Touchstone Pictures

Signs (2002, M. Night Shyamalan)

It’s impossible to overstate what a profoundly, risibly bad movie Shyamalan has made with Signs. As the end credits started rolling, after the most disappointing “epilogue” Shyamalan could’ve come up with—it’s not just disappointing, it’s also pointless (pointless is the probably the best adjective to describe scenes in Signs)—my wife joked the movie took two weeks to film. To which I responded, “Thirteen and a half days longer than it took to write.” Because even with all the bad in Signs—and there’s so much bad—the writing is the worst.

And Shyamalan does this non-committal “camera as POV” thing—cinematographer Tak Fujimoto should be ashamed of himself for enabling Shyamalan to do it and embarrassed with how poorly he shoots the thing; Signs looks terrible–so, in other words, there’s a lot of competition for what’s worst in Signs. Shyamalan’s direction of the talking heads scenes—and there so many talking heads scenes because Shyamalan, who’s ego is literally oozing from every grain of film–involves characters almost looking directly into the camera but then just a little diagonally. Shyamalan is going for something with Signs, with his very intentional direction, his very intentional casting of himself as the guy who kills star Mel Gibson’s wife in a traffic accident (Shyamalan was asleep at the wheel) and vehicular manslaughter isn’t a thing and it just turns reverend Gibson into an atheist (but they never say the a-word because while Signs is definitely a millimeter thinly veiled Christian movie, there’s still the veil and it’s never going to get confrontational about it). Also… Shyamalan wrote the movie, so he did kill the wife.

Symbolism. Pass it on. Like the dog tchotchkes at the end to remind the viewer there are dogs, even if everyone forgot about them because they don’t matter because Signs is insipid.

Signs is full of symbolism but not really full because there’s not much because Shyamalan gets frequently bored with things like mise en scène because there’s better things to do like write the awful scenes between Gibson and his family. I went into Signs at least thinking Gibson would get through it unscathed (performance-wise). No. No. Not at all. It’s a godawful performance. He is incapable of pretending to be a former reverend, a widow, a husband, a father, a brother, and a farmer. The scenes with Gibson and kids Rory Culkin (who’s kind of terrible; it’s not his fault, Shyamalan seems to be having him do a Macaulay impression circa Uncle Buck but he’s still bad) and Abigail Breslin, who gets terrible material and terrible direction, but is still phenomenal. Shyamalan can’t figure out how to direct her because she’s not terrible like the rest of his cast.

Though, not Joaquin Phoenix. He’s leagues better than Gibson, though it helps Phoenix’s character is a dope. Gibson’s ostensibly functional enough to get to this point in his life—whereas Phoenix apparently always had Gibson to lean on—yet Gibson is real dumb. Real dumb.

Other bad things about Signs? Cherry Jones. She’s awful. Ted Sutton is so bad SAG should’ve shut the production down. Bad editing from Barbara Tulliver; Tulliver’s editing, cut for cut, is probably even worse than Fujimoto’s photography. Tulliver—presumably unintentionally—screws up all of Shyamalan’s jump scares. Larry Fulton’s production design is bad.

James Newton Howard’s score, while inexplicably a complete Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock rip-off (oh, wait, was Signs in the middle of Shyamalan being the new Hitchcock era), and poorly utilized, isn’t poorly composed. It’s competent, just misapplied. Everything else is incompetent and misapplied.

I was looking through Rodale for a good, fresh adjective to describe Signs but I think vapid does the job best. It’s worse than I expected it to be, which is saying a lot, but it also surprised me. I had no idea Gibson would so spectacularly fail or Phoenix would be—with a lot of conditions—so much better. And I guess Shyamalan managed to be inventively terrible, it’s just he’s a pointless kind of inventively terrible.

Oh, you know what… there’s the word.

Puerile.

Signs is puerile.

CREDITS

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan; director of photography, Tak Fujimoto; edited by Barbara Tulliver; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Larry Fulton; costume designer, Ann Roth; produced by Frank Marshall, Sam Mercer, and Shyamalan; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Mel Gibson (Graham Hess), Joaquin Phoenix (Merrill Hess), Rory Culkin (Morgan Hess), Abigail Breslin (Bo Hess), Patricia Kalember (Colleen Hess), Cherry Jones (Officer Paski), Ted Sutton (SFC Cunningham), Merritt Wever (Tracey Abernathy), and M. Night Shyamalan (Ray Reddy).


The 13th Warrior (1999, John McTiernan)

No one in The 13th Warrior seems particularly thrilled to be participating in The 13th Warrior. Some people carry it better than others—Omar Sharif’s cameo is the only “good” acting in the film, as he translates and interprets events for lead Antonio Banderas, who can’t speak the common language with the Vikings they’ve come across. Vladimir Kulich, as Beowulf (13th Warrior is an adaptation of co-producer and shadow director Michael Crichton’s novel, Eaters of the Dead, which is a riff on Beowulf), is kind of fine. His presence is indicative of the problem with Warrior, which is no one wants to take it seriously and actually ask anyone to act, so they just get a handful of personable actors and a handful of romance novel cover models and put the band together. Kulich at least takes it seriously. Taking it seriously requires effort, which is on short supply.

And, really, on short demand. No one cares. William Wisher and Warren Lewis’s screenplay is not some poorly realized masterpiece. It’s a Viking movie with an Arabian guest star. With Antonio Banderas as a tenth century Muslim traveler—based on a real person, but the film… avoids treating Banderas as a real person. The script avoids Banderas as a person so much it isn’t until the last battle, which is a very noncommittal Seven Samurai homage because neither credited director McTiernan or uncredited Crichton are any good at the action. It’s particularly stunning from McTiernan considering he made Predator and the “monsters” in Warrior decapitate and camouflage too. Warrior’s almost willfully bad.

Anyway—the movie doesn’t show Muslim Banderas pray until the last battle scene. How Banderas is going to pray five times a day—at set times—while traveling with a bunch of Vikings on a mission to kill a monster and save a village? Exploring that culture clash would probably be interesting. But they can’t do it because it’s an action movie with what ought to be a pulpy premise but instead wants to get executed like a nerdy one and it’s not. Warrior either needs a compelling lead, compelling adversaries, or compelling cannon fodder (the Vikings slash samurai). It’s got none of those things. And it’s not even Banderas’s fault. He’s not good, but it’s very clearly not his fault. His biggest scene—outside that one prayer—is when he figures out how to speak Old Norse just from sitting around and listening to the Vikings talk for a couple hours. Now, if it’d been set over weeks and the journey had narrative weight, Warrior might have something going but of course it doesn’t because it’s terrible. And the whole translating thing really shouldn’t have been raised because initially it just makes you think Sharif’s going to be sticking around longer and he’s really just there to give the movie some actual Hollywood Middle Eastern star cred before turning it all over to not Middle Eastern Hollywood star Banderas.

Again, it’s a big shame as Sharif’s a lot of fun and he’s able to make Banderas likable in a way the film never repeats. Particularly not for Banderas’s romance with Viking woman Maria Bonnevie, which is one of those “in crisis” situation romances and lacks not just romance but any sense of humanity. Bonnevie’s not bad but you’re never happy to see her because the scenes are just bad and are somehow worse than the bad A plot.

The A plot never delivers. How two directors, cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr., and editor John Wright managed to so completely fumble the action sequences—the Vikings hunting the monsters, the monsters hunting the Vikings—is inexplicable when you consider the professional pedigree and production budget. No one wanted to spend any time figuring out how to make this movie and instead they rely on slow motion a bunch of times. Including slowing down Kulich’s battle cries at one point, which is just cringe-inducing.

If they’d done in serious, it’d have had a chance. Not with this cast, obviously, but with a serious take and a better script. Or if they’d just done it exploitation-y, maybe they couldn’t gotten some energy. The movie’s not even boring as much as it’s exhausting. It’s exhausted, it’s exhausting.

No one looks as miserable to be participating as Diane Venora, who’s got the thankless role of being a recognizable female name for the opening titles and maybe even the poster but nothing else.

The 13th Warrior is a stunning waste of time for everyone involved, viewer included.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John McTiernan; screenplay by William Wisher and Warren Lewis, based on a novel by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Peter Menzies Jr.; edited by John Wright; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Wolf Kroeger; costume designer, Kate Harrington; produced by Crichton, McTiernan, and Ned Dowd; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Antonio Banderas (Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan), Dennis Storhøi (Herger), Vladimir Kulich (Buliwyf), Maria Bonnevie (Olga), Richard Bremmer (Skeld), Tony Curran (Weath), Sven Wollter (King Hrothgar), Diane Venora (Queen Weilew), Anders T. Andersen (Prince Wigliff), and Omar Sharif (Melchisidek).


The Ref (1994, Ted Demme)

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

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

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

Anyway.

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

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

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

The Ref’s good.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

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

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


Pearl Harbor (2001, Michael Bay)

Pearl Harbor is a couple things. It’s a breathtaking historical visualization of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And it’s a patronizing, cynical, disinterested war melodrama. The big problem with the melodrama is Randall Wallace’s script, which is vapid at best. It also barely factors in to the attack sequence. The attack sequence is all director Bay, for better and for worse, along with some unfortunate digital blurring to keep the rating down.

The Pearl Harbor sequence comes about halfway through. The movie runs three hours, the attack is at eighty minutes. Before the attack, there are some scenes with the Japanese (led by Mako and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who are both great) planning the attack and the Americans worrying about an attack. The Americans are mostly Jon Voight as FDR, Dan Aykroyd as the Naval Intelligence guy who can’t convince anyone to be worried, and Colm Feore as the Pearl Harbor base commander. But even if Aykroyd did get boss Graham Beckel to listen, the Japanese plan was too good. The Americans are just unprepared, which actually brings in the closest thing to a political statement the film makes. It makes various implications regarding the American military brass, as opposed to guys on the ground like Feore or Alec Baldwin’s Doolittle; Voight’s FDR isn’t with the brass either. It’s… interesting.

It’s probably what happens when history fails the politics of the filmmakers.

In other words, the film does a terrible job essaying how 1941 felt to the average person. Because Wallace does a crappy job in general and Bay’s really not interested in doing anything with regular people, not when he gets to do a special effects heavy war movie. As for the melodrama… the only person more disconnected from the melodrama than Bay is leading lady Kate Beckinsale, who doesn’t even get a caricature to play. Wallace’s script is, actually, quite interesting when you realize Beckinsale doesn’t just have less character than practically every other nurse (who are all man-starved caricatures, the slutty one, the sweet one, the fat one, the nerd), but her lack of character is what obliterates the film’s potential. Not just Beckinsale’s performance, which is… fine, given the circumstances. It’s vaguely believable she’s interested in Ben Affleck, but they—Wallace and Bay—can’t figure out how to get Beckinsale interested in third love triangle leg, Josh Hartnett.

See, Affleck and Hartnett are childhood best friends from Tennessee—the accents are better than you’d think; maybe not authentic, but better than you’d think. Affleck’s the alpha, Hartnett’s the beta. Though Affleck’s still fallible, he’s got dyslexia in 1941.

So let’s talk about the melodrama.

The movie opens with a flashback showing Hartnett’s character has a bad but sympathetic dad (William Fichtner in a flashback-redeeming cameo—or at least flashback-evening cameo) and sets Affleck up as his protector. Only Affleck’s about to ship out to England to get in the war because he’s getting old and still wants to be a war hero. He lies to Hartnett about volunteering and breaks new girlfriend Beckinsale’s heart, but she’s going to wait for him. Coincidentally Navy nurse Beckinsale and Army flier Hartnett both get posted to Pearl Harbor, where they see each other to say hello but don’t hang out. Or maybe they do. Because their supporting casts hang out but the film doesn’t do anything with Harnett or Beckinsale’s character development. What you’ve got with Pearl Harbor is a film wanting a beta to alpha arc for Harnett, but resenting Hartnett for being a beta, and then accidentally coming to the conclusion the alpha and beta labels are a bad way to think about masculinity. Only it can’t recognize that possibility because… dudes. There’s nothing more painful than the scenes when Affleck and Hartnett try to bond after Affleck gets back to find Hartnett and Beckinsale together. Much like when Beckinsale’s character is so exceptionally shallow you have to wonder how she made it through the scene without just defaulting to an honest answer and then when she becomes literal background in the third arc, you eventually welcome Hartnett and Affleck just standing around looking pensive as opposed to trying to talk about their incredibly complex situation.

Even though there are a couple times they’re supposedly going to have a hard talk. And there are a couple times Beckinsale’s going to get real with someone. Only she doesn’t have enough agency to do it. And Wallace doesn’t know how to write men talking about anything not military or war expository-related except Affleck and Hartnett’s buddies trying to figure out the best way to manipulate the nurses into bed. But they don’t mean it in a bad way—come on, it’s 1941, no one knew women were people yet.

Not even women.

So, spoiler, no, Beckinsale doesn’t have some kind of empowerment arc.

In fact, even though she gets the ill-advised, poorly written, and awkwardly placed end narration… Bay cuts her out of the end of the movie because she’s not a dude.

I guess to simplify the problem with the melodrama plot—it’s about Hartnett having a man-crush on Affleck because Affleck’s a square-jawed superman only to realize he’d rather have a lady, something Affleck seemingly wanted for himself but wasn’t ever going to tell puppy dog Hartnett about, and then Beckinsale—the object of their affections—doesn’t have enough of a character to react honestly to either, but with Affleck there’s at least movie romance cuteness; with Hartnett it’s a chemistry-free, erotic-free, erotic affair. It’s wholesome. With shtupping. Is it wholesome shtupping? Eh? Bay’s really bad at directing sex scenes.

Really, really, really, really bad. You’re surprised the actors aren’t blushing red from the stupidity.

Not like the canoodling, which Bay does somewhat well. Hartnett and Beckinsale’s romance is mostly short montage sequences where they cuddle and breath heavy on each other and it looks like a perfume commercial.

But the Pearl Harbor attack sequence is awesome filmmaking. Editors Roger Barton, Mark Goldblatt, Chris Lebenzon, and Steven Rosenblum don’t get jack to do before it and about twice that amount after it, but the attack is breathtaking thanks to them. Their cuts are so good the digital vaselining of the frame to insure the PG-13 doesn’t matter. It doesn’t work, but it doesn’t matter. John Schwartzman’s photography is great throughout, especially on the attack. Even an uncaring bastard like Bay is able to make each death tragic. It also reveals if Cuba Gooding Jr., who’s shoehorned into the movie to give it a single Black character with a story arc, is Bay’s real hero. Gooding’s a cook who ends up shooting down Japanese planes; Bay’s a lot more interested in the ground action than the flying action. Pearl Harbor doesn’t reinvent any wheels (or even try), but it definitely gets a lot less interest when it’s “leads” Affleck and Hartnett hitting the sky to avenge.

But getting them to the planes to go into the sky? Bay’s all about their (ground) trip to it. It’s a problem. Bay’s a problem.

Other great crew contributions? Nigel Phelps’s production design is fantastic. Hans Zimmer’s score is fine. Nothing special, but nothing bad. It’s all about that editing though. All about that editing.

Now for the acting. Lots of good supporting performances. The film has a bunch of sturdy character actors giving sturdy performances in bit parts. In the bigger ones, Aykroyd’s pretty good. Voight’s no qualifiers good. He’s really able to turn FDR into an action hero. It’s something. Baldwin’s great as Doolittle. Gooding’s fine. It’s a shallower performance than it’s the part because Wallace does a crap job with it. Bay and Wallace believe in institutional racism in 1941 but not person-to-person racism. The movie’s patronizing as hell.

Of the main cast—Hartnett’s flying sidekicks and Beckinsale’s nursing sidekicks—Michael Shannon is a revelation, Tom Sizemore’s good, Ewen Bremner’s able to get over his stutter, which is only there to get sweet nurse Jaime King to fall for him. Jennifer Garner’s bad but likable as the nerdy nurse. Some of the better glorified cameos are Feore, Leland Orser, and Kim Coates.

Affleck’s a really good lead. He’s able to do it all. He’s not able to give he and Beckinsale enough chemistry to give their romance depth, but its all so disingenuous it’d be a miracle. And Pearl doesn’t have any miracles.

Hartnett’s got some really good moments and some potentially good scenes. It’s hard to wish for more because it’s so clear the film’s disinterested in him. Hartnett and Beckinsale start their flirtation just as the Pearl Harbor attack preparations subplot really gets going and, again, it’s not like Wallace and Bay are actually interested in how anyone existed in fall 1941 in Pearl Harbor and definitely not with a girl.

Beckinsale’s… never bad. She’s never… wholly unconvincing. Though she has an utter lack of chemistry with Hartnett, who she needs some with because they get so little in the script, and still not quite enough with Affleck to get over the silly romance stuff. You’d say she was miscast but she’s good with the straight nursing stuff.

In case anyone’s wondering, Pearl Harbor intentionally and utterly fails Bechdel. I suppose it’s technically exempt when they’re talking about the wounded but… the rest of it? This group of nurses moves from rural U.S.A. to paradise Hawaii and has no reaction other than “boys, boys, boys.”

When Wallace and Bay are bad at something… they’re real bad at it.

It’s shame the movie’s not better. But it’s far from a failure; Bay lacks narrative instinct and interest, he’s indifferent to his actors’ performances—which nicely doesn’t matter because most of the parts are thin and the performances grand—but he’s ambitious to the nth with the attack sequence and he’s at least willing to acknowledge it does need some kind of bookends. Unfortunately for the actors, the audience, the film, Wallace is writing those bookends. Because he’s inept. You’d expect more from an intern who watched a week of History Channel. Some of its Bay’s fault—if he’d cared about the melodrama, it’d be fine….

As is, thanks to the cast and crew’s work, Pearl Harbor is tolerable when it’s not phenomenal, which isn’t bad at all.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Bay; written by Randall Wallace; director of photography, John Schwartzman; edited by Roger Barton, Mark Goldblatt, Chris Lebenzon, and Steven Rosenblum; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Nigel Phelps; produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Bay; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Ben Affleck (Rafe), Josh Hartnett (Danny), Kate Beckinsale (Evelyn), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Miller), Alec Baldwin (Doolittle), Ewen Bremner (Red), Michael Shannon (Gooz), William Lee Scott (Billy), Tom Sizemore (Earl), Jaime King (Betty), Jennifer Garner (Sandra), Catherine Kellner (Barbara), Sara Rue (Martha), Mako (Yamamoto), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Genda), Dan Aykroyd (Thurman), Kim Coates (Richards), Leland Orser (Jackson), Colm Feore (Kimmel), Raphael Sbarge (Kimmel’s Aide), and Jon Voight and the President of the United States.


Unbreakable (2000, M. Night Shyamalan)

If Unbreakable wasn’t a one hour and forty-six minute self-aggrandizement from wannabe mainstream-auteur (notice, not mainstream auteur) Shyamalan, it’d somehow be even worse. Because at least if Shyamalan is intentionally doing all these things, making all these choices, it’s a cohesive flop. If he’s not, if the mishmash elements are actually mishmash (like, you know, third-billed Robin Wright’s existence), if he really doesn’t think the sixth grade meets screenwriting manuals script is amazing, if there’s not a point to all those crane shots–usually shattering ceilings–then Unbreakable is even worse. And you don’t want it to be even worse because you gave it those 106 minutes, when you should’ve stopped at the opening text giving statistics on the comic book hobby and industry in the year 2000.

Or at least when the next scene of the movie is about a baby being born in a department store in 1961. The newborn has broken arms and legs. There’s almost the plot possibility the all-white store staff did something to the black mom (Charlayne Woodard) and baby. Attending physician Eamonn Walker certainly thinks something happened.

But then the action jumps ahead to the present, with Bruce Willis sitting on a train. He’s a quiet enough guy–totally bald–wearing a suit, but he does then proceed to take-off his wedding ring to flirt with the hottie who sits down next to him. Charmlessly flirt. In an exaggerated sad, creepy way so you know he’s harmless. And it’s not like he leaves the ring off after she bails.

Oh, before I forget. The greatest tragedy of the film is that time jump, because it’s the last time Walker’s in the movie and he gives the only decent performance. Wright’s performance isn’t her fault, but it’s still not good.

But instead you sat through the failed train pickup. Then things start getting exciting when Willis realizes the train’s going really, really fast. Then they stop getting exciting. And so ends the last building of dramatic tension in the film. And Shyamalan is going to make you suffer for sticking with it. No more rising tension. Ever. Not even when Shyamalan moves the camera around really fast to show you you’re supposed to be feeling the rising tension.

Instead it’s about one hour and forty minutes of humorless, joyless moping from everyone involved. I was going to say there’s nothing technically accomplished about the film–while Shyamalan’s hilariously pedestrian Panavision composition isn’t cinematographer Eduardo Serra’s fault, Serra had a duty to the human optical nerve not to do some of these things; similarly, editor Dylan Tichenor didn’t come up with the tone but he executed it. But production designer Larry Fulton does do a fine job creating, at least, Willis and Wright’s house, which is a miserable place you can’t imagine anyone ever said a kind word to one another much less had a holiday meal or birthday party. Wright doesn’t even get to exist in the house without Willis inviting her into the story.

Oh, right. Wright and Willis are breaking up because he’s too distant from her and son Spencer Treat Clark (who really ought to be the worst performance in the film but isn’t because Samuel L. Jackson; but in any fair universe, Clark would be the worst). Only we don’t find out why they’re breaking up for like an hour, until they’re getting back together.

Sorry, I’m forgetting. Willis’s train crashes and everyone dies except him and comic book art gallery dealer Samuel L. Jackson mysteriously contacts him with an unsigned note on his car. Has Willis ever been sick. He hasn’t ever been sick, something Willis finds really weird when he thinks about it so he goes to see Jackson. Jackson thinks Willis is a superhero. Only they never say superhero, they just say hero because Shyamalan is a serious important filmmaker and somehow saying superhero would make the whole thing silly.

Jackson is the baby from the first scene grown up. He has osteogenesis imperfecta; his bones are fragile. The kids who regularly assaulted him growing up called him “Mr. Glass.” He owns an art gallery with terrible drawings of superheroes. Not terrible like they’re fighting gross monsters, terrible like no one on the film had access to actual… drawings. Superhero or otherwise. It’s funny?

Anyway, Jackson tells Willis he’s a superhero because comic books are at least based somewhat in fact when describing superheroes. Jackson’s got this obnoxious history of comics monologue starting in Ancient Egypt, which is really, really, really dumb. Like silly dumb and inaccurate would make more sense if Shuster and Siegel created Superman after seeing a meteor fall. But there’s no Shuster or Siegel or the actual history of superhero comics because, well, Shyamlan’s script is really bad, but also because DC Comics had zero participation in the film. Despite Jackson’s favorite comics looking like DC Comics–what kid wouldn’t run to the corner in 1968 to get the latest Active Comics starring Slayer–in the logo designs, the comics themselves are exceptionally inept. Later on, in comic shops, Marvel Comics appear, which is funny since the final line in the movie is a freaking Superman reference.

Anyway.

Willis thinks Jackson is crazy but then Jackson stalks him at work and soon Willis is thinking maybe he is a superhero. He and estranged son Clark bond over his possible superpowers. It’s a little less affecting after Willis reveals he (Willis, the dad) blames his son for the estrangement, which isn’t really an estrangement so much as Willis is unhappy because he’s not out there being a superhero. Man needs his purpose.

Woman needs her purpose too and Wright’s purpose is to fall back in love with Willis. She fell out because… it’s never clear. The scenes would make more sense if Wright and Willis barely knew one another, not raised a tween together. Wright also has zero relationship with Clark, which is weird because Willis is supposed to be such a bad dad, but when Clark and Wright are in a scene together it’s like they haven’t even been introduced.

Shyamalan’s directorial badness isn’t just in the composition or pacing, whatever he told those actors to do during filming, they should have refused. Because it’s terrible.

No one’s worse than Jackson. Well, Clark, but on a technicality of sorts. Jackson’s got no character whatsoever. He exists for Willis. He’s intentionally unlikable (unless Shyamalan thinks the scene where Jackson hates kids makes him likable), every delivery is flat because he’s so serious, but then he occasionally makes good jokes. Charmlessly. Because no one’s allowed to have any charm in Unbreakable, which is fair. It’s a charm vacuum.

Willis’s performance is bad too. Though less funny because he has less to do than Jackson in a lot of ways, even though he’s the lead and finds out he might be Superman. Well, not Superman. He might be unbreakable and have some psychic powers. Or he just has impressions, which play out as flashback or flash forward scenes with crane shots, which aren’t impressions, but Shyamalan never gets into it too much because it’d be nerdy to define Willis’s power set. Unbreakable is serious stuff, after all.

And, hey, Willis does eventually get to do a hero arc. After ignoring a racist physical assault on a black woman and a white woman getting raped, he finds someone he does want to save. A white guy. Will Super Willis be able to take on the villain, who is stronger than Willis so hopefully Willis doesn’t have super strength, but whatever.

Lousy, lousy, lousy–and entirely inappropriate–epic-sized music from James Newton Howard.

Unbreakable is a dismal experience. But, hey, it’s not like there weren’t signs right away. And it just gets worse. And worse. And worse. And then it’s five minutes in and there are 101 more to go.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan; director of photography, Eduardo Serra; edited by Dylan Tichenor; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Larry Fulton; produced by Barry Mendel, Sam Mercer, and Shyamalan; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Bruce Willis (David Dunn), Samuel L. Jackson (Elijah Price), Spencer Treat Clark (Joseph Dunn), Robin Wright (Audrey Dunn), and Charlayne Woodard (Elijah’s Mother).


Ruthless People (1986, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker)

Clocking in at a whopping ninety minutes, Ruthless People feels a tad undercooked. Lots of trailer-ready sequences, lots of memorable moments, nothing to really connect them. The ZAZ directing team (it’s probably been sixteen years since I’ve thought about them) is adequate, but they don’t really direct actors very well here, so the casting goes a long way (Bill Pullman suffers the most, having the easiest character to play and most of his scenes fall flat).

Danny DeVito is great–turning in a performance so good I thought about renting Twins–but he’s not really getting any help from the directors and the script just plays him as a jerk, so DeVito isn’t really doing anything very difficult. Weight loss figures greatly in to the story–it saves kidnappers Helen Slater and Judge Reinhold from doing jail time–as Bette Midler loses twenty pounds in four days and has the Stockholm syndrome going in full effect.

The movie’s mostly missed opportunities–not counting the cartoon relationship between DeVito and Midler, which is mostly implied–particularly Reinhold and Slater’s touching love story… also implied. They’re the down-on-their-luck young couple who made a big mistake and haven’t been able to recover. There’s a lot of possibility (especially with a Michel Colombier score), but it doesn’t go anywhere.

Thanks to all the problems–the directors and the writer (I have no idea if the abbreviated storytelling is the script or the direction, but it’s unfair to put it all on the directors)–the most amusing parts of Ruthless People are the two cops, played by Art Evans and Clarence Felder, who are enduring all the defects along with the audience. A mix approach–the kidnappers, the cops, the husband–required traditional storytelling in Ruthless People….

Instead, the directors just made an unfilling mess.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker; written by Dale Launer, based on a story by O. Henry; director of photography, Jan de Bont; edited by Gib Jaffe and Arthur Schmidt; music by Michel Colombier; produced by Michael Peyser; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Danny DeVito (Sam Stone), Bette Midler (Barbara Stone), Judge Reinhold (Ken Kessler), Helen Slater (Sandy Kessler), Anita Morris (Carol Dodsworth), Bill Pullman (Earl Mott), William G. Schilling (Chief Henry Benton), Art Evans (Lt. Bender), Clarence Felder (Lt. Walters), J.E. Freeman (Bedroom Killer) and Gary Riley (Heavy Metal Kid).


Ransom (1996, Ron Howard), the extended version

Ransom is not Richard Price’s only “big Hollywood” movie (and it’s probably not his most anomalous one either), but there’s something very particular about the film. You’re watching a mix of various 1990s genres–a Mel Gibson movie, a Richard Price cop movie, and a Ron Howard movie. Except not the current Oscar-bait Ron Howard, the incredibly sturdy and wonderful Ron Howard of that brief period in the 1990s. I’ve seen the original Ransom! and while it is different, most of what the remake adds is the Price-written Gary Sinise material. And it’s a Richard Price cop thing being used for the most Hollywood, blockbuster aspect of the film too, which might be why Ransom is so weird. You’d expect Price to contribute something a little off kilter, but instead, he’s building up toward the rousing finale.

I haven’t seen Ransom in years, mostly because I kept waiting for the as yet still missing DVD release of the extended edition. The longer version adds a lot for Delroy Lindo and, I think, Rene Russo to do. Because the majority of Ransom, the first hour and forty-five minutes of the two-twenty extended version is all Mel Gibson. It’s at least half character study and Gibson does a fantastic job. Mel the actor is always forgotten or ignored (today probably forgotten), but once he hit his 1990s stride (and it’s a spotty stride, but it’s a definite stride), he was giving excellent performances. Just some of his scenes in here, they’re fantastic. I sat and realized Mel Gibson of this era could do anything, he has some perfect scenes. You also get Gibson in contrast to Gary Sinise, who was still somewhat indie at this stage (appreciated only in TV movies) and Mel runs circles around him. Delroy Lindo’s great–the extended version adding significant layers of complexity to his character–and Rene Russo is good too. For about half the movie, she doesn’t have anything to do and then all of a sudden, she has to do everything for a ten minute stretch and she carries it. She and Gibson have a perfect chemistry too.

As for Ron Howard… the Ron Howard who made Ransom was about the most exciting filmmaker in Hollywood. I have no idea what happened (I can guess–pet project Edtv bombed–bombing pet projects often deter great careers, but Howard’s probably will never recover, which is a tragedy). He maintains a sense of coldness, of space-heater heating–he creates a physical temperature with Ransom (his cinematographer helps, of course)–and the attention he gives Mel Gibson, and just the way the film moves from character to character, kidnapper to parents, parents to cops, everything just moves perfectly. It never gets lost, which is amazing.

I always forget the 1990s really did have a bunch of great people making a bunch of really good movies. I mistrust my memory of it, but then I go back and look and I see these films again and think about the people making them and what they were making and something very definite happened and capital-f film suffered. I was about to blame it on Lucas and Episode I (with no basis other than he closed a loop of quality opened in 1977) then I was going to blame it on James Cameron and Titanic (Blockbuster-maker wins Oscar, inspires others to get insipid), but I’d rather close off with something more on Ransom. The last shot. It’s short and it’s over the end credits and it’s a time lapse of a screen corner and it doesn’t belong. Beautiful James Horner music (before he too became a joke) and just this confusing shot, which you get only after it’s moments from being totally black, and there’s something striking about beautiful about how Howard closes the story off for the viewer. It’s quick and graceful, but it’s a ‘thank you’ for watching my film. Other films having such ‘thank yous,’ but it’s inappropriate in Ransom and it’s nice for just that reason.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Howard; written by Richard Price and Alexander Ignon, based on a story by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum; director of photography, Piotr Sobocinski; edited by Dan Hanley and Mike Hill; music by James Horner; production designer, Michael Corenblith; produced by Scott Rudin, Brian Grazer and B. Kipling Hagopian; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Mel Gibson (Tom Mullen), Rene Russo (Kate Mullen), Brawley Nolte (Sean Mullen), Gary Sinise (Jimmy Shaker), Delroy Lindo (Agent Lonnie Hawkins), Lili Taylor (Maris Connor), Liev Schreiber (Clark Barnes), Donnie Wahlberg (Cubby Barnes) and Evan Handler (Miles Roberts).


Gone in Sixty Seconds (2000, Dominic Sena), the director’s cut

I just watched the recent–let’s see what they’re calling it–director’s cut. A director’s cut without director’s audio commentary. It features nine extra minutes, the most noticeable being a few shots where you see tit. Before DVDs, directors’ cuts meant something (even if they weren’t exactly the director’s cut). Blade Runner and Touch of Evil meant something. Maybe not so much with Touch of Evil, actually. The recent directors’ cuts or extended versions often mean very little. They change the route over the topography, without changing the starting or ending point.

From this particular director, before Gone in Sixty Seconds, I wasn’t expecting much of anything. He made Kalifornia–which is great–then disappeared. After Sixty Seconds, he made Swordfish (a Bruckheimer knock-off, who knew such a thing could exist) and then… disappeared. He’s not a young turk either, he was 51 when he made Gone in Sixty Seconds, which makes sense more for Kalifornia (it had a sure, adult feel to it). Still, I thought this director’s cut might mean something….

Gone in Sixty Seconds has a number of great ingredients. It has a story rife with human conflict–responsible brother saves numb-skulled brother–in addition to the best-ever Bruckheimer cast: Delroy Lindo, Will Patton, Robert Duvall, Vinnie Jones, Chi McBride, Frances Fisher. Giovanni Ribisi is fantastic, back when he got work. Cage holds it all together in one of his “big movie star” roles, never counting the paycheck in his head, as visible in his other Bruckheimer collaborations (The Rock and Con Air). Angelina Jolie is mediocre more often than bad (though I didn’t realize her lips were so big in this one, so I guess the image is punk rock collagen) and the less said about Christopher Ecceleston the better. And for most of the movie, it works.

And I’m not even talking about the multiple false endings. The film, from the opening credits, establishes itself as a family drama. Sure, a big budget, Bruckheimer family drama, but one none the less. Then, all of a sudden, the family drama disappears. If it was replaced by the set pieces, the car thefts and such, I’d understand. But it isn’t. It isn’t even replaced by the Jolie/Cage romance subplot (which doesn’t work–she looks like his kid). It just disappears. Luckily, the film falls back on Delroy Lindo to hold up the rest of it and he does. Except when it relies on Will Patton and Robert Duvall, who are also very good people to depend on.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Dominic Sena; screenplay by Scott Rosenberg, based on the film by H.B. Halicki; director of photography, Paul Cameron; edited by Tom Muldoon and Chris Lebenzon; music by Trevor Rabin; production designer, Jeff Mann; produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Mike Stenson; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Nicolas Cage (Memphis Raines), Giovanni Ribisi (Kip Raines), Angelina Jolie (Sara Wayland), T.J. Cross (Mirror Man), William Lee Scott (Toby), Scott Caan (Tumbler), James Duval (Freb), Will Patton (Atley Jackson), Delroy Lindo (Detective Roland Castlebeck), Robert Duvall (Otto Halliwell), Christopher Eccleston (Raymond Calitri), Chi McBride (Donny Astricky), Timothy Olyphant (Detective Drycoff), Grace Zabriskie (Helen Raines) and Master P (Johnny B.).


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