Recommended

In the Gloaming (1997, Christopher Reeve)

In the Gloaming is a qualified success. If you’re trying to go for humanizing a guy dying of AIDS while his upper middle class White yuppie family is slow to realize he’s a dying person who they probably ought not to avoid because they’ll regret it… it does that job. Gloaming is an hour-long HBO movie, based on a New Yorker story, all set in and around Glenn Close and David Strathairn’s picture perfect home in Westchester County, New York. Straithairn presumably works in the city, but it’s never actually clear. Doesn’t really matter. Just they’ve got enough money to have a gorgeous house but no servants.

And son Robert Sean Leonard has come home to die.

The film’s a series of what you know the filmmakers would prefer you think of as vignettes, as Close bonds with Leonard while Strathairn gets pissy. Close has to overcome the fear she’s responsibility for Leonard being gay because she was nice to him as a kid. She wasn’t as nice to his sister, Bridget Fonda, who grew up to be too much of a yuppie even for Close, off married with child, but the son and husband don’t come around because AIDS is gross and so’s Leonard being gay. But it’s okay because Fonda’s going to cry when he’s dead? Maybe. Not resolved. The vignettes are more like clips of the character development without any follow-up. Like when Strathairn, finally coming to terms with Leonard’s impending death, thinks it’s a good time to go for some martial relations with Close. No follow-up on that one.

Plus Whoopi Goldberg’s just around as the nurse, who eventually makes Close feel better about herself.

The film’s… comprised. Screenwriter Will Scheffer does not have the chops to make the strained manners of the bourgeois somehow say more than if Strathairn actually sat down and had a conversation with Leonard. They talk a lot about how it’s going to happen, then never does. Because Strathairn’s a terrible guy, even though he grows tomatoes for Close to cook him even though he doesn’t like tomatoes much. But we’ve got to understand Strathairn’s position–he just wanted what must be a macho man in Westchester County 1997, a tennis playing gardener man. Instead he got son Leonard, who went off to Berkeley and became gay. Meanwhile, why doesn’t anyone love Fonda enough, she’s doing her part, working full-time and wearing pantsuits and being mean to her own son so he doesn’t turn out gay.

Yes, Gloaming is from 1997. Yes, it’s from HBO. Yes, it’s from a New Yorker story (but 1997 New Yorker so… I mean… right?). But it has a lot it’s not willing to address. Scared to address. Leaving Strathairn, Fonda, and Goldberg with somewhat pointless parts. Fonda’s scary good as the shittiest human being and Goldberg’s at least likable. Strathairn’s just tiresome. He’s a one note caricature, with some “details” thrown in to round him. Doesn’t work.

So after two paragraphs dunking on it, why is In the Gloaming a qualified success?

Because the stuff with Leonard and Close, as they bond and work through his imminent mortality—mind you, they don’t get real character development in the script because of that vignette structure–it’s great work from Close and Leonard. The script limits them, sure. But Reeve works the hell out of their scenes together. And it resolves their relationship just right. Then ruins it with the actual last scene, which is an eye-roll and a half.

But Leonard and Close. They’re real good. They do so much with… not so little, but so… comprised a material. They refuse to let it limit their performances, which is cool.

Reeve’s direction is fine. He likes crane shots and doesn’t get to do enough of them. Good photography from Frederick Elmes. David Ray’s editing is a little too hurried, which is strange because of the the oddly manipulative nature montages–it’s like HBO is slamming their affluent viewers over the head with, “It could be your sons too, White women ages 45-55 who like Glenn Close!”—but then Ray’s got no sense of cutting when it comes to the dialogue scenes.

It’s like Reeve tried to direct it as a stage adaptation but without the play backbone.

Very heavily Scottish-influenced Dave Grusin score, which is weird (and figures into the plot); it’s a good score, it’s just a lot.

But it’s definitely a missed opportunity overall. It’s aged like flat root beer.

So, technically, earnestly, but unenthusiastically:

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Christopher Reeve; teleplay by Will Scheffer, based on a story by Alice Elliott Dark; director of photography, Frederick Elmes; edited by David Ray; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, Andrew Jackness; costume designer, Jane Greenwood; produced by Nellie Nugiel; aired by HBO.

Starring Glenn Close (Janet), Robert Sean Leonard (Danny), David Strathairn (Martin), Bridget Fonda (Anne), and Whoopi Goldberg (Myrna).


Familiar Strangers (2020, Murat Sayginer)

Once the technology gets better, something like Familiar Strangers is going to be disturbing as all hell. Director Sayginer has created a bunch of heads, using deep-fake technology to look like various famous celebrities (Maggie Gyllenhaal and Luke Evans are the most spot on), and the top row moves one way, the bottom row moves the other way and you’re just seeing these disembodied, familiar heads look out.

Some of them look at you and gently smile—everyone’s in a great mood and seeing approximately 250 idyllic looking people smile at you is a nice feeling. Do you forget they’re computer generated? No, because the level of realism isn’t quite there yet. It’s movie stars rendered as happy video game characters. It’s not real. Yet.

Even stranger than the sensation of the “people” looking at you is the sensation of them not. Some of the heads don’t look out at the viewer, they look out at something else. So you’re waiting for the computer-generated Keanu Reeves to look at you and he doesn’t (I actually can’t remember this one for sure; Strangers has a high rewatch value if you’re trying to find you’re favorites; I forgot the second time through to see all the Chrises together). But you feel bad if you don’t get the “eye contact” and the smile.

Perfect musical accompaniment from Bach. I hope Sayginer keeps going with this kind of exploration; heck, I hope he comes back to it once artificial face generation is further along. Not being able to exactly recognize the stars would be better.

Also, a lot of them look just like Mackenzie Astin, which is very odd and seems to say more about Astin (and me for recognizing him in all these CGI faces) than anything Sayginer’s done. Like, I don’t think Mackenzie Astin made the cut for model inclusion here. He’s just apparently got the face Sayginer’s computer wanted to render.

Open the pod bay doors and so on.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Murat Sayginer.


A Terrible Night (1896, Georges Méliès)

A Terrible Night had me exclaiming, “Holy shit,” when the giant bug appeared. Or when it started moving. I’m not sure if it’s always in the shot. I’m resisting the urge to go and check.

The short is short—a minute—and one of director Méliès single shot films. He appears in the film as well, a fellow with a distinct proboscis settling in for the night. Once he’s got himself tucked in, a gigantic bug starts crawling up the bed and then onto the wall. Méliès’s sleeper is prepared with a flyswatter of sorts, but then it turns out there might be other bugs around.

Night captures the very human terror of a bug interrupting sleep, exaggerating it with the bug’s size; the special effects are limited—you’re so busy watching Méliès scramble to get the flyswatter, the bug gets from bed to wall almost instantaneously—but the simplicity of the bug’s movement makes it all the worse. It’s very hard not to ascribe intention to the bug and its movement, a certain disturbing malice.

Méliès’s instinct with the makeup—the nose is obviously fake—is good too. He’s concentrating the viewer’s attention throughout the frame, both with moving and non-moving parts. It’s very cool stuff.

The only thing wrong with Terrible Night is it isn’t long enough. Méliès does such fine work in the first minute, you’d love to see what he could come up with in a second one.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Georges Méliès; released by Star-Film.


Stryker’s War (1980, Josh Becker)

Stryker’s War runs just over forty-five minutes. The first fifteen to twenty minutes are all about how twenty-two year-old lead Bruce Campbell can both do anything and make everything feel legit. The film opens in Vietnam (as shot in East Michigan) with Campbell taking his squad out on a mission after being promoted to lieutenant. It shouldn’t work at all. But it does, because Campbell. When Campbell gets wounded and shipped back home where he lives in a remote cabin trying to drink himself to death, it also works. Director Becker has a nice style with the actors, so when Campbell’s bantering with the kindly grocery store owner—played by Campbell’s dad, Charlie—it maintains a certain bit of seriousness, but also a lot of appreciation for the scene being able to work. War never does victory laps, but it’s full of confidence in itself (knowingly thanks to Campbell).

Turns out the kindly grocery store owner—who delivers microwave dinners and liquor to Campbell—has a pretty granddaughter who just might give Campbell the will to live. When she shows up–played by Cheryl Guttridge—the short leans heavy on the absurd; it’s love at first sight, complete with accompanying, sweeping melodramatic music and longing gazes from the lovebirds. She’ll be back the next day with more food for Campbell, giving him an excuse to shave and get dressed up.

Concurrent to Campbell’s burgeoning romance are radio reports of Manson Family-style killings in the Detroit area. They’ll be important in a bit, but first the short’s got to introduce Campbell’s Marine buddies—Scott Spiegel, David M. Goodman, and Don Campbell. None of them are good, occasionally they’re kind of bad, but Becker directs their scenes so well it doesn’t matter. That extended suspension of disbelief he’s set up with the romance carries over to the Marines being on a weekend pass from Japan to… East Michigan. They’re looking for something to do so they decide to visit Campbell in his remote cabin. They find him waiting for Guttridge, who hasn’t shown up, so like any red-blooded American males they get really drunk at nine in the morning and go outside to shoot things.

That night, when Campbell’s dog goes missing and they go out looking for him, they discover the Manson-esque cult is in the nearby woods and they’ve got Guttridge.

Sam Raimi plays the cult leader.

The last fifteen or so minutes of War is Campbell and his pals taking on the cult in the woods, set to familiar music borrowed from other films. There’s some great Bernard Herrmann in there for Campbell and Raimi—the film pairs off the good guys and the bad guys—and I wish I could recall the main chase theme for the rest of them. There’s a lot of running through the woods, some great action gore money shots, and an excellent pace.

War doesn’t aim too high—it’s ever conscious of its limitations—but it’s a great showcase for Campbell and a decent one for Becker. Becker seems like he’d rather get more stylized with the direction but doesn’t have the opportunity, but every once in a while there’s an excellent, complex shot.

It’s very impressive. Especially whoever cut all the music together; the editing’s quite good, but the music editing is outstanding.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Josh Becker; produced by Bruce Campbell and Becker.

Starring Bruce Campbell (Stryker), Scott Spiegel (Marine #1), David M. Goodman (Marine #2), Don Campbell (Marine #3), Cheryl Guttridge (Sally), Charlie Campbell (Otis), and Sam Raimi (Head Crazy).


Pierre Paolo (1998, Rachel Amodeo)

Pierre Paolo is a five minute short, set in a seaside Italian town. It opens with a simple, handwritten title card, then there’s a montage of the town set to classical music. The action rests on an old woman (Filomena Paletta) sitting on some stairs. Text appears across the bottom of the frame, explaining she’s thinking about her husband, the titular Pierre Paolo. When he appears, he’s a little boy on the beach, playing with a little girl (presumably the old woman on the stairs).

The action cuts to a younger version of the woman (director Amodeo) near the same, or similar stairs, in the town.

While the short raises some unaddressed questions—i.e. does it matter if the footage was all shot contemporaneously—the young boy is played by Pierre Paolo Pegnataro, the young girl by Govanna Saboureault, so is it old found footage or did Amodeo sort of create this nostalgia piece—the questions don’t have any affect on the effectiveness of the short. There are some limitations from the medium; clearly shot on film, it appears to be edited on video with that medium’s too static pauses. But it’s extremely well-edited, the music fits just right, and Amodeo’s composition is excellent.

It’s even better if she did go and stage kids playing on the beach in the thirties or forties or whatever. Those flashback sequences are lovely.

Pierre Paolo has its issues, but they’re from the video (the onscreen text is that always somewhat ugly nineties video editor generated text); Amodeo’s creative impulse is nicely executed. It’s a touching memory visualized. Or imagined. It’s nice work.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Rachel Amodeo.

Starring Pierre Paolo Pegnataro (Boy), Govanna Saboureault (Girl), Rachel Amodeo (Woman), and Filomena Paletta (Old Woman).


Canceled (2019, Jimmy Caputo)

Canceled has a great sense of humor. It ends on a knowing smile but then the end credits have a few knowing big laughs. It’s about five minutes of action, real-time, as two friends (Laura Sacchetti and Maria Scenna) try to console a third (Katrina Rossi) over the loss of her favorite TV show. The first minute pretends the consoling is necessary because of a boyfriend and it switches gears at just the right time. Again, great sense of humor. And director Caputo’s script has a better sense of timing than the short itself, which is frustrating.

Some jokes don’t work (Jeremy Gaipo’s recurring boyfriend gag is a fail), some performances don’t work (Scenna’s bored, apathetic friend seems less like a performance and more like Scenna’s unwilling to exert any acting effort), but thanks to Rossi and also Sacchetti (who’s resilient, she works through the moment not exactly working, not giving up until it does), Canceled works. Also, obviously, Caputo’s script and about half his direction. Whenever Scenna’s onscreen, it’s like time stops—partially because Scenna’s an energy vampire, partially because Caputo’s shot isn’t particularly interesting. He’s got fine composition when the actors are making it work, not when they don’t. Because Canceled’s an actors’ short. It’s a showcase for Rossi. And a good one.

Technically, it’s decent. Cinematographer Max Goldberg’s fine as long as he’s not trying to match lighting between shots. It never works. Some of it’s Justin Wayne’s editing, which is more enthusiastic than it ought to be. Not overconfident exactly, just… the cuts rarely go smooth. Though he does really well cutting a zoom here and there. Like, startlingly well.

It’s a funny short and a strong showcase for Rossi and Caputo’s writing. The successful material overshadows the problems, even the ones you worry about (like Scenna).

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jimmy Caputo; director of photography, Max Goldberg; edited by Justin Wayne; music by Tony Francis Rainone; produced by Caputo, Goldberg, and Wayne.

Starring Katrina Rossi (Molly), Laura Sacchetti (Julia), Maria Scenna (Sadie), and Jeremy Gaipo (Brian).


The Farm (1938, Humphrey Jennings)

For some reason, The Farm completely ditches what had been a very good sense of humor for the last minute or two. It runs twelve minutes. Losing the humor’s kind of rough, especially since there’s nothing to replace it, just the end of the short. It’s like Farm starts winding down too soon, never really getting around to the point.

The short’s this lovely color look at life on the farm. But the first half is the animals’ lives on the farm, not really the people. They get to the people, but they’re nowhere near as interesting as adorable sheep and piglets and cows and whatever. Director Jennings has a wonderful sense of timing. He knows exactly how long to hold the shot, which he’s also composed rather well. Jennings’s profile shots of the animals are awesome. They’re expository but never pragmatic. They’re patient. Jennings gives the audience time to digest what they see, even if the narration always moves too fast to catch the actual day’s lesson of “What’s Life Like on a British Farm.” And, oh, let’s be proud of our farmers as they feed us—there’s no sense of the farmer in the rugged American individualist sense, which is interesting—and also lets not think about the war. Don’t mention the war.

The weirdest thing about the war comment, which is a real thing in The Farm, look at this tranquility; it’s all forgotten now, let's hear no more about the war—the weirdest thing about it is how the comment comes in the first part, the cute animals we’re going to kill and eat part. The second part, the wheat harvest, is six months later. And there’s no mention of the war in it, even though presumably some time has passed. So the war comment is just this narration flourish. It’s very weird.

The Farm’s pretty—the color is gorgeous—and short enough it’s never boring; so a fairly interesting look into 1938 British farming. The direction’s better in the first half than the second half, in terms of composition. Jennings does better with the piglets playing than the afternoon tea break, even though it’s a trip to see the women come out with a picnic—every work day, according to the film—and serve their men tea and crackers. You’d think the narration would be funny about it—given how the jokes in the first half are Groucho Marx-y—but no. Not funny. Still a good short, beautifully photographed, just… not as funny as it clearly could’ve been.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Humphrey Jennings; produced by Adrian Klein; released by Dufay-Chromex Limited.


Peter’s To-Do List (2019, Jon Watts)

Peter's To-Do List is some next level lazy. It’s an “all-new” short film included on the Spider-Man: Far From Home home video releases. It’s actually just a montage mostly cut from the movie; better yet, the footage also appears in the deleted scenes section of the disc. There are no opening titles, no end credits, nothing new.

But it’s a good montage. It’s not like it’s at all bad, it’s well-made, It’s funny, it moves well. It’s just not “all-new.”

And it’s not particularly essential. Or even inessential. The important stuff from List do appear in the movie proper, so it’s just like… why. Well, I get why—Sony has a long history of aggrandizing deleted scenes to create special features (including extended versions of the movie made without filmmaker involvement, just reinserting deleted scenes).

Where To-Do List is… potentially interesting is in its positioning and promotion. “All-New Short Film” is a claim and a promise. To-Do List fails the claim but maybe not the promise. It’s Tom Holland being adorable as he goes around trying to get ready for the Far From Home part of the movie. He’s got a list of errands to run, culminating in taking down a bunch of gangsters. That sequence is rather good—and it’s impressive to see how, even in under four minutes, Holland and the filmmakers are able to maintain this consistent tone between Holland’s mundane tasks and his technologically accelerated fisticuffs with bad guys.

Tack on some titles, some credits (which would be difficult, I imagine, because then they might owe residuals), To-Do List would almost be “all-new.” With the right titles and credits anyway.

It’s even lazier than the old “Marvel One-Shots,” which was a series of short home video exclusives mostly made out of cut scenes and Clark Gregg shooting inserts. That series eventually got better. But I don’t think even the laziest one was as lazy as To-Do List.

I mean, technically it’s Recommended but only because it’s an incomplete. Hell, throw on a teaser for the rest of the movie and it’s basically a concept trailer. Instead, it’s a short mid-quel (defined by Petrana Radulovic as “side adventures taking place during the events of the original film”), just made out of cut footage….

So lazy.

But an amusing three and a half minutes.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Jon Watts; screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; director of photography, Matthew J. Lloyd; edited by Dan Lebental and Leigh Folsom Boyd; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Claude Paré; produced by Amy Pascal and Kevin Feige; released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Starring Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Jacob Batalon (Ned), and Hemky Madera (Delmar).


The Bells of Cockaigne (1953, James Sheldon)

The Bells at Cockaigne plays it very safe. It’s an inspirational “play for television” about lovable old Irishman in the U.S. Gene Lockhart daydreaming about winning an apparently still legal in 1953 numbers racket the newspapers run. Lockhart’s going to use the money to go home to Ireland and his little village one last time.

Lockhart sounds like he’s doing an ad read for a leprechaun. He really goes crazy with the accent. It’s not good, but it’s also not offensively bad. It’s a tolerable bad accent.

Now, Lockhart’s top-billed but the Bells is actually all about young kid (kid meaning late teens, maybe early twenties) James Dean who’s got a sick baby daughter and no money. He and wife Donalee Marans need a miracle but they’re not getting any so Dean’s going to play poker with his coworkers after they get paid. Oh, right, it’s payday. Vaughn Taylor’s the paymaster. He talks to Lockhart a lot.

It’s all very predictable and very positive. There’s nothing to it. Except Dean. Dean’s performance has these transcendent moments, where for a minute it’s not obviously a nonsense bit of positivity to play to a Christian nation in 1953. Where it’s actually Dean playing this part. Young, naive, out of his depth. Bells finds some honesty, thanks to Dean, when it’s not even looking for it.

Lockhart’s fine. Taylor’s not as good as Lockhart but only bad a couple times. Marans isn’t good. You really don’t watch this one and think the director did very much to help his actors with their performances. For Marans, it matters. Probably for Taylor too. Not Lockhart. Definitely not Dean. Watching Dean at the poker game, where he’s got the nervous active style going opposite all the comparatively motionless stiffs… it’s something.

The Bells of Cockaigne succeeds, despite having no ambitions at such a thing, and it’s all thanks to Dean. And it not being particularly bad in any way.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by James Sheldon; written by George Lowther; “Armstrong Circle Theatre” sponsored by Armstrong World Industries; music by Harold Levey; produced by Hudson Faucett; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Gene Lockhart (Pat), Vaughn Taylor (Jonesy), James Dean (Joey Frasier), Donalee Marans (Margie Frasier), John Dennis (Rivnock), and Karl Lukas (Kreuger).


Battle at Big Rock (2019, Colin Trevorrow)

Battle at Big Rock is a reminder the Jurassic Park Franchise Part 2 isn’t over yet. It’s a suspenseful nine minutes where director Trevorrow puts the preserving lead characters in danger—a family, of course—culminating in an allosaurus about to eat a baby. There’s also the precocious kid Melody Hurd, who’s a caricature but it doesn’t matter because Hurd’s so good, which is kind of the whole thing with Big Rock. It’s marketing, but it’s well-executed marketing. It’s the promise of R-rated danger with at most PG-13 ratings. It lionizes parents to the point they should be empowered enough to bring the whole family to the next movie because of its positive messages. And it’s not like dinosaurs are real, they’re not going to eat a baby out of its crib. We can just pretend.

And it does a great job of it. Dad André Holland and Mom Natalie Martinez are perfectly good movie parents for a terrifying short about dinosaurs getting up higher than they’re supposed to be (two years since Holland and Martinez Brady Bunched, presumably because of dead spouses)—oh, it’s like A Quiet Place. Oh. That’s dumb.

Whatever. Both Holland and Martinez are fine. Once Trevorrow reassures they’re not going to be running scenes without dinosaurs too long.

Things get scary, they get desperate, then they get silly. And all of a sudden, you get an imagine of the next Jurassic World movie and you wonder if somehow Universal is trying to make itself pretty for Disney.

But it’s all well-executed. Larry Fong’s photography, Stephen M. Rickert Jr.’s editing, it feels like Jurassic Park enough. Like a good Jurassic Park commercial. Amie Doherty’s “just pretend I’m John Williams” music is good too. It’s like homage; soullessly corporate homage but… whatever, it’s nine minutes. If the ending didn’t cheap out it’d be actually good. As is… it’s not bad.

So it’s technically, if unenthusiastically,

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Colin Trevorrow; screenplay by Emily Carmichael and Trevorrow, based on a novel by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Larry Fong; edited by Stephen M. Rickert Jr.; music by Amie Doherty; production designer, Tom Conroy; produced by Frank Marshall and Patrick Crowley; aired by FX.

Starring André Holland (Dennis), Natalie Martinez (Mariana), Melody Hurd (Kadasha), and Pierson Salvador (Mateo).


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