1995

Restoration (1995, Michael Hoffman)

Restoration is two parts period drama, one part character study, one part comedy. It’s often tragic, both because of events occurring and because it takes place in 1665 England and 1665 wasn’t a great time to be alive given the state of medical knowledge versus, you know, disease. Or mental health. The general complete misunderstanding of mental health (though at least they don’t think people are possessed with demon) plays a big part in the dramatics, the comedy, and the character study. There’s always the possibility for comedy… until the plague shows up. Once the plague arrives, it’s full dramatics for a while. The film doesn’t lose its sense of humor, just—appropriately—doesn’t employ it.

The film tells the story of 17th century medical doctor Robert Downey Jr. (who does an amazing job playing English). Despite innate medical talents, Downey doesn’t like how it’s the 17th century and people die from terrible things all the time. It’s a downer. So when he lucks into a court appointment for the King (a delightful Sam Neill), he takes it. It means he gets to drink and carouse and not go bankrupt from it like if he were a working stiff. Things get complicated when Neill then makes Downey marry one of his mistresses (Polly Walker) to legitimize her because Downey immediately falls for her. This portion of the film, after the gruesome medical realities of the opening, is the most comedic. Especially after Hugh Grant shows up as a portrait painter who annoys Downey so Downey annoys him back. Downey’s also got a sidekick—an affable Ian McKellen—during this sequence.

But it’s 1665 and Downey’s in his position by grace of the King and when the King decides no more grace… down Downey falls. He ends up in the 17th century equivalent of a sanitarium, run by Quakers—Downey’s best friend, David Thewlis is a Quaker, which the film actually never plays for jokes when contrasting Thewlis and Downey in the first act. In fact, Downey’s played for the laughs. A fantastic Ian McDiarmid runs the sanitarium and Meg Ryan is one of the… well, patients. They call them “inmates” though; not treating them unkindly but bound by the Quakerism when it comes to trying to help them. Outsider Downey’s the one who has the idea maybe people suffering mental health problems can (and should) be helped. If one of the better off patients who’s clearly suffering from profound depression and happens to look like Meg Ryan… well, bonus.

The plague’s arrival changes everything—again—and puts Downey through multiple harrowing experiences, some small, some big, some internal, some external. Rupert Walters’s script is never particularly outstanding, but the plotting and pacing are fantastic. Restoration moves at a steady clip, knowing exactly when it needs some humor, knowing exactly when it needs some sympathy. Hoffman’s direction of the actors is quite good, making up for his mostly mediocre composition. He and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton do a fine job showing off the beautiful, ornate Eugenio Zanetti production design—the film’s got some great sets, gorgeous costumes, and so on—but Hoffman’s pretty obvious with all of it. He’s clearly more confident with the lighter elements than the more serious ones. It works out but it’s where Restoration feels like a missed opportunity. Hoffman feels essential when it comes to the performances, but not with the film’s visuals.

Downey’s character only develops because of the people he encounters in his life—Thewlis, Walker, Ryan, Neill, McKellen, Grant—but none of the supporting parts are substantial. Neill has a lot of screen time, but he’s a plot foil. He’s the King after all. Ryan’s kind of got the biggest supporting part, but not really any more screen time than any of the other supporting parts. Her performance (as an Irish woman) is fine; she’s very likable. She and Downey definitely work well together. But not a great part, as written.

Everyone’s good—Walker, Thewlis, Grant. No matter what they do, funny, sad, whatever, it’s all about how they play off Downey anyway. The film’s narrative distance is superbly steady in its tracking of Downey.

James Newton Howard’s score is good. Appropriately lush and dramatic. Restoration is a well-executed production.

The key is Downey, who’s essential to the film’s success even though he shouldn’t be—i.e. that quarter character study. Downey’s experience of the film’s events and how they affect him is the film’s greatest achievement. Downey’s performance sets the tone, everything else has to meet that level. Great performance in a solidly but not superlatively written or directed film. The film’s all about Downey, letting it hinge entirely on his performance. And he excels.

Thanks to Downey, and also Hoffman, Walters, Ryan, Neill, and everyone else in various degrees, Restoration’s consistently successful.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Hoffman; screenplay by Rupert Walters, based on the novel by Rose Tremain; director of photography, Oliver Stapleton; edited by Garth Craven; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Eugenio Zanetti; costume designer, James Acheson; produced by Sarah Black, Cary Brokaw, and Andy Paterson; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Robert Downey Jr. (Robert), Sam Neill (The King), David Thewlis (John), Polly Walker (Celia), Meg Ryan (Katharine), Ian McKellen (Will), Hugh Grant (Finn), and Ian McDiarmid (Ambrose).


To Die For (1995, Gus Van Sant)

To Die For’s got one of those effortlessly smooth but obviously intricate narrative structures. Screenwriter Buck Henry is adapting a novel, which author Joyce Maynard structured with many different first person accounts. Van Sant and Henry and editor Curtiss Clayton keep the sense of different perspectives—including some interview sessions where someone is obviously making a documentary, maybe not even necessarily the same documentary between interviewees—but the film’s never actually first person. There’s always a narrative distance. Because To Die For only shows so much of its characters. They’re all still mysteries at the end. The film’s got a very definite, very dark sense of humor and it’s never clear just how much Van Sant and Henry are bending reality.

For example, Tim Hopper and Michael Rispoli’s almost entirely dialogue-free police detectives. They’re absurdly intense, emphasis on the absurd. Only Van Sant never plays them for laughs. They cut through the film, their absurd unreality somehow realer than what’s been going on in the film.

To Die For is about cable access weatherperson Nicole Kidman seducing a teenage boy (Joaquin Phoenix) to kill her husband (Matt Dillon). The first act of the movie covers the basic setup and then how Kidman and Dillon got together and how their families clash. Dillon’s Italian, Kidman’s a WASP. It’s quite wonderfully never clear what attracted Kidman to Dillon. Apparently she really did “go wild” for him, but then he got in the way of her career. In addition to her nightly weather duties, Kidman’s making a documentary about local teenagers, including Phoenix. Once Dillon decides it’s time for Kidman to start popping out babies—he gave her a year—well, Kidman starts having sex (apparently a lot of sex, which isn’t initially clear and adds a bunch of layers to things in hindsight) with Phoenix, the end plan being getting Phoenix to kill Dillon.

The film almost entirely shows Kidman’s planning the murder from Phoenix and Alison Folland’s perspectives. Folland is one of the other teenagers in the documentary. Kidman’s documentary, not the pseudo-documentary narrative device. Casey Affleck is the third kid. Folland just wants a friend, Phoenix is in love, Affleck is an ass. They’re all poor, all neglected or abused, all dumb. Affleck gets assigned the project (by Henry, who cameos as their school teacher), but Folland and Phoenix sign up. They’re the only two in the class who don’t see Kidman is a little too much. There’s something clearly off about her.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, that off is she’s an undiagnosed sociopath, something no one suspects—including her—because her parents have spoiled her for so long. Their pampering of Kidman hid it, which the film momentarily and brilliantly addresses when Kidman freaks out dad Kurtwood Smith, who until then seems like it’s completely aware of her peculiar personality. Kidman’s obsessed with wanting to be a newscaster, which motivates every action until she realizes she doesn’t have to be a newscaster to be famous. It’s another of the film’s awesome little character development moments, when Van Sant and Henry reveal they’ve been discreetly layering in an arc, using the pseudo-documentary structure to give it some extra kick. Sometimes for humor (not laughs, humor), sometimes just because.

There are seven concurrent narrative layers. They all take place sometime after the events. There’s Illeana Douglas (as Dillon’s sister who always knew Kidman was bad news); she’s being interview for a documentary. There’s Phoenix in prison. There’s Folland not in prison. Then there’s the parents on a daytime talk show—just the straight talk show footage—Smith and Holland Taylor as Kidman’s parents, Dan Hedaya and Maria Tucci as Dillon’s. Susan Traylor plays Kidman’s sister, who never has anything to say but always has this knowing look. There’s Wayne Knight as Kidman’s boss at the TV station. Then there are the flashbacks. And, finally, there’s Kidman narrating to the camera.

Only she’s not confessing so her material is very different. The reality she presents is very different from what we see transpire. Maybe it’s never clear with Taylor, but Smith seems to know Kidman’s guilty.

Listing the best performances in the film is basically just like listing the cast. Kidman and Phoenix are both phenomenal. And even though they have a bunch of scenes together and Kidman’s manipulating him and Phoenix is bewitched, their character arcs are entirely separate and so are their performances. They don’t have “chemistry” because it’s not possible for them to have it in those conditions. Folland’s great. Douglas is great. Knight’s great. Smith’s great. Affleck, Dillon, Hedaya, Taylor, Tucci; they’re all good. They just can’t compare. They don’t get the material, though there’s always this implicit material. Like Traylor’s looks, whatever they mean.

Good photography from Eric Alan Edwards, good production design from Missy Stewart, perfectly matched Danny Elfman score (it’s a constant, emotive, supportive but never ambitious score). To Die For’s technicals excel. Everything about it excels, especially Kidman, especially Phoenix, especially Van Sant, and especially Henry.

It’s gang busters.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Gus Van Sant; screenplay by Buck Henry, based on the novel by Joyce Maynard; director of photography, Eric Alan Edwards; edited by Curtiss Clayton; production designer, Missy Stewart; music by Danny Elfman; produced by Laura Ziskin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Nicole Kidman (Suzanne Stone), Joaquin Phoenix (Jimmy Emmett), Alison Folland (Lydia Mertz), Casey Affleck (Russel Hines), Illeana Douglas (Janice Maretto), Wayne Knight (Ed Grant), Kurtwood Smith (Earl Stone), Holland Taylor (Carol Stone), Dan Hedaya (Joe Maretto), Maria Tucci (Angela Maretto), Susan Traylor (Faye Stone), Tim Hopper (Mike Warden), Michael Rispoli (Ben DeLuca), Gerry Quigley (George), Buck Henry (Mr. H. Finlaysson), and Matt Dillon (Larry Maretto).


Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995, Joe Chappelle)

Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers doesn’t even run ninety minutes and gets boring fast; the last twenty minutes are completely mind-numbing. Nothing makes sense, characters act without motive, cults cult without purpose, it just goes on and on. At least Donald Pleasence is lucky enough to get knocked out for a bunch of it.

Pleasence isn’t in Curse very much. The scenes he does get are usually silly, sort of half expository, half bridging scenes to keep things moving. He has no narrative of his own, which is fine. He’s so uninvolved with the film’s events he shouldn’t have one. Of course, no one gets their own narrative in Curse. At least, nothing approaching a completed one.

Lead Paul Rudd doesn’t. His character survived the first Halloween as a kid, which makes him early-to-mid-twenties. He lives in a boarding house and obsesses over Michael Myers while peeping on new neighbor Marianne Hagan across the street. She’s a single mom moved back in with her family–mom Kim Darby, dad Bradford English, brother Keith Bogart. Devin Gardner plays Hagan’s kid.

So Hagan and Rudd don’t show up for about twenty minutes, maybe a little more–though Rudd does narrate the opening titles, which are set over J.C. Brandy giving birth and then running from Michael and a cult. From a basement. Director Chappelle likes his basements. He likes to poorly direct scenes in them; cinematographer Billy Dickson lights these basement scenes poorly, like everything he lights in the movie. It’s all poorly lighted. Dickson and Chapelle shoot their night exteriors with a lot of blue light. Bright blue light.

Back to Brandy. She’s from the last couple movies but it was a different actress. The movie introduces her in the Rudd voiceover during the titles and there’s no time spent establishing her character. Even though her escape subplot goes on forever, it’s filler. And badly directed. Chappelle badly directs everything in Curse. The movie doesn’t just not having anything to recommend it, it has nil positive elements.

Chappelle’s direction? Bad. Daniel Farrands’s script? Bad. Dickson’s photography? Bad. Randy Bricker’s editing? Bad. Alan Howarth’s music? So bad.

And none of the actors are any good. Once Rudd and Hagan take over the movie, it’s all about Rudd finding Brandy’s baby and then trying to find Pleasence. Meanwhile Hagan’s got a subplot about… nothing? She’s got a couple scenes showing she’s suffering–dad English is physically and mentally abusive, Gardner’s a weird kid–but no subplot. On one hand, it’s good Rudd and Hagan don’t have a romance subplot, but it’s also bad because it’d be so godawful it might be fun to watch.

Rudd’s really bad. Hagan’s better. Darby’s okay. English is bad. Bogart is bad. Mariah O’Brien–as Bogart’s girlfriend–she’s bad. She’s got this subplot about bringing Halloween back to the town. There’s a festival, which doesn’t appear to have actually been staged because Chappelle’s terrible at establishing shots. He, cinematographer Dickson, and editor Bricker are really terrible at tying scenes shot in different locations together. Sure, the plotting is herks and jerks along, but Bricker has no rhythm. There’ll be a bad establishing shot, then a second–longer–bad establishing shot, just on a first unit location. Curse is a visual mess.

Leo Geter is awful as a shock jock who figures in, but not enough.

Mitchell Ryan is in it a few times as Pleasence’s old boss, who wants to hire him back even before Michael Myers returns. Even though Pleasence is clearly not in shape for a nine-to-five.

The jump scares are all cheap, usually red herrings, usually with terrible Howarth music accompanying. But mostly there’s gore instead of scares. But the gore is often insert shots; obvious insert shots. Like Chappelle has something to prove. He can keep finding ways to make the move worse, even as every other “creative” impulse runs out.

Curse is bad. And it goes on too long to be amusing at all in its badness.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Chappelle; screenplay by Daniel Farrands, based on characters created by Debra Hill and John Carpenter; director of photography, Billy Dickson; edited by Randy Bricker; music by Alan Howarth; production designer, Bryan Ryman; produced by Paul Freeman; released by Dimension Films.

Starring Donald Pleasence (Dr. Sam Loomis), Paul Rudd (Tommy Doyle), Marianne Hagan (Kara Strode), Mitchell Ryan (Dr. Terence Wynn), Devin Gardner (Danny Strode), Kim Darby (Debra Strode), Bradford English (John Strode), Keith Bogart (Tim Strode), Mariah O’Brien (Beth), Leo Geter (Barry Simms) and J.C. Brandy (Jamie Lloyd Carruthers).


Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995, John McTiernan)

Until the tacked on finish, Die Hard with a Vengeance can do little wrong. It doesn’t aim particularly high, just high enough–it’s a symphony of action movie action (and violence) set in New York City; the city’s geography (at least movie familiar geography) plays less and less of a part as the runtime progresses, but director McTiernan and his crew are doing a large scale action movie over a wide setting and a constrained time period. The film takes place, without the tack on, in maybe nine hours. With the tack on, a few more.

Most of the city in crisis action happens in the first forty minutes or so. New York wakes up to a bombing in a department store. The unidentified terrorist (Jeremy Irons) calls the cops to demand Bruce Willis perform various tasks to prevent further bombings. On his first assignment, Willis involves local shopkeeper Sam Jackson. Irons likes the idea of Willis having a sidekick, so Jackson stays on. Larry Bryggman is Willis’s disapproving boss, Graham Greene, Colleen Camp, and Anthony Peck are his disapproving coworkers. Willis, separated from his wife since the last Die Hard, is failing about to be fired. Much of the first half of the movie is Willis complaining about his hangover; whoever’s job it was to make his eyes blood shot did great work.

Once they’re teamed up, Irons changes from tasks to riddles, giving Willis and Jackson this amount of time to get to this New York location and solve this riddle. Along the way, Willis and Jackson bicker. Despite it being Willis’s franchise, Jackson is there to be the audience’s anchor. For a while, McTiernan wants Vengeance to seem reasonable… plausible… not entirely unrealistic. Soon after Irons finally shows up on screen–with mostly silent flunkies Nick Wyman and Sam Phillips (the third tier East German guys make more of an impression–Vengeance doesn’t care about its supporting villains)–Willis finally catches on to what’s going on and starts shooting people. Only, even though there were a bunch of cops around, he and Jackson are on their own now. It’s just their action movie. Albeit one with a very wide setting.

The first stunning action sequence is when Willis has to jump on a subway train. Vengeance has been pretty up until this point. Lovely photography from Peter Menzies Jr.–the film takes the passage of the sun through the day rather seriously–fine editing from John Wright, excellent production design from Jackson De Govia. But it’s not until half an hour in and Willis pulling up a subway grate and jumping down does Vengeance show off its technical expertise. Once it does, however, the floodgates are open. The scale of the subsequent action varies, but McTiernan and his crew are always executing these grandiose, complication sequences with utter success. It’s a breathtaking ride. And a lot of fun, because Willis and Jackson are a fun pair. Sure, Jonathan Hensleigh’s attempts at solving racial prejudice through male action movie bonding is exceptionally naive and occasionally way too pat, but Willis and Jackson do manage to sell it. Their performances, even when the material’s thin–like the tack on finale–are outstanding.

Ditto Irons. Irons gets to relish though. Neither Willis or Jackson have relish-worthy material. Irons just gets to run wild. He’s the action movie villain in the “realistic” action movie. Only since he’s got all these henchmen doing the action villainry (for the most part), Menzies and McTiernan just have to make sure he never looks out of place and he’s fine.

McTiernan and editor Wright do well no matter what kind of action is going on. Willis surviving a flooded tunnel has just the right amount of tension, a bomb detonating in a middle school has just the right amount of tension. McTiernan toggles between the small scale Willis in a Die Hard movie getting out a situation with the very real terror involved in the school evacuation and so on. Though, in some ways, by keeping Willis (and Jackson) separate from that impending tragedy, Vengeance is able to cop out of having Willis in a “realistic” thriller. The real stuff is juxtaposed against his adventure with missing gold and fake accented Germans and whatever else.

Besides Willis, Jackson, and Irons, the rest of the cast is similarly superb. Bryggman especially. But also Greene and Camp, who slow burn throughout the film before getting their own big sequence. Peck’s good. Kevin Chamberlin’s fun as the bomb guy. Robert Sedgwick’s one of Irons’s thugs who makes more impression than Wyman or Phillips. Heck so does Joe Zaloom as the contrived action movie flunky Willis gets late in the film. Vengeance isn’t about the supporting villains.

Most of the Willis vs. thugs action is just bridging stuff between him and Jackson moving on to their next set piece, which is fine. It distinguishes Vengeance, especially since McTiernan and his crew excel more during the set pieces. The execution of Vengeance is just as important as the content executed, which is another reason the finale is such a disappointment. It’s an exterior night sequence, which–given any thought–fails all credibility tests (even for Die Hard with a Vengeance, though especially given the work put into the film’s procedural constraints). It’s a shame the finish doesn’t live up to the rest of the film, both in terms of narrative (it’s thoughtless) and execution (the big foil is a spotlight distracting Willis).

Not a worthy finish to the previous, sublime two hours.

But Vengeance is still a success. It can’t not be, not with the heights McTiernan and Wright reach; you can’t fault an action movie too much for having a perfunctory action movie finish. To be fair, the first ending–before the tack on–is phenomenal even in its absurd grandiosity.

Good score from Michael Kamen. Great production values. Excellent performances.

In five-dollar words, Die Hard with a Vengeance is so elegantly executed, it transcends the very tropes it functions on (as well as the script’s faults). Just not through the very end.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John McTiernan; screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh, based on characters created by Roderick Thorp; director of photography, Peter Menzies Jr.; edited by John Wright; music by Michael Kamen; production designer, Jackson De Govia; produced by McTiernan and Michael Tadross; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Bruce Willis (John McClane), Samuel L. Jackson (Zeus Carver), Jeremy Irons (Simon Gruber), Larry Bryggman (Insp. Walter Cobb), Graham Greene (Joe Lambert), Colleen Camp (Connie Kowalski), Anthony Peck (Ricky Walsh), Nick Wyman (Mathias Targo), Sam Phillips (Katya), Kevin Chamberlin (Charles Weiss), and Joe Zaloom (Jerry Parks).


In the Bleak Midwinter (1995, Kenneth Branagh)

In the Bleak Midwinter is a sweet movie. It’s kind of a Christmas movie–it takes place at Christmas–and it’s this gentle, thoughtful, sweet but never saccharine or even really acknowledging its sweetness sweet movie. Writer and director Branagh puts a lot of work into the plotting of the film, without ever appearing to be putting a lot of work into it because it’s usually in the background. Because Midwinter is an often uproarious comedy and the comedy gets the foreground. But, in the end, it’s pretty clear Branagh’s made a sweet movie. It’s about a production of Hamlet, but the film itself is more akin to a Shakespeare comedy.

The opening titles has some monologue from lead Michael Maloney, then goes to a scene with Maloney–an out-of-work actor–having lunch with his agent, played by Joan Collins. Collins is great in the scene. She shows up more later, but she’s never as perfect as in that first scene. She helps set the first of Midwinter’s moods. The film has different moods and different narrative distances throughout. Usually they don’t change at the same. Maybe never. But as one changes, the other might react, leading to its change.

All right, I need to explain Midwinter. It’s black and white, it’s about a group of actors trying to put on Hamlet while all living together in this ramshackle church they’re trying to save. Their Hamlet is going to save the church. It’s Maloney’s church from childhood. He’s able to put the show on because of Collins.

There’s a funny casting sequence, setting up the eclectic band of actors. Then they all go to the church to prepare. It’s a big cast–nine principals. Maloney keeps the lead just because he’s directing the play. Hetta Charnley is his sister, who is the one who wants the church saved. She still lives in the unseen town with the church in it. Then there’s Celia Irmie as the production designer (sets and clothes). Richard Briers is the angry old actor. John Sessions is the openly gay actor–Midwinter’s 1995 after all–who’s playing Queen Gertrude. Nicholas Farrell, Mark Hadfield, and Gerard Horan are the male actors. Julia Sawalha is the Ophelia. Everyone’s got distinctive story details. Turns out Branagh doesn’t just want his actors doing comedy–including physical comedy–he’s got some character drama.

Midwinter is really well-written through the first half. It’s really funny, it’s really well-directed. Branagh’s not messing around. He and cinematographer Roger Lanser get some phenomenal shots in the black and white. The filming locations, the production design (from Tim Harvey), all great stuff. But then Branagh gets into the characters and all the actors get this revealed depth to work with. Except Maloney, actually. Maloney’s character arc is something else entirely.

And the movie’s only ninety-nine minutes. Branagh does all sorts of narrative moves in this thing and it’s under 100 minutes. The actors all get these great parts, then they get even better arcs and relationships. And all the relationships are building from scratch because the movie starts before they all meet. So Branagh is building all this stuff quickly and profusely. Nine characters he’s building in ninety-nine minutes. Plus Collins.

Over half the actors give great performances. The others give excellent ones. That latter group gets more material but not as sublime material.

Neil Farrell’s editing is a whole other great thing about Midwinter. The comedy, the character drama, every cut is perfect. Even though Midwinter is a shorter film about a rushed Shakespeare production, the sometimes rapid cutting never seems hurried. Farrell and Branagh always give the actors enough time. Then they cut.

It’s kind of a showcase for its actors, actually. A technically brilliant, marvelously written showcase for the cast. In the Bleak Midwinter is wonderful.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh; director of photography, Roger Lanser; edited by Neil Farrell; music by Jimmy Yuill; production designer, Tim Harvey; produced by David Barron; released by Rank Film Dists Ltd.

Starring Michael Maloney (Joe Harper), Richard Briers (Henry Wakefield), Celia Imrie (Fadge), Julia Sawalha (Nina Raymond), John Sessions (Terry Du Bois), Hetta Charnley (Molly Harper), Nicholas Farrell (Tom Newman), Gerard Horan (Carnforth Greville), Mark Hadfield (Vernon Spatch), and Joan Collins (Margaretta D’Arcy).


Devil in a Blue Dress (1995, Carl Franklin)

Devil in a Blue Dress is almost so much better. Director Franklin gets easily distracted and follows tangents, both in the script and the directing. The latter makes sense–he’s always too enthuastic about the (excellent) production design, recreating late 1940s Black Los Angeles. With Tak Fujimoto’s warm but vibrant photography, the “regular life” part of the film is breathtaking. Sadly, Franklin’s too loose on the mystery side and he can’t bind the two.

The script’s the same way. Franklin has devices for lead Denzel Washington, including the narration, but also just how Franklin directs the scene. How he visualizes the space Washington occupies with the people he comes across. Washington’s a Black WWII vet turned amateur P.I. tracking down missing rich white guy’s white girlfriend Jennifer Beals. Franklin and Washington pay a lot of attention to personal space and what it reveals about character relationships, race relationships. But when they get the most ambitious, the narration fails. Or just isn’t present.

And Washington’s biggest character development arc is out of nowhere, introduced over halfway into the movie, with Don Cheadle’s arrival. Franklin desperately tries to forecast Cheadle through dialogue, narration, even one of the film’s ill-implied flashbacks. Yet when it comes time for Cheadle to get called up, Franklin botches the narration. Franklin sets up Devil in a Blue Dress to need narration–even though he and Washington could easily get away without it, Washington’s great and Franklin’s great with his actors–but he sets it up as an essential, then botches it.

It’s really unfortunate.

There are stops and starts throughout the film–scenes transitions are usually awkward, either too heavy or too light. Fujimoto’s photography on the investigation stuff is bad, which is an additional problem given the first act visual tone doesn’t match the rest of the film. But Franklin doesn’t know what to do with those scenes either. Devil in a Blue Dress tries to avoid film noir tropes so bad it ends up putting its back out.

The acting is either good or great. Washington is great. His performance has a sadness Franklin the director focus on, but Franklin the screenwriter ignores. Cheadle’s phenomenal as Washington’s loyal, unrepentent murderer sidekick. Tom Sizemore’s good as Washington’s mysterious client turned nemesis. Mel Winkler and Jernard Burks are real good in smaller parts. Lisa Nicole Carson’s good.

But then there’s Beals, who’s just okay. Some of it is Franklin’s direction; she’s supposed to be a femme fatale, but Devil in a Blue Dress doesn’t believe in femme fatales and she’s written as one. She’s another victim to Franklin’s indecision.

And Maury Chaykin is just bad. He’s only in a couple scenes, but they’re important ones, and he’s just too much. Same thing. Written as a noir villain, but Franklin doesn’t want to engage it.

Elmer Bernstein’s score is oddly half on, half off. Either way, it lacks personality, which is a no-no for Devil in a Blue Dress; everything else about it exudes personality. Except, obviously, Fujimoto’s “noir” shots.

Devil in a Blue Dress features some wonderful possibilities, some great photography, some great direction, some great performances. It should be amazing. It’s sad it isn’t.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Carl Franklin; screenplay by Franklin, based on the novel by Walter Mosley; director of photography, Tak Fujimoto; edited by Carole Kravetz Aykanian; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, Gary Frutkoff; produced by Jesse Beaton and Gary Goetzman; released by TriStar Pictures.

Starring Denzel Washington (Easy Rawlins), Jennifer Beals (Daphne Monet), Don Cheadle (Mouse Alexander), Tom Sizemore (Dewitt Albright), Terry Kinney (Todd Carter), Mel Winkler (Joppy), Jernard Burks (Dupree Brouchard), Lisa Nicole Carson (Coretta James), and Maury Chaykin (Matthew Terell).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE COLOURS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY THOUGHTS ALL SORTS.


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The Bridges of Madison County (1995, Clint Eastwood)

The Bridges of Madison County is many things, but it’s definitely an adaptation of a best-selling novel. Thanks to director Eastwood, it’s not a cheap adaptation of a best-selling novel, but it’s still an adaptation. There’s still a frame. No matter how much Eastwood deglamorizes it, no matter how well Richard LaGravenese writes most of it, there’s a lot of narrative ease ways and didactic padding. Not bad didactic padding, vague feminism in fact, but the padding is questionable.

Because here’s what Bridges of Madison County is about. Meryl Streep is an Italian woman who lives in Iowa in 1965. She’s smarter than her husband, her friends, and her neighbors. She’s intellectually ready to debate the human condition yet she has to make sure her husband’s socks are folded right. Because it’s 1965 and it’s not great. Along comes Clint Eastwood, who’s a careful “National Geographic” photographer and it turns out Streep likes the cut of his jib. And vice versa.

Thanks to Streep, Eastwood, LaGravenese, Joel Cox’s editing, Jack N. Green’s photography, and Jeannine Oppewall’s production design, it’s never sensationalized. Instead, it’s a characters study. Streep and Eastwood get to know one another and the audience gets to know them. It’s beautifully acted, it’s thoughtfully written, it’s exquisitely produced. It’s the kind of thing Fellini could have done in the States in 1965 if he’d sold out.

But it’s not a mainstream accessible thing. Yes, maybe enough flyover audiences are willing to go with adulterers not actually being demonic, but the whole thing is a strange sell. Eastwood’s not Robert Redford, Streep’s not Italian. And then Eastwood goes ahead and drains as much sensationalism out of the frame as he possibly can. Again, LaGravenese helps–he’s really good at writing scenes between two people, but he’s not great at confrontational scenes. Eastwood can compensate for it in the flashback with he and Streep. He can’t do anything about there being a mainstream inspirational denouement. Because, thanks to Streep–and, really, not movie stars Annie Corley and Victor Slezak as Streep’s kids in the frame–he’s able to get the movie done without too much damage. But it’s a rough sequence. Just because it’s not someone stunt-casted into the frame doesn’t mean it’s not narratively jarring.

Luckily, Eastwood’s got one final secret weapon to keep the film on track–the music. He and Lennie Niehaus compose this great theme for the film and Eastwood only barely teases it out through the actual film. The end credits, shots of the film’s locations relevant to the Streep and Eastwood scenes, set to the full theme? They devastate. Because some of Bridges of Madison County is Eastwood asking for a pass. He’s asking for indulgence. Give the film that indulgence, it’s got a phenomenal performance from Streep, a fairly great one from Eastwood, and some excellently paced two person scenes.

Of course, Eastwood could’ve done worse with the framing scenes as far as the filmmaking and the acting. Corley and Slezak are great. But they’re entirely pointless. Eastwood, Oppewall, and Green are entranced with the 1965 setting. There’s just no other way to start the film off and still make Streep immediately sympathetic. Eastwood hangs tough with the flashback sequence and its constraints.

The flashback–Streep and Eastwood–is a love letter. The frame is a journal. The journal’s all right… it’s got Streep, but it doesn’t have Eastwood. The third act just goes on too long, all of it in the present. There needed to be a handoff in emotional intensity but Eastwood’s not interested enough. He’s competent and present in the frame; he’s ambitious and feverish in the flashback. He and Streep’s first kiss scene is crazy good. And he works as an actor. Sometimes foolishly he runs into the part. There’s a pleasing hum to the flashback scenes, which Streep probably generates on her own, and as long as Eastwood’s performance is enough with the current, he’s sailing.

It’s enthralling. And then it has to end. To be fair to LaGravenese (and apparently uncredited executive producer Steven Spielberg), Eastwood doesn’t know how to bring it to the end either. He doesn’t want to say goodbye to this fantastic creation of Streep’s either.

Maybe the strangest thing Eastwood manages to do is so fully control the tearjerker aspect of the film. He, Niehaus, Cox, and Streep manage to turn it into a celebratory ugly cry. Sure, there’s still some sense of tragedy, but it’s in a far greater, human sense.

The Bridges of Madison County is mostly great, a tragic Frankenstein. It’s too good at being a big budget economy intellectual romance novel about human connection in the July-October set to just be an adaptation of a best-selling novel.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Clint Eastwood; screenplay by Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel by Robert James Waller; director of photography, Jack N. Green; edited by Joel Cox; music by Lennie Niehaus; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; produced by Eastwood and Kathleen Kennedy; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Meryl Streep (Francesca Johnson), Clint Eastwood (Robert Kincaid), Jim Haynie (Richard Johnson), Michelle Benes (Lucy Redfield), Annie Corley (Carolyn Johnson), and Victor Slezak (Michael Johnson).


Kiss of Death (1995, Barbet Schroeder)

Kiss of Death takes place over four years, has eight to ten significant characters, and runs an hour and forty minutes. It skips ahead three years at the forty-five minute mark. And the last twenty minutes could have their own movie, as David Caruso returns to the city to face Nicolas Cage, who knows Caruso snitched on him only it’s never clear how he knows or to what extent.

And it’s important to look at why it’s unclear because Richard Price wrote this Kiss of Death–I’m a Price aficionado–but Price also wrote it like a novel. Then he cut a bunch out of a four-hour miniseries, threw in some more scenes of Cage’s absurd villain who isn’t actually a character so much as an unthinking monster moving his way through the film, and called it… well, probably not good, but called it a movie. Only it’s not a movie, especially not with Schroeder directing.

Kiss of Death is a remake of film noir and, in updating noir, Schroeder basically dumps anything related to the genre in terms of visual style. Luciano Tovoli’s photography is technically fantastic, but it has no personality. The film opens on this fantastic tracking shot of an auto yard, which figures into the fates of Caruso, Cage, and everyone else in the film only Schroeder’s got no visual style to tie it in. It’s like doing a Touch of Evil homage without understanding how it works for the viewer. It feels tacked on and generic, like almost everything else in the picture.

But, you know, Schroeder’s not terrible, he just doesn’t know what to do with this movie. He directs maybe four of the actors well. And never Caruso, who’s going through all these physicality bits–trying to do more with saying less–only Schroeder doesn’t seem to pick up on them. Caruso’s walking away in a medium long shot physically reacting to something and Schroeder doesn’t want to concentrate on Caruso. He doesn’t understand how to make Caruso the protagonist given the depth of supporting characterization. It’s kind of a mess.

Caruso’s okay. He’s best with Cage, Samuel L. Jackson, and Kathryn Erbe. His scenes with Michael Rapaport and Stanley Tucci are too forced, either by script, direction, or Caruso himself. It’s an okay performance, not great, but with glimpses of great. Cage is in a similar boat. The actor, the script, and the director are all in disagreement about how to portray the character. When it’s Cage and Caruso together, Kiss of Death is at its best. There are lots of contrary things going on and the actors are still working so it creates a tone for the film, which otherwise has none.

Jackson’s got some really good moments, same for Erbe, though she’s utterly unappreciated. Actually, Helen Hunt’s unappreciated with some really good moments too. It’s kind of like Kiss of Death has too many good actors without enough material for them to do, so Price hints at better stuff off screen and then Schroeder’s not good enough at the on screen. Kiss of Death is its own worst enemy.

Michael Rapaport’s probably gives the film’s best performance as an annoying worm of a sociopath. Stanley Tucci’s fun as a righteous but greedy district attorney. Anthony Heald’s phenomenal as the mob lawyer. He gets two scenes. Just watching him and Tucci argue in front of a judge could carry a movie.

Lee Percy’s editing is a tad fast-paced. Trevor Jones’s music is a disaster.

Kiss of Death has too much potential, too little ambition, and some rather good performances (all things considered).

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Barbet Schroeder; screenplay by Richard Price, based on a story by Eleazar Lipsky and the 1947 screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer; director of photography, Luciano Tovoli; edited by Lee Percy; music by Trevor Jones; production designer, Mel Bourne; produced by Schroeder and Susan Hoffman; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring David Caruso (Jimmy), Samuel L. Jackson (Calvin), Nicolas Cage (Little Junior), Helen Hunt (Bev), Kathryn Erbe (Rosie), Stanley Tucci (Zioli), Michael Rapaport (Ronnie), Anthony Heald (Gold) and Ving Rhames (Omar).


The Mangler (1995, Tobe Hooper), the director’s cut

The Mangler is terrible. One hopes the rumor producer Anant Singh replaced director Hooper is true because the film’s bad enough and desperate enough, you occasionally want to cut it some slack. You can’t, because it’s terrible, but you still kind of wish you could.

Here’s the movie. Small town in Maine (it’s a Stephen King adaptation), evil laundry magnate (Robert Englund in a risible performance) runs the town because he has the demonic laundry machine. It needs the occasionally virgin sacrifice or it starts walking around like a Transformer, just with some of the worst of the worst mid–1990s CGI. Seasoned but sad widower cop Ted Levine does not think this is just some laundry machine accident. There’s something afoot with creepy old Robert Englund who mentally and physically abuses a runaway (Lisa Morris) because he can’t mentally and physically abuse his niece (Vanessa Pike). But then Levine’s brother-in-law (maybe, there was kind of mention of it), Daniel Matmor as the lamest hippie occult nerd ever, convinces Levine of the demonic possession. There’s some more, but not really.

It’s dumb. It’s a dumb movie trying to mix metaphors and genres and it fails over and over again. It’s not even like Levine is holding it together. If he were somehow this great noir detective befuddling his way through The Mangler, it might be something. But he’s not. He’s not good, he’s just affable and shows signs he could be good in a far better film.

Unfortunately, none of the other acting is any good at all. Matmor, Pike, Morris, Demetre Phillips, Jeremy Crutchley (a young guy inexplicably cast as an old man and in tons of make-up!), Englund–they’re all terrible. Maybe Ashley Hayden and Vera Blacker are okay. Maybe. They’re not enough it enough to be worse.

Bad music from Barrington Pheloung, really bad photography from Amnon Salomon.

At some point as the second act is finally wrapping it up, it becomes clear somehow really tried with The Mangler. Maybe producer Singh really thought it’d be able to hope on that legitimate Stephen King adaptation bandwagon. At least one of the three screenwriters did. But it can’t, because it’s terrible. It’s terribly acted, directed, photographed, everything. It’s slow. It’s not scary, it’s not gross.

If this movie didn’t have Ted Levine, it would be the equivalent of watching dog poop dry on the sidewalk.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Tobe Hooper; screenplay by Hooper, Stephen David Brooks and Harry Alan Towers, based on the short story by Stephen King; director of photography, Amnon Salomon; edited by David Heitner; music by Barrington Pheloung; production designer, David Barkham; produced by Anant Singh; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Ted Levine (Officer John Hunton), Robert Englund (Bill Gartley), Daniel Matmor (Mark Jackson), Lisa Morris (Lin Sue), Vanessa Pike (Sherry Ouelette), Demetre Phillips (George Stanner), Ashley Hayden (Annette Gillian), Vera Blacker (Mrs. Adelle Frawley) and Jeremy Crutchley (J.J.J. Pictureman).


Seven (1995, David Fincher)

Seven is a gorgeous film. It’s often a really stupid film, but it’s a gorgeous film. Even when it’s being stupid, it’s usually gorgeous. Director Fincher has a beautiful precision to his composition; he works great with photographer Darius Khondji, editor Richard Francis-Bruce and composer Howard Shore (about half the time with Shore). Seven is a visually harrowing experience. Shame the narrative breaks down halfway through when Andrew Kevin Walker’s already problematic script shifts leading man duties to Brad Pitt (from Morgan Freeman). It’s not just Pitt’s inability to lead the film, it also gets really dumb once they use the secret FBI database to find their bad guy. Fincher spends a lot of time setting up the authenticity of his hellish American city. When Seven starts flushing that verisimilitude down the proverbial toilet, well… it splatters on everyone, most unfortunately Freeman.

Freeman’s great in the film. He can’t do much in the scenes where he inexplicably plays sidekick to Pitt, who’s really bad at this particular role. While Pitt doesn’t have any chemistry with wife Gwyneth Paltrow, she doesn’t have any chemistry with anyone. Sure, her part is horrifically thin, but she’s still not good. Her scenes bonding with Freeman are painful. It’s good production designer Arthur Max went out of his way to include frequent interesting signage in the backgrounds because otherwise Paltrow’s big monologue wouldn’t be as tolerable. Even Freeman can’t make that scene work.

There’s some decent acting from R. Lee Ermey. It’s strange how well Fincher and editor Francis-Bruce do with some performances and how badly they do with others. Especially since the second half is just a star vehicle for the completely underwhelming Pitt. But there’s also this interrogation sequence (a very, very stupid one as far as cop movie logic goes, but Seven laughs at reasonable cop movie logic time and again) where Pitt’s interrogating Michael Massee and Freeman’s interrogating Leland Orser. Orser’s awful, but clearly going for what Fincher and Walker want. Massee’s great in his few moments, the editing on his side. Sure, Massee’s acting opposite Pitt, but the editing lets him have his scene, it doesn’t give it to Pitt.

Later on in the film, when Pitt’s having his big intellectual showdown with Kevin Spacey (who does wonders with a terribly written part), Fincher and Francis-Bruce let Pitt have the scene. They really should. One feels bad for Spacey, acting opposite such a vacuum. Pitt’s far better in the first half of the film, whining about being Freeman’s subordinate; he lets his hair do a lot of the acting in those scenes. His frosted blond tips give the better performance.

It’s a beautifully directed film. Fincher’s excellent at whatever the film needs–Freeman sulking around because he’s a lonely old cop and it’s what lonely old cops do, Pitt doing a chase sequence, even John C. McGinley’s glorified cameo as the SWAT commander has some good procedural sequences–but he doesn’t actually have a real vision for it. He takes a little here, takes a little there. It ends with an inexplicable nod to film noir and Casablanca. It’s dumb. Because Walker’s script, in addition to often being bad, is often dumb. It needed a good rewrite and far better performances in Pitt and Paltrow’s roles.

Oh, and the nameless American city bit? That choice was stupid too.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by David Fincher; written by Andrew Kevin Walker; director of photography, Darius Khondji; edited by Richard Francis-Bruce; music by Howard Shore; production designer, Arthur Max; produced by Arnold Kopelson and Phyllis Carlyle; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Brad Pitt (Mills), Morgan Freeman (Somerset), Gwyneth Paltrow (Tracy), Kevin Spacey (John), R. Lee Ermey (Police Captain), John C. McGinley (California), Richard Schiff (Mark Swarr) and Richard Roundtree (District Attorney Martin Talbot).


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