrorist attack on Chicago not involving giant robots or flying men post-9/11.

Or it’s just the script. It’s entirely possible Ripley’s script’s bad elements are just Ripley’s writing. There’s plenty of evidence of his other bad writing, why not give it all to him.

Jones does a fantastic job taking the mundane and making it incredible. It helps for the action, it helps with the comedy, it helps with the pseudo-hard sci-fi elements.

The film starts with a series of wonderful shots of Chicago, drilling down on to a single commuter train—even if Source Code isn’t your bag, if you’ve ever ridden the Metra in Chicago, you should see it. On this train is Jake Gyllenhaal. He wakes up sitting across from Michelle Monaghan and has no memory of how he got there. In fact, it’s impossible for him to be there—he’s an Army helicopter pilot and he was just on mission in Afghanistan. Monaghan’s calling him a different name, his face is different in the mirror, it’s a very strange situation. But it only lasts eight minutes because then the train explodes.

Gyllenhaal wakes up in a flight suit, strapped to some kind of machine, in a spherical cockpit thing with Vera Farmiga (in a military uniform) on a video monitor talking at him. Gyllenhaal can’t remember how he got there, which kicks off Farmiga trying to get him back in sync. It takes Source Code most of the first act to establish the rules of Gyllenhaal and the time travel, but there are some big secrets the film’s keeping for later reveals. Source Code always has something else to reveal, though usually only because Ripley can’t figure out a way to be honest with the viewer (or Gyllenhaal).

Gyllenhaal’s worried about his fellow soldiers, worried about his dad, but a very rude Farmiga doesn’t care—he’s got to get back in time to figure out where the bomb is located on the train, who placed the bomb. They’re trying to prevent the second attack, so back in time Gyllenhaal goes again for another try. Subsequent tries has Gyllenhaal making some progress with the investigation and getting to know Monaghan. Now, while Monaghan’s part is sort of romantic comedy lead, it’s still stunning how fast Gyllenhaal falls for her. She’s polite to one person and he’s hooked.

But then Gyllenhaal gets the idea to investigate himself during his time in the past, which causes some conflict with Farmiga, who has to bring in her boss, Jeffrey Wright. Jeffrey Wright is a standard slime ball civilian military scientist. He’s the Samuel Beckett of Source Code but it would never occur to him to try the machine himself. Why bother when you’ve got soldiers. A little Wright goes a long way; the point where he starts getting more screen time is when it’s clear the present day stuff is never going to be very good. And not just because Ripley didn’t even come up with a reason for Farmiga to be assigned to the unit. She’s in the Air Force, not the practical application of quantum mechanics and string theory department. It wouldn’t matter if the film gave the impression there’s an answer, but it’s pretty clear there isn’t one. Not a reasonable one anyway.

Source Code stays away from answers, what with its spaghetti on the wall approach to quantum mechanics and whatnot. It does not want to engage with its audience. Engagement means consideration. And since it’s all about a MacGuffin and a poorly developed MacGuffin… consideration’s out.

Gyllenhaal’s great in the lead, able to do the sci-fi, the drama, the action. Source Code, the script, doesn’t ask for much from him, but Gyllenhaal and Jones manage to turn it into a decent role. Monaghan’s really likable and she’s solid, even if her part manages to be an eighth of a real one; she does make an impression, which is something given she’s one of fifty possible suspects Gyllenhaal has to investigate in just ninety minutes.

Excellent editing from Paul Hirsch helps a lot with Gyllenhaal’s Groundhog Days. Pretty good music from Chris Bacon. Perfectly serviceable photography from Don Burgess; I mean, it mixes well with the CG action sequences.

Farmiga’s fine. She’s got even less of a character than Monaghan but probably ought to have the most important part. Shame about that script.

Not allowing any subplots but encouraging the expectation of them is another of its problems; it hurts Farmiga.

There’s also a lengthy racial profiling scene where Gyllenhaal targets a Brown person for being Brown—which Monaghan calls him on—but the movie just goes ahead with it because threat of terrorism; sci-fi apparently allows for some meta-bigotry, which doesn’t seem out of place given the film’s jingoistic posturing.

Also the title is bad. It refers to the “Quantum Leap” machine Wright makes and Wright’s nowhere near good enough not to make “Source Code” sound stupid whenever he uses it as a proper noun.

Source Code’s a solid rollercoaster ride; who knows what they’d have been able to do with another twenty minutes, some good rewrites, and another ten million or so in the budget.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Duncan Jones; written by Ben Ripley; director of photography, Don Burgess; edited by Paul Hirsch; music by Chris Bacon; production designer, Barry Chusid; costume designer, Renée April; produced by Mark Gordon, Philippe Rousselet, and Jordan Wynn; released by Summit Entertainment.

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Colter Stevens), Michelle Monaghan (Christina Warren), Vera Farmiga (Colleen Goodwin), Jeffrey Wright (Dr. Rutledge), Michael Arden (Derek Frost), Cas Anvar (Hazmi), and Russell Peters (Max Denoff).


Still of the Night (1982, Robert Benton)

At the end of Still of the Night, the film puts aside the “whodunit” to give second-billed Meryl Streep—who’s playing the femme fatale part but not at all as a femme fatale—a lengthy monologue. It’s all one take, Streep just acting the heck out of this mediocre thriller monologue. It doesn’t make the film worthwhile, but it does make one wonder if it’s what writer and director Benton had in mind the whole time. Was he just setting up this moment in the preceding eighty minutes.

Because he’s definitely setting up the third act, which has lead Roy Scheider walking through the real location of a former patient’s dream. And it all being for a mediocre Streep monologue… well, it'd be something. Otherwise, Still of the Night is anti-something. And when you find out it’s a Hitchcock homage… you wonder what Benton liked about Hitchcock. Outside a blonde Streep and fifty-something Scheider’s only friend being mom Jessica Tandy. Streep’s thirty-three or so, but seems younger. Maybe because she’s introduced as Josef Sommer’s mistress and, even though Sommer’s not even fifty, he seems older. He seems like a dirty old man… because he is a dirty old man. But emphasis on the old.

Scheider’s a psychiatrist, Sommer’s his patient, who works at a New York auction house. Streep works at the auction house for Sommer and he always has affairs with his subordinates; his wife gets a lot of mention in the first act, with Streep bringing a watch Sommer left at her apartment to Scheider’s office so Scheider can return it to the wife, Sommer complaining Scheider never wants to hear about Streep, just about his bad marriage. Lots in the first act. Nowhere else.

I forgot to mention: Sommer’s dead. The picture opens with his dead body. He’s in a lot of flashback though, as Scheider reviews their old sessions and Still flashes back either to Sommer describing the events in the session or the described events themselves. Always beautifully edited; Gerald B. Greenberg and Bill Pankow do some lovely cutting. Sommer’s an elitist auction house snob and a poor quality human being. His description of “seducing” Streep made me wonder if anyone involved with the film in 1982 had ever thought of pairing “enthusiastic” with “consent” or if the concept would melt their minds (at the time).

Joe Grifasi, who’s thirty-eight in the film but somehow looks like he’s seventeen going on fifty-three, is the investigating detective. Scheider doesn’t give him any information about Sommer, even though he’s dead. Maybe because Sommer told him Streep killed someone once and got away with it and would she do it again. Also Sommer can’t shut up about how much he thinks Scheider would be into Streep.

It’s very, very strange. But also a lot more engaging than anything in the second half. Sommer’s a major creep, but he’s a major creep with a pulse (wokka wokka). When Tandy’s not around to liven things up, everyone seems on the verge of a nap. Scheider’s recently divorced, living in an almost empty apartment, focusing on his work; we know he’s a good guy because his first scene establishes he’s going to see a laid off white collar guy even if the guy can’t pay him. Scheider’s… not really believable as a psychiatrist successful enough to have an office even in eighties New York. Tandy’s a psychiatrist too and they get together and talk shop a couple times throughout the film. After they go over the dream sequence, which would still be somewhat creepy even if Benton didn’t… objectify a seven year-old girl, Tandy tells Scheider to call the cops but he won’t because of Streep. He’s got for the hots for her now. Their first kiss is rather uncomfortable because we’ve just seen Scheider getting all this intel on her mental state and then taking advantage of it. His unprofessional behavior is somehow even worse than the perceived age difference (Streep appearing younger, Scheider appearing possibly even older). When he complains in the third act about how he could lose his license… it’s like, yeah, Doc, you probably should.

While the first half build-up is—with qualifications—solid, the second act and its two big action sequences don’t play. Benton doesn’t have much music in the film. John Kander has a single piece they play three or four times, a very romantic piece; has nothing to do with the film or its tone. So there’s no music in the action sequences, just the gorgeous sound design. Sound design, editing, they’re where Still of the Night excels. Everything else has problems.

But having this muted vérité-style just draws attention to how absurd the action plays out. Scheider gentle stalking Streep through Central Park; great sequence, beautiful direction on it too, but it doesn’t work because Benton’s got things too firmly set in reality. Néstor Almendros’s photography plays into that footing too. Almendros does a throughly competent job in the film but in entirely the wrong style. It’s flat, plain, boring. Benton doesn’t showcase New York very much, not even the Central Park thing (which helps on this sequence), but Almendros also lights it without any personality. The lighting is off from the first scene.

The film is off from the opening titles. Lighting first scene. At some point in the film, almost everything becomes off in some way or another. Except the sound, the editing, and Jessica Tandy. Tandy’s awesome.

Maybe the reason everyone looks so dejectedly constipated in the film—save Tandy—is because they all felt it not working but no one said anything. They just made the movie and it really didn’t work, which a ninety-three minute runtime for the first picture Benton directed after winning… Best Director would certainly suggest.

Great sound though. If the third act weren’t so disappointing, I could see Still being worth it for the sound.

That Streep monologue you could just watch in a clip.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Benton; screenplay by Benton, based on a story by David Newman and Benton; director of photography, Néstor Almendros; edited by Gerald B. Greenberg and Bill Pankow; music by John Kander; production designer, Mel Bourne; costume designer, Albert Wolsky; produced by Arlene Donovan; released by United Artists.

Starring Roy Scheider (Sam Rice), Meryl Streep (Brooke Reynolds), Jessica Tandy (Grace Rice), Joe Grifasi (Joseph Vitucci), Sara Botsford (Gail Phillip), Frederikke Borge (Heather Wilson), and Josef Sommer (George Bynum).


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