Mystery

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985, William Friedkin)

If you’ve ever started watching To Live and Die in L.A. and turned it off because it’s terrible or just heard of it and thought you should see it, let me say… there’s no reason to see it. Or sit through it. Not even morbid curiosity. Or unless you want to see John Pankow’s butt. Director Friedkin does seem to be trying to start a macho male nudity thing with L.A.—including… umm… Little William L. Petersen, but he also does some homophobia in other parts. Not anti-lesbian though. Friedkin’s pro-objectification there.

Also… some vague racism. By some I mean every time someone who isn’t White is around. But all of it—even the dingus—is C-level L.A. shenanigans. They leave far less impression, for example, than the incredible stupidity of Secret Service agents Petersen and Pankow. Though at one point Pankow identifies himself as a Treasury Agent. L.A.’s based on a novel—by co-screenwriter Gerald Petievich—and for some reason I’d assume Petievich would’ve at least looked up the difference. Not Friedkin (the other screenwriter). Friedkin doesn’t even seem aware real guns weigh more than the rubber guns his actors strut around with.

To Live and Die in L.A., when you toss aside whatever is going on with bad guy counterfeiter Willem Dafoe, is about how adrenalin junkie, dirty Secret Service agent Petersen corrupts straight-edge Pankow, teaching him how to blackmail, exploit, and rape comely ex-cons (Darlanne Fluegel gets all the sympathy for being in this one), strut around in tight jeans (though Pankow doesn’t go with two to three inch lifts like Petersen) and shirts unbuttoned to two above the navel, and… I don’t know, act tough or something.

The scary part of L.A. isn’t the idiotic, toxic masculinity is good, actually, sentiment—Friedkin must’ve read some amazing male empowerment books in the eighties—but the idea it’s an accurate representation of the Secret Service. Though, wait, didn’t they get busted for something stupid and… oh. Yeah.

Okay, so it’s probably legit.

Otherwise the movie would be famous for the agency suing them for how they were portrayed. Because they’re idiots. Like, even if you’ve only watched “CHiPs,” you have a better idea of how to run an investigation than this group of dimwits.

The movie starts with a suicide bomber going after Reagan. The stupidest suicide bomber in the world, who comes up with a rappelling thing when he has enough explosive to just take out the hotel or whatever. Once the bomber fails—in an Islamophobic portrayal out of a GOP campaign ad—we get the Secret Service guys getting hammered and Petersen showing off his base jumping.

Every man wants to be a macho, macho man… you know what, L.A. set to Village People instead of Wang Chung (yes, really, it’s got a Wang Chung “score” and, no, it’s not good). But then Petersen’s partner, Michael Greene, three days from retirement, goes off to the middle of nowhere to investigate a counterfeiter who turns out to be Dafoe. Dafoe gets the drop on him because Greene’s an idiot too and so Petersen swears vengeance.

The best performance in the film is probably… Dafoe? Of the leads, anyway. Petersen and Pankow are risible, like they’re doing a spoof of themselves and don’t know it. Dean Stockwell’s kind of okay but then not, which is too bad because he starts better than he finishes. Fluegel’s not good, just sympathetic because she’s so exploited. Robert Downey’s terrible in a stunt cameo. John Turturro… I mean, you can tell he might be good someday but certainly not here. Debra Feuer, despite having the most potentially interesting story, isn’t any good as Dafoe’s muse.

Some of the Robby Müller photography is good. Some of it is not. They go handheld a lot, which would be a questionable choice if there weren’t so many just plain terrible choices Müller and Friedkin make. M. Scott Smith’s editing… is not bad. It’s not good, but it certainly seems like it’d be bad given Friedkin’s vibe here. It’s not. It’s tolerable. So much in L.A. is intolerable—like Lilly Kilvert’s production design and Linda M. Bass’s costumes—the tolerable parts shine.

To Live and Die in L.A. is an excruciatingly bad two hours. It’s hilariously pretentious and full of itself, but it’s got no laugh value; the joke is on whoever’s watching it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by William Friedkin; screenplay by Friedkin and Gerald Petievich, based on the novel by Petievich; director of photography, Robby Müller; edited by M. Scott Smith; music by Wang Chung; production designer, Lilly Kilvert; costume designer, Linda M. Bass; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Petersen (Chance), Willem Dafoe (Eric Masters), John Pankow (John Vukovich), Darlanne Fluegel (Ruth Lanier), John Turturro (Carl Cody), Dean Stockwell (Bob Grimes), Debra Feuer (Bianca Torres), Steve James (Jeff Rice), Robert Downey Sr. (Thomas Bateman), Christopher Allport (Max Waxman), and Michael Greene (Jim Hart).


Magnum Force (1973, Ted Post)

With forty minutes left in its way too long 124 minute runtime, Magnum Force starts getting real tiresome. The film’s already gone through multiple set pieces, with the Clint Eastwood ones pointless to the narrative but apparently what screenwriters Michael Cimino and John Milius think is character development, while the ones related to the a plot—a cop assassinating San Francisco’s top criminals—somehow even less interesting. After an okay first one, director Post runs out of composition ideas but still pads out the hits.

In the meantime there are the women throwing themselves at Eastwood, which is sort of amusing because he gets to mug charm a bit and Christine White showing sexual agency in a housewife in 1973 is kind of unintentionally progressive (ditto Eastwood’s “gay rights” moment, so long as they shoot well, less the film’s sexualizing women of color, Adele Yoshioka and Margaret Avery, in its “see, they can be objectified too” approach), and then the red herring suspect for the killer cop. All the red herring stuff does is make Eastwood look dumb because it’s obviously not the red herring.

Oh, and then there’s Hal Holbrook. So much Hal Holbrook. Holbrook’s Eastwood’s boss and a flag pin wearing straight edge dweeb who berates Eastwood in front of everyone and cracks jokes about him being a killer then flinches whenever Eastwood looks his way. Far more macho are the motorcycle cops, who end up being the de facto suspects because… well, Milius and Cimino aren’t really very adept at mystery plotting. Especially once the movie starts sharing all the information with the viewer and it’s just Eastwood paying catchup. The motorcycle cops are rookies David Soul, Tim Matheson, Kip Niven, and Robert Urich, and then Eastwood’s old buddy and weathered, drunken veteran Mitchell Ryan. Ryan’s also married to White; it’s obvious why she’s snuggling up to Clint versus Mitch Ryan.

Eastwood’s partner this time is Felton Perry, who’s around to be a positive Black character (i.e. only gets called the n-word by White criminals). Perry’s really likable and pretty good–Magnum Force does not have much in the way of good performances, so Perry’s a bit of a godsend. You at least aren’t sorry when he’s around, which can’t be said for, you know, Holbrook, Matheson, Ryan, or Soul. Soul’s probably the best of the bunch, performance-wise, but it’s such a thin character–with the primetime supporting cast and Post’s pedestrian direction (the car chases are dismal), Magnum Force often feels like the action for a bad TV cop show with some scenes from a poorly written Clint Eastwood vehicle thrown in. But never enough of the Eastwood vehicle; he doesn’t get an arc, unless you count hooking up with Yoshioka—and whatever Post thought lingering on what appears to be Eastwood’s character’s wedding photo (the last movie established he’s a widower) just before he gets slamming with Yoshioka… well, it doesn’t work. Even if it’s supposed to be weird. It’s not lingering enough to be weird. Because weird would be some personality and Magnum Force has zip to offer in that department. Even Lalo Schifrin’s scant score disappoints. And when he uses the original movie’s themes… it just reminds this one is such a downgrade.

Frank Stanley’s photography isn’t bad. The three times Post wants him to do things with focus, Stanley can do them. The rest of the time, it’s all well-lighted, just rather boring Panavision. You’d think the poor composition would be better than Post’s terrible direction of actors—who, to be fair, get lousy dialogue from Cimino and Milius—but the third act convinces, no, actually Post’s bad composition is a bigger problem.

Somehow a shootout on an aircraft carrier is boring. Bravo Ted Post. The bad guy frequently shoots six rounds at nothing, reloads, shoots six more rounds at nothing. It takes until the finish, but I guess being bewilderingly in its badness is better than being mundane in it.

The only other thing of note is a scene where Albert Popwell—returning from Dirty Harry but presumably not playing the same punk who didn’t feel lucky—brutally murders a woman. The movie just pauses and says, “Welp, we need some brutal violence against women in this movie, so let’s make it as garish as possible.”

Doesn’t help Popwell’s victim is one of the film’s only likable characters.

As for Eastwood… it’s not a good vehicle. While his material’s not good, it’s also not atrocious; it’s just he has to play stupid without ever actually acknowledging he’s playing stupid because he’s Clint Eastwood, which only makes it more obvious when he’s not smart enough on the pickup. But he’s kind of barely in it? Eastwood’s love life subplot is about as big his non-main plot cop stuff.

The script’s also got some spoofy laughs in it, like it’s a satire of the original Dirty Harry. But it can’t be because Post’s not good enough for it.

It’s an exhausting, unrewarding two hours and four minutes.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ted Post; screenplay by John Milius and Michael Cimino, based on a story by Milius and characters created by Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink; director of photography, Frank Stanley; edited by Ferris Webster; music by Lalo Schifrin; produced by Robert Daley; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Clint Eastwood (Harry Callahan), Felton Perry (Early Smith), and Hal Holbrook (Lt. Briggs), Mitchell Ryan (Charlie McCoy), Christine White (Carol McCoy), David Soul (Davis), Tim Matheson (Sweet), Kip Niven (Astrachan), Robert Urich (Grimes), Richard Devon (Ricca), Tony Giorgio (Palancio), and Adele Yoshioka (Sunny).


Still of the Night (1982, Robert Benton)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Streep monologue you could just watch in a clip.

1/4

CREDITS

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

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


Twilight (1998, Robert Benton)

Unfortunate bit of trivia to start us off—Twilight is supposed to be called The Magic Hour, but just around the time of release, Magic Johnson’s high profile (and quickly cancelled) TV show had the same title and they changed the movie’s title. Titles are both important and not. They definitely establish a work’s intention—you may know nothing about something but once you see the title, you ostensibly know something. The problem with Twilight’s title change is two-fold. While, sure, Twilight is The Magic Hour as far as a time of day when Los Angeles looks particularly hot and haunting, but Twilight also carries with it some implications given the film’s all about being old and dying. Whereas The Magic Hour does not carry those similar implications.

So about a hundred and fifty words to say, you most likely know it as Twilight, but it will always be The Magic Hour to me.

Twilight opens with Paul Newman having a beer at a Mexican resort, then another. He’s on the trail of seventeen year-old Reese Witherspoon; she’s run away with inappropriate older boyfriend Liev Schreiber. We get a little of the Newman charm as he extricates Witherspoon from Schreiber, but things soon go wrong; Newman’s passive gender expectations get him shot.

Fast forward two years and Newman’s living above the garage of seventies Hollywood stars Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon. Newman does odd jobs around the house, plays cards with Hackman, flirts with Sarandon, bickers with their daughter… Witherspoon. Hackman felt bad for wounded Newman and gave him a place to stay. Then Hackman got sick and they needed Newman around. The inciting action is Hackman asking Newman to run an errand… which may or may not have something to do with Hackman’s simultaneous news—his cancer is back and he’s not going to be doing anymore treatment, which is pissing off Sarandon.

What unfolds is a mess of dreams and nightmares. Newman’s got his own dreams and nightmares, but he’s wading through everyone else’s. There are the older folks’—retired ex-cops James Garner and M. Emmet Walsh, who’ve gone on to the private sector with differing results; Newman’s old cop partner, Stockard Channing, who’s got commonalities with the old ex-cops but very different dreams; Giancarlo Esposito’s Newman’s de facto old partner from private investigating days, still starstruck at the possible glamour of the profession. You’re in Hollywood, even if you avoid it, it’s a magical place where dreams come true. Even the obvious villains—Margo Martindale’s blackmailer, for instance, or Schreiber—are just mired in the cultural magical thinking. The script—by director Benton and Richard Russo—does an exceptional job layering in all that subtext. Essential in getting that subtext across is Piotr Sobocinski’s lush, deliberate photography, Elmer Bernstein’s lush, deliberate score, Carol Littleton’s lush, deliberate editing, and David Gropman’s… no, not lush and deliberate, but sharp yet functional production design. Twilight is very much about people in their chosen environments. The difference between locations speak volumes about the characters who live in them, who visit them, as well as the setting in general.

Because Twilight is exceptionally smart.

And should’ve gotten whatever title it wanted.

(The Magic Hour).

Anyway. Great performances. Benton and Russo’s script provides just the right amount of foundation, Benton’s direction stretches the canvas—all the mixed metaphors—and the actors then inhabit and expand. Should’ve gone with some kind of sculpture thing.

The best performance, just in terms of pure unadulterated success, is Martindale. She’s magnificent. But the most successful with the least is Esposito, who seems to be taking what ought to be a caricature and turning it into the film’s realest person. Witherspoon’s got some really good moments, ditto Schreiber. But it’s all about the older adults—though Newman, Hackman, and Garner are a decade and a half (at least) older than Sarandon. It’s all about the complicated relationships Newman’s forged with Hackman, Garner, and Sarandon; as the film progresses, we find out more and more about Newman before the opening mishap in Mexico. Twilight’s a Raymond Chandler story about seventies Hollywood done twenty years later with Hollywood stars playing type and against but also a character study. Kind of more a character story. It’s not really an L.A. movie only because Benton doesn’t dwell. He’s all about the locations, but showcasing the action occurring in them.

Because even though Benton does a great job with the supporting actors—Sarandon the most-it’s all about Newman. It’s not clear in the first scene—the Mexico flashback—because Newman’s got on sunglasses, but the film’s all about his performance. About how the events wear on him, how he reacts to them. Benton makes his cast sit in their emotional states—freezing them, just for a second or two—and shows how the pressure is crushing them. Not the pressure of their failures or successes, but the Hollywood dreams.

Again, should’ve been called The Magic Hour. Or something else entirely.

Hackman and Sarandon are both great. Garner’s got this wonderful flashy ex-cop turned studio security turned old codger part. He’s really enthusiastic about taking that extra reaction time. Hackman seems used to it, Sarandon’s different—but Garner’s visibly (albeit reservedly) jazzed; the performance does a lot to establish Garner’s place in the story, which is more often than not offscreen. Hackman and Sarandon, Garner, they’re places Newman visits. Sometimes for a long time, but he’s always a guest in those places. It’s very a Chandler-esque narrative.

Because Twilight is very much within the genre constraints of a mystery, which is the only thing wrong with it—Russo and Benton are careful never to strain said constraints too hard; they’re too respectful of genre. But what they do—what the film does—is magical enough.

Because it should’ve been called the damn Magic Hour.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Benton; written by Benton and Richard Russo; director of photography, Piotr Sobocinski; edited by Carol Littleton; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, David Gropman; costume designer, Joseph G. Aulisi; produced by Arlene Donovan and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Harry Ross), Susan Sarandon (Catherine Ames), Gene Hackman (Jack Ames), Reese Witherspoon (Mel Ames), Stockard Channing (Lt. Verna Hollander), James Garner (Raymond Hope), Giancarlo Esposito (Reuben Escobar), Liev Schreiber (Jeff Willis), Margo Martindale (Gloria Lamar), John Spencer (Capt. Phil Egan), and M. Emmet Walsh (Lester Ivar).



The Guest (2014, Adam Wingard)

For most of The Guest, the script doesn’t matter. Either the acting or the filmmaking carry the scene. The first act is this fairly standard, fairly obvious—albeit beautifully produced—drama about an all American family in crisis after the death of the oldest son, a soldier, killed in action in the Middle East. Dad Leland Orser is a verbally abusive drunk who also feels inadequate for not making enough money (in rural New Mexico). Mom Sheila Kelley is just sad. And dealing with Orser. High schooler Brendan Meyer is super-smart and mercilessly bullied. Daughter Maika Monroe works at the diner to save for college and has to hide pot-head boyfriend Chase Williamson from the fam. Then Dan Stevens knocks on the door—actually, Dan Stevens knocks on the door first and then the film establishes the family and really quickly, really efficiently. The strangest thing about The Guest having script problems is the plotting flows perfectly; writer Simon Barrett basically just doesn’t have any ending and he doesn’t have enough character development. Otherwise, the script’s good.

Anyway—Stevens. He’s the dead son’s comrade and he promised to tell each family member how much the dead son loved them. Stevens is just a good, nice guy, which is apparently exactly what the family needs. Kelley doesn’t have a son back so much as a pal. Kelley’s a missed opportunity. She’s a narrative prop, moved around for effective, but her performance is great. The film really doesn’t do enough with her. She’s around a lot but she doesn’t get any character development. She’s just sad about dead son and worried about her family. She also doesn’t have a clothes dryer, which is important later on. She and Stevens are really good together. Actually, Stevens is really good with everyone—Orser, Meyer, love interest Tabatha Shaun—except the one person it turns out he needs to be really good with—Monroe.

And it’s both Stevens and Monroe’s fault, but maybe more director Wingard and writer Barrett’s. Because eventually they at least need to have some spark and they never do, which seems almost intentional and a really wrong-headed move on the film’s part. So, eventually weird things start happening—like Stevens helping Meyer with his bully problem and Shaun with a pushy ex-boyfriend—and Monroe overhears Stevens on a mysterious cellphone call and just has to start investigating. Everything about that plot development is bad—anal-retentive Stevens having his super-shady but not super-shady at all phone call in hearing distance, Monroe immediately going Nancy Drew (the character’s written differently in each act), even the direction is forced (in the wrong way). Because first act Monroe is supposed to be crushing on Stevens, whereas second act Monroe is convinced he’s the devil and then third act Monroe is aware he’s the devil but operating indifferently to that belief. It’s not a good part for Monroe, especially not in the third act; the writing is just too thin. Also the film kind of dumps Monroe in the second act as she’s Nancy Drewing to follow everyone else. Well, the guys, not Kelley.

But it’s always an engrossing thriller. Wingard, who also edits, which seems right, knows how to present Stevens for maximum effect and Stevens is the whole point. Again, why Nancy Drew Monroe if she’s not going to take point but whatever; Barrett’s script has a lot of issues. Wingard’s got a tone he’s going for and hits it; making the film around any narrative issues for most of its hundred minutes. Steve Moore’s music and Robby Baumgartner’s photography are both excellent and enable that tone. If Wingard had been able to succeed with The Guest, it would’ve been something. But not failing is something too. Though having Stevens helps. And Monroe and Meyer and Kelley and Orser. The cast is right, the script is just a little wrong.

Also, Lance Reddick as Stevens’s former CO needs to be great and then isn’t. Reddick’s the third act surprise and it’s a flop.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Adam Wingard; written by Simon Barrett; director of photography, Robby Baumgartner; music by Steve Moore; production designer, Tom Hammock; costume designer, Kathleen Detoro; produced by Jessica Calder and Keith Calder; released by Picturehouse.

Starring Dan Stevens (David), Maika Monroe (Anna), Brendan Meyer (Luke), Sheila Kelley (Laura), Leland Orser (Spencer), Tabatha Shaun (Kristen), Chase Williamson (Zeke), Joel David Moore (Craig), and Lance Reddick (Major Carver).


The Watcher (2000, Joe Charbanic)

I do not regret watching The Watcher, which features Keanu Reeves as a serial killer who sees the world like a shitty late nineties video camera. It might not even be a video camera. The shots might just be through a shitty video viewfinder. There’s a lot of… competency on display in the film, but it’s never from director Charbanic. Charbanic’s hilariously incompetent. Well, sort of hilariously. Sometimes the bad goes on too long and gets tiring. The therapy sessions haunted ex-FBI agent James Spader has with Marisa Tomei are always tedious; the writing (from David Elliot and Clay Ayers) is godawful, but Tomei also looks like someone’s pointing a pistol at her dog offscreen to keep her on set. Given how Charbanic doesn’t do establishing shots, there’s sometimes no evidence Spader and Tomei are on set together. Spader can handle it. Tomei cannot.

Because until the last act, when Reeves kidnaps Tomei and Spader, it’s Spader’s movie. It’s about this guy who has moved to Chicago from L.A., on full disability after he ran into a burning house to save his lover (Yvonne Niami). Only then we find out through flashbacks Spader left Miami tied up to go chase Reeves. His lasting damage from the rescue attempt doesn’t always allow him to remember the fire. Tragic.

For more reasons than one. Niami seems awkwardly filmed. Maybe it’s because she’s one of the producers’ wives. The shlock producer. The film has three. Two seem legit, the third—Nile Niami—did a bunch of low budget action crap. The Watcher feels like low budget action crap, but filmed on location. Because even though there’s the interesting behind the scenes story about how Reeves was buds with director Charbanic from when Reeves toured with his crappy band instead of doing Speed 2 and verbally agreed to do this shitty script and then some assistant forged Reeves’s name on an actual contract and Reeves was trapped—even though there’s that story, whatever the deal with the Chicago location shooting is far more compelling. Because they go all out shooting in Chicago. It looks terrible, because Charbanic sucks and Matthew Chapman’s cinematography looks like a syndicated TV cop show and Richard Nord’s editing is atrocious, but whoever coordinated and managed all that location stuff—great job. The CG explosions look like crap, but the real ones look awesome… well, look awesomely executed. They don’t look awesome because the direction’s bad. Though the big explosion shot is one of the better, more approaching competence moments.

They’ve got a gazillion cop cars, they’ve got helicopters flying into the city from over Lake Michigan–the movie goes all out as a Chicago travelogue. At first it seems like it’s some kind of promotional video to shoot in Chicago, then it seems like it’s some crappy action movie just shot in Chicago—like a Chicago investor or something—but apparently it’s something else entirely. Kind of interesting. Far more interesting than the movie. And the Reeves casting intrigue. Because Reeves is just bad. He’s really bad at playing the serial killer. The script’s dumb, Charbanic’s a suck director, but Reeves is still just bad.

Spader… works it. Sometimes you can just pass the time watching Spader figure out how he’s going to essay this crap role. It’s like watching the performance occur to him. It’s not a great performance by any means—the script’s crap, characterization’s crap, part’s crap—but it’s interesting to watch Spader. Less Tomei. Chris Ellis is really good as Spader’s Chicago PD sidekick. Ellis doesn’t have a single acceptably written line but somehow he makes it work. He’s very enthusiastic. Like somehow he’d convinced himself The Watcher was going to be the next Matrix. It has Keanu Reeves in a leather jacket all the time after all.

Marco Beltrami’s score isn’t good—Nord’s cutting for music, Beltrami or the light metal soundtrack selections is terrible—but Beltrami works it too. He’s got some good technique, but there’s no way the final product is going to come across.

The Watcher’s atrocious. You shouldn’t watch it.

Though, if you’re interested in the Chicago area and seeing an expansively but poorly shot film showcasing it… you probably can’t do better than The Watcher? But also don’t watch it. It’s terrible.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Charbanic; screenplay by David Elliot and Clay Ayers, based on a story by Darcy Meyers and Elliot; director of photography, Michael Chapman; edited by Richard Nord; music by Marco Beltrami; production designers, Maria Caso and Brian Eatwell; produced by Christopher Eberts, Elliott Lewitt, Nile Niami, and Jeff Rice; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring James Spader (Joel), Keanu Reeves (David), Marisa Tomei (Polly), Chris Ellis (Hollis), and Ernie Hudson (Mike).


Night Hunter (2018, David Raymond)

The first act of Night Hunter, which is just as stupid as the film’s original title, Nomis, but has nothing to do with the movie itself—unless Night Hunter refers to “lead” Henry Cavill, who at one point tells his daughter, played by Emma Tremblay, how he was a great SWAT cop until she was born. Now, Cavill’s thirty-five or so and Tremblay’s like fourteen so he and ex-wife Minka Kelly had her pretty young. And Cavill was already a SWAT bad ass when he was twenty. He’s also British and living in Minneapolis-St. Paul because that sort of thing makes sense in Night Hunter—I mean, also British Ben Kingsley was… a local judge.

If Night Hunter had just had the stones to embrace it’s Canadian heritage instead of pretending it takes place in the Twin Cities, which are a really dangerous place but also have the highest tech police department in the world—wait. I was talking about the first act.

Sorry.

The movie’s stupid in some amusing ways. Lots of potential tangents.

But the first act. The first act is fairly… engaging? I mean, it’s about tortured super cop Cavill who works homicide and seems really smart. Cavill doesn’t give a good performance—he doesn’t give a terrible one, we’ll get to the terrible ones in a bit—but he’s really good at acting smart. It might also be because he’s British. It might also be because he’s British and makes the dumb dialogue sound authoritative and all the other people, save Kingsley, are not British and speaking stupid dialogue and, therefore, do not sound authoritative. There’s a lot going wrong at once in Night Hunter. Makes for interesting fails; fails because nothing writer, director, and co-producer Raymond does succeeds. The one big plot twist isn’t as dumb as the alternative he’d been hinting at for a while. I suppose that statement is complementary.

Let me back up. The movie starts with a woman killing herself instead of being recaptured by the guy chasing her. Cavill’s the homicide cop. Meanwhile, Kingsley and Eliana Jones are vigilantes who castrate sexual predators. Kingsley’s a former judge who’s gone dark after his family got killed. Jones is a sexual abuse survivor. She’s bait. It’s a good setup and, frankly, a lot of fun to watch. Kingsley’s a good heavy. And Jones gives the best performance in the film. She gives a bit wider of a performance than Kingsley or Stanley Tucci, but her part’s better and Jones tries harder. Eventually, Cavill crosses paths with Kingsley and Jones and soon they’ve teamed up to find the killer.

And they catch him right away. Brendan Fletcher is the killer. Only once they lock him up and Cavill’s ex-girlfriend turned believer-in-multiple-personalities profiler Alexandra Daddario interviews Fletcher. Fletcher’s the intellectually, mildly physically disabled super-killer who took out however many women before they finally caught him, from his bad guy mansion out in the woods. Daddario’s convinced it’s multiple personalities, Cavill thinks Fletcher’s faking it, Kingsley and Jones are out of the movie for a while, and Stanley Tucci comes in to yell. It’s a terribly written part for Tucci but he weathers it.

But Fletcher and Daddario are godawful. Night Hunter has got no chance after they start sparring, these two actors unable to breathe life into a crappy script. The film finds its ceiling and for most of the second act, Daddario is slamming her head against it as she tries to unlock Fletcher’s secrets. Very, very stupidly. Because it’s a stupid script. The third act has its surprise, but it doesn’t get any smarter. It’s also not like Cavill turns out to be much of a Sherlock Holmes; maybe the implications in the first act really were just because of the accent. He catches on to everything after the audience. It’s almost like Raymond promises he’s going to be really, really stupid and then when he’s just really stupid instead, he treats it like a victory lap.

The end’s bad. Good special effects but still a bad ending.

Raymond doesn’t appear to direct his actors. Most of them don’t actually need it, but the most important ones definitely do—Fletcher, Daddario, Cavill (though Cavill’s more just absurdly miscast). The supporting cast is mostly solid. Nathan Fillion’s one of the other cops because he owed someone a favor or just really likes Winnipeg; he’s fine. Daniela Lavender’s the CSI. She’s more good than fine. She makes her expository scenes rather believable, even lending credibility to Cavill. But it doesn’t really matter because once the second act hits… it’s just Fletcher and Daddario and the occasional incredible set piece. See, Fletcher’s such a mastermind, he’s killing cops while he’s locked up with explosives and poison gas and whatever else.

Still, Night Hunter’s far from unwatchable. Michael Barrett’s photography is good, even when Raymond’s composition is bad. It’s not incompletely produced or anything, it’s just not well-directed or well-written or well-acted. But it’s not… embarrassing for some of the people involved. Jones’s quite good. Tremblay’s far better than the film desires. Kingsley’s decent. It’s unexceptionally bad.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by David Raymond; director of photography, Michael Barrett; music by Alex Lu and Benjamin Wallfisch; produced by Robert Ogden Barnum, Jeff Beesley, Rick Dugdale, Chris Pettit, and Raymond; released by Sabin Films.

Starring Henry Cavill (Marshall), Alexandra Daddario (Rachel), Ben Kingsley (Cooper), Eliana Jones (Lara), Brendan Fletcher (Simon), Stanley Tucci (Commissioner Harper), Emma Tremblay (Faye), Minka Kelly (Angie), Daniela Lavender (Dickerman), Mpho Koaho (Glasgow), and Nathan Fillion (Quinn).


Narc (2002, Joe Carnahan)

In addition to starring in Narc, Ray Liotta also produced, which makes sense because the film gives him a great part. Narc is about disgraced ex-cop Jason Patric getting back on the job because the department (Detroit, with Toronto standing in but never noticeably) has a dead cop and they need a fresh set of eyes. Why Patric? Because otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie? Ostensibly it’s because Patric was an undercover narcotics officer (subtle title nod) and the dead cop was also an undercover narcotics officer (something writer and director Carnahan somehow manages to forget to establish, but hey, the script’s often messy). Basically it’s a Hail Mary pass.

Only Patric’s gotten to be a pretty okay guy since leaving the coppers and wife Krista Bridges doesn’t want him going back. He hems and haws a little bit about it, but he’s not going to listen to her, of course. Otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie. Also because Carnahan avoids doing real scenes between Bridges and Patric like the film depends on it. And it probably does. Narc relies on Patric to be able to give the impression of being the lead in some kind of character study when it turns out Narc isn’t going to be about Patric at all. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Patric takes one look at the files and decides the department needs to bring back Liotta, who’s the bad cop the good cops love (he beats up suspects, plants evidence, whatever). The silly liberals in the city have taken Liotta off the case—even though he knew the murdered cop (Alan Van Sprang in flashbacks)—and he’s got a great conviction rate. Patric convinces boss Chi McBride (great in a nothing part) to bring Liotta back and now it’s time for the second act. Second act basically becomes a study of Liotta, with occasional cuts to Bridges being mad at Patric and Patric ignoring her because it’s a cop movie and silly woman. Also there are these gorgeous shots of Patric by himself in the urban blight considering his existence, set to the wondrous Cliff Martinez score, with even more wondrous Alex Nepomniaschy photography. Narc often looks and sounds fantastic. Not so much when Carnahan’s doing this silly quartered screen thing showing Patric and Liotta’s amazing investigatory skills; the sound design is intentionally confusing and pointless. Kind of like the amazing investigatory skills—all Liotta and Patric end up doing is showing the dead cop’s photograph to various Black guys in bad neighborhoods. There’s a lot of lip service paid to the possible racial unrest Liotta will bring to the investigation—because he’s the racist bad cop good cops love, even Black commander McBride—but all the actual bad guys are white. Does Liotta ever realize he’s wrong based on empirical evidence? No. But whatever. It’s not like the investigatory aspect of Narc is its strength. Carnahan doesn’t write a great mystery, he directs a great gritty character study and pretends his script is going to match. It eventually doesn’t (the third act), but thanks to Liotta’s performance and the perception of Patric’s at the time, Carnahan is able to then pretend he’s been doing an intentionally peculiarly plotted mystery the whole time.

And he gets away with it. Narc is not, in the end, a success. It does not realize its initial ambitions or narrative gesture. But the film gets away with it because of the intensity of the acting, intensity of the filmmaking. Who cares if Patric’s character entirely changes in the last thirty minutes. Maybe we never knew him at all, maybe we were just projecting, maybe Liotta was just projecting, maybe everyone was just projecting onto Patric’s tabula rasa. We weren’t, of course, and not just because it’s impossible to project onto Patric; his handlebar mustache and soul patch would get in the way.

But Carnahan is able to get away with it, because of built-up goodwill and (apparently) de facto liberal sensitivities.

In its third act, Narc becomes one of those mysteries where the resolution doesn’t have to succeed so much as not screw up the previous two acts too much. A bummer to be sure, but still an extremely well-made film with two great lead performances. Even if Patric’s character goes absurdly to pot.

Carnahan and his production designers, Greg Beale and Taavo Soodor, do spectacular work. Especially on the limited budget. The limited budget kind of perturbs when you realize it’d have been very cheap to do those much needed scenes between Patric and Bridges and Carnahan just chokes on it instead. That Nepomniaschy photography is great, that Martinez score is great, Liotta is great, Patric is (mostly) great. So what if the second half of the script’s shaky and Carnahan doesn’t know how to establish ground situations.

The script is just a delivery system for the filmmaking, the acting. Not ideal, not successful, but… good enough. Especially since the dialogue’s solid (there’s just not enough of it).

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Joe Carnahan; director of photography, Alex Nepomniaschy; edited by John Gilroy; music by Cliff Martinez; production designers, Greg Beale and Taavo Soodor; produced by Michelle Grace, Ray Liotta, Diane Nabatoff, and Julius R. Nasso; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Jason Patric (Nick Tellis), Ray Liotta (Henry Oak), Krista Bridges (Audrey Tellis), Chi McBride (Captain Cheevers), Tony De Santis (Medical Examiner Art Harlan), Anne Openshaw (Kathryn Calvess), Bishop Brigante (Eugene Sheps), and Alan Van Sprang (Michael Calvess).


Body Heat (1981, Lawrence Kasdan)

Sumptuous is unfortunately not the right word to describe Body Heat. I wish it were because sumptuous just sounds hot, temperature-wise. And Body Heat is all about heat. It takes place in during a very hot Florida summer, its cast dripping with sweat, constantly in search of a cool breeze or a cool drink. Functioning air conditioning too.

The film opens with lead William Hurt watching a building burn in the distance. Lots of arson for insurance money going on in the small city. Hurt’s a lawyer, the type who defends arsonists and general fraudsters. He’s not good at his job, but he’s charming, good-looking, and likable enough. He’s maybe too objectively stupid to be particularly sympathetic, but the liability and charm goes a long way. Despite his questionable lawyering, he’s a local ladies man, regaling pals Ted Danson and J.A. Preston with his exploits. Danson’s the county prosecutor who regularly beats Hurt in court but there are no hard feelings, they’re good friends. Preston’s the town’s single detective; he looks on Hurt a little more paternally than fraternally, which gives the relationship some texture. Hurt’s relationships with Danson and Preston, which never have enough drama to even be C plots, are one of writer and director Kasdan’s great accomplishments in the film. There’s a history between the men, a warm one (not a Heat pun), and as it gets more and more strained, it’s affecting to watch. Hurt’s friends see the best in him, even when he doesn’t.

For texture Danson gets a whole Fred Astaire wannabe thing, dancing in and out of rooms, or just while he’s walking along. It’s a fun character trait.

Again, Kasdan’s got all sorts of wonderful details. Plus Danson—not a short man—is great at the dancing.

Things start getting complicated when Hurt sets his sights on married woman Kathleen Turner. She’s an ideal conquest—her husband’s out of town during the week—and she’s able to keep up with Hurt’s innuendo banter. Kasdan does a phenomenal job with the innuendo banter; you wish there was more of it but Hurt’s able to seduce her pretty quickly so things go quickly from banter to lovey-dovey talk. Hurt’s rather receptive to the lovey-dovey when it comes from Turner. The film establishes in the first scene he’s not from his regular paramours, but they’re also not stinking rich and have actual jobs; as long as its a week night, Turner and Hurt are able to just have sex marathons, breaking only when physically exhausted in her luxurious house.

Sumptuous is the right word to describe the house.

And things carry on pretty well, even after the film introduces Turner’s husband (an appropriately nebulously creepy Richard Crenna); Hurt and Turner even survive getting busted by her best friend (Kim Zimmer) and niece (Carola McGuinness). But then Hurt runs into Turner and Crenna at a restaurant, leading to an incredibly awkward dinner, and then they start talking about how much nicer life would be if Crenna weren’t around anymore. After all, Hurt knows plenty of lowlife criminals (Mickey Rourke, who’s awesome in a small part) and he’s tapped into the law and order side thanks to Danson and Preston.

Can Hurt and Turner go from a passionate affair to something more dangerous? Well, maybe the more appropriate phrasing is can they successfully go from their passionate affair to something more dangerous.

The film’s got a fantastic lead performance from Hurt, who’s so charming, good-looking, and likable it isn’t even initially obvious he might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer. And Turner’s always playing him for some reason, it’s just not clear what. Body Heat has no illusions about its leads’ affair. John Barry’s booming, sweeping, jazzy-ish score is never romantic. Tragic, sure. But never romantic. Even if Turner is capable of it, there’s never a sign Hurt could be.

She’s hot, sure, but rich and hot is twice as good.

Then there’s the lush Richard H. Kline photography—the film looks sharp but muggy, like through a heat haze—and Kasdan’s spectacular direction. Kasdan goes all out with composition, both for static shots and the swooping crane shots. All of them cut together sublimely, courtesy Carol Littleton. Body Heat is a technical marvel.

Then there’s the script. Outside the lovey-dovey talk, where Turner turns the tables (no pun) on Hurt, it’s all sharp, deliberate. Kasdan does a great job directing the actors. Big parts, small parts, everyone in Body Heat gives an outstanding performance. The way Hurt delivers the dialogue is something special. The filmmaking elevates Heat from its thriller and suspense tropes already—but Hurt’s performance (along with Turner’s, though in a different way) make it a singular picture.

It’s pulp but it’s not. It’s too humid to be pulp. The pulp gets waterlogged. Body Heat is exceptional.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan; director of photography, Richard H. Kline; edited by Carol Littleton; music by John Barry; production designer, Bill Kenney; produced by Fred T. Gallo; released by Warner Bros.

Starring William Hurt (Ned Racine), Kathleen Turner (Matty Walker), Ted Danson (Peter Lowenstein), J.A. Preston (Oscar Grace), Lanna Saunders (Roz Kraft), Carola McGuinness (Heather Kraft), Mickey Rourke (Teddy Lewis), Kim Zimmer (Mary Ann), Jane Hallaren (Stella), and Richard Crenna (Edmund Walker).


Greta (2018, Neil Jordan)

Greta is exceedingly competent. It’s way too unimaginative, predictable, traditional, and restrained in the final third, but it’s always exceedingly competent at those things. Even after it’s clear top-billed Isabelle Huppert isn’t going to create a singular cinema villain and even after it’s clear she’s not even as good as she was in the first hour… she’s always exceedingly competent. Ditto de facto lead Chloë Grace Moretz; she gets thin, melodramatic backstory, an annoying sidekick, a boring job, and a bland dad, but she always makes it work. Greta’s even able to make its utterly predictable last shot work.

Probably because the whole thing is utterly noncommittal and emotionally exploitative until the thriller dangers take over.

The film doesn’t start out noncommittal or emotionally exploitative. The first act at least hints at some sincerity—another of the script’s efficiencies—Moretz is a recent college (Smith, natch) graduate living the dream in New York City. Literally. She works as a waitress, but has no future ambitions and doesn’t need any because she lives with good friend Maika Monroe, whose dad bought her a loft for college graduation. Monroe doesn’t appear to do anything but yoga and party. Again, efficiency after efficiency. Moretz’s dad, Colm Feore, lives back in Boston. Moretz came to New York not because she gets to live rent-free in a bitchin’ loft but because her mom died the year before and she’s grieving. It’s implied Feore grieved his way immediately into another marriage, but it’s never explained. Because efficiency. And also the implied detail makes the film less shallow.

So one day Moretz finds a handbag on the train and—thanks to the lost and found not being open—has to bring it back to the owner herself. The owner is French-ish Isabelle Huppert, who lives all by herself because her husband died the year before and her daughter is off in Paris. Huppert and Moretz immediately bond, much to Monroe’s chagrin—she feels like Moretz is judging her negatively for being a superficial rich girl (which Moretz can’t be because she doesn’t do yoga and also dead mom). Except (and it happens before the second act) it turns out Huppert is seriously creepy creeper and Moretz tries to break off their relationship, only for Huppert to start stalking her. And eventually Monroe, leading to some great thriller sequences from Jordan, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, and editor Nick Emerson.

Huppert’s stalking gets worse, leading to bigger and bigger set pieces, until the last third (or so) of the film when the danger to Moretz starts to become far more literal. No more foreshadowing, no more backstory hints (and the ones the film has revealed add up to nothing because of how the third act plays), just terror.

The conclusion is a mix of predictable, problematic, satisfying, and truncated. Greta runs just less than a hundred minutes and definitely could use a more thorough denouement. Jordan and co-writer Ray Wright go for intensity to get the film to the finish, which is fine in the moment, it just doesn’t add up to anything. Nothing in the film adds up to anything. None of the suspicions, none of the characters’ traumatic histories, none of the characters’ criminal histories (private investigator Stephen Rea discovers more about Huppert from one file folder than the cops do after multiple interactions with both Huppert and Moritz); none of it matters in the end. So no character development, not for Moritz or Huppert. Moritz definitely needed some. Huppert, if the villain role were better, might be able to get away without it. But the role’s not better. It’s lacking. Even if she does power through the third act quite well.

Moritz is good too, though the film’s patronizing towards her, like it resents her for not having enough to do because it doesn’t give her enough to do. Monroe gets better as things go on. She’s good at action, not at exposition. She’s real rough in the first act.

Rea’s great.

Feore’s okay. It’s a perfect role for stunt-casting or a character actor and instead it’s filler with Feore.

Like I said, it’s all exceedingly competent, making Greta a successful viewing experience without being a successful film.

It’s too bad. A better, sincerer, more ambitious script could’ve given Huppert, Moretz, and Monroe some great roles.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Neil Jordan; screenplay by Ray Wright and Jordan, based on a story by Wright; director of photography, Seamus McGarvey; edited by Nick Emerson; music by Javier Navarrete; production designer, Anna Rackard; produced by Lawrence Bender, James Flynn, Sidney Kimmel, John Penotti, and Karen Richards; released by Focus Features.

Starring Isabelle Huppert (Greta Hideg), Chloë Grace Moretz (Frances McCullen), Maika Monroe (Erica Penn), Zawe Ashton (Alexa Hammond), Stephen Rea (Brian Cody), and Colm Feore (Chris McCullen).


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