Drama

Restoration (1995, Michael Hoffman)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3/4★★★

CREDITS

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

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


Becket (1964, Peter Glenville)

Becket has some genre constraints. Significant ones. It’s a king-sized 70mm Panavision English history epic only it doesn’t feature any big battles. In fact, it goes out of its way not to show battles. It’s also an early sixties historical epic and it’s trying to be a little edgy in how it shows the relationship between King of England Peter O’Toole and his friend and advisor Richard Burton, the title character. Burton doesn’t just help O’Toole drink and carouse, he also advises him with matters of state, giving better advice than anyone else. Are they lovers? Queen Pamela Brown certainly implies it, but she’s also a shrieking evil harpy of a royal who wants to infest the kingdom with her idiot sons. Becket’s real clear—O’Toole might be a tyrant and a rapist, but his wife is even worse; England would be worse off with her having a say.

The film’s a toxically masculine take on certain aspects of toxic masculinity but not others. If O’Toole and Burton were lovers in the film, it’d probably make them more likable. Without, the film just implies Burton helps O’Toole rape comely subjects, sometimes taking part, sometimes not. O’Toole, being a Norman, doesn’t look on the Saxon peasants as human beings—but, you know, does and chooses not to so he can abuse them—and Burton, the only good Saxon in all England, helps him along. See, Burton’s an amoral collaborator. Being amoral and without honor means he can collaborate with a free heart, making him a great sidekick for O’Toole, both socially and politically. The scenes where Burton debates the Church on O’Toole’s behalf—the film’s set in the 12th century, before England split from the Roman Catholic Church—are fantastic. 1160 is about the last time a bunch of ignorant White men debating each other had much purpose and it’s great material for Burton. He excels at being intellectually superior. While O’Toole excels at having fun. Unfortunately, Burton’s arc takes into spiritual superiority, which Becket avoids almost as much as it avoids whether or not Burton and O’Toole got horizontal. O’Toole goes from having funny to being a maniacal, drunken jerk… O’Toole excels at it as well; the second half of Becket is all about the response to the title character, not about the title character’s experiences.

To stop having trouble with the Church, O’Toole—and the actual, you know, King Henry II—gives Burton—Becket—the job of Archbishop of Canterbury, making him the head of the Church in England. O’Toole assumes Burton’s going to be his old self, Burton instead decides he’s got to do it legit and devout. He doesn’t so much find God—or at least not in an overt way, Becket’s not getting into that part—as he finds a moral center. Is he arguing one amoral, exploitative system against another? Sure, but he’s ignorant of the Church’s crimes while party to the State’s. It gives Burton a great part—for a while—because he can sell the heck out of holier than thou; intellectually so, then spirituality so. Shame the movie dumps him in the last third or so.

It’s obviously going to happen—the movie opens with O’Toole talking to Burton’s coffin (spoiler alert)—but when the movie shifts focus from Burton to O’Toole, while introducing nagging wife Brown and nagging mother Martita Hunt, not to mention awful royal sons, it’s clear early on we’re never really getting back to Burton. His experience—in the film named after his character—isn’t important. He goes off and does monk-y things. Even when he’s convinced of his inevitable martyrdom, it comes at the literal end. Nothing of his experience of living with it. Becket, Becket decides, is a mystery. Even if Burton was doing a perfectly good job of explaining him.

It’s like the film doesn’t want to think too hard about anything. Other than giving its stars some good scenes. It’s a historical epic, after all. Director Glenville’s pretty plain, direction-wise; when he does have a really good shot, it’s a surprise. Geoffrey Unsworth’s photography is solid, but for an epic, not a character drama. Glenville’s not directing a character drama, but the stars are acting in one. The film, based on a stage play, never feels stagy enough. Good epic music from Laurence Rosenthal. Becket’s an event instead of an achievement, leveraging Burton and O’Toole without ever facilitating them.

John Gielgud’s awesome as the King of France. Otherwise no one in the supporting cast is really up to Burton or O’Toole’s level. Definitely not Burton’s monk sidekick David Weston, who’s… fine. Fine for a not entirely unsuccessful historical epic.

Burton and O’Toole could do more with more. They do quite well with what they have but Burton getting the second-half shaft causes unsurmountable damage.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Glenville; screenplay by Edward Anhalt, based on Lucienne Hill’s translation of the play by Jean Anouilh; director of photography, Geoffrey Unsworth; edited by Anne V. Coates; music by Laurence Rosenthal; production designer, John Bryan; costume designer, Margaret Furse; produced by Hal B. Wallis; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Peter O’Toole (King Henry II), Richard Burton (Thomas Becket), David Weston (Brother John), Donald Wolfit (Bishop Folliot), Martita Hunt (Empress Matilda), Pamela Brown (Queen Eleanor), Siân Phillips (Gwendolen), Gino Cervi (Cardinal Zambelli), Paolo Stoppa (Pope Alexander III), and John Gielgud (King Louis VII).


A Man for All Seasons (1966, Fred Zinnemann)

What’s so incredible about A Man for All Seasons is how big director Zinnemann makes it while keeping it small while keeping it big. The settings are big—palaces, estates, and so on—but Zinnemann keeps the set pieces small. He and cinematographer Ted Moore will do big establishing shots, but only after they’ve gotten into the details of the places. They incorporate the technique into the opening titles, then keep going with it throughout the film. The film’s all about the small actions and pettiness of important men, those establishing montages bring them down to Earth. Or at least establish a grounded Earth in which to play.

Georges Delerue’s regal but also demure score perfectly accompanies.

The film’s about Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield in a singular performance); he refuses to publicly support King Henry VIII’s first divorce. Robert Shaw plays the King; he’s great too. Only in it for a couple scenes, but great. And a grandiose enough performance to cast a shadow on the film after he’s established. You’ve got to believe Shaw can be so petty about Scofield not supporting him, without ever establishing Shaw’s regard for Scofield. At least, not until after Scofield’s pissed him off. Man for All Seasons has a wonderful sense of how to elucidate history—writer Robert Bolt (adapting his play) does “pepper” the exposition with historical detail, but only ever for the characters’ edification, not the audience’s. And when doing historical exposition, Bolt’s default is for the common man—or at least the more common man, let’s say still identifiable if not sympathetic upper middle class—not the nationstate politics. Yes, Scofield toggles between kingmakers and kings like Orson Welles and Shaw, but he also deals with ambitious bureaucrats like Leo McKern (and unambitious de facto ones like Nigel Davenport). His would-be protege, John Hurt, is just a man trying to make something of himself out of university and Scofield tries hard to protect him for the realities of corruption. For Scofield’s More, the corruption tends to have a religious bent but the film never particularly gets into the religiosity. Bolt, Zinnemann, and Scofield examine More’s actions and how his beliefs chart those actions, not the content of the beliefs. They’re kind of lucky to have More as the subject, as him not voicing any opinion whatsoever is what gets him into trouble. A man keeps his thoughts his own when in Tudor England, something Scofield tries to impart on friend and foe alike, which leads to some wonderful moments.

Scofield’s family also plays a big part. There’s wife Wendy Hiller, who doesn’t get much to do but is good, daughter Susannah York, who’s awesome and gets lots to do—sometimes just reacting; the film sets her up as Scofield’s intellectual heir, if she weren’t a girl anyway, and so her perception of the events and behaviors she experiences are another storytelling slate for Zinnemann and Bolt. Man for All Seasons is very quiet, very simple, very complicated. The film deliberates, even when it doesn’t have enough information (usually because Scofield’s keeping his mouth shut about it).

Scofield’s the protagonist; his actions and reactions drive the plot. A constant undercurrent is the story of ambitious, not entirely dim-witted, but morally corruptible Hurt, who ends up finding a mentor in McKern. Only McKern’s a jackass, power hungry bureaucrat jealous of Scofield’s intellectual powers (no matter what McKern accomplishes, Shaw’s never going to love him for his mind whereas Scofield manages to disrespect the King and maintain the intellectual regard). And Hurt’s aware he’s going to the Dark Side, providing yet another storytelling slate. Man for All Seasons never feels stagy, never feels like its a series of vignettes whether the most character development happens off screen, yet it is that series of vignettes. Zinnemann, Moore, Delerue, and editor Ralph Kemplen just make sure it never feels like one. Zinnemann maintains the importance of the film’s visual style even when the dramatics are center stage (Moore’s beautiful “natural” lighting helps), which allows for nimble style changes. It’s magnificently executed. Zinnemann’s direction is assured but never showy, confident but ambitious; the chances the film takes are almost exclusively on the actors—at least into the second act—and Zinnemann facilitates the performances, but the actors are the ones who have to nail the moment, which seems like it should lead to at least the acknowledgement of the stage adaptation but it never does. Because the film’s limited world is so big.

All of the acting is great. Some of the cast get to have more fun—Welles gets to have a lot of fun, McKern’s a delightful weasel—but the ones who have major constraints (Hurt’s weasel-in-training, Corin Redgrave’s obnoxiously Lutheran Lutheran who’s courting York) are still excellent. York, Davenport, and Hiller all deliver in some hard scenes; York and Davenport get the bigger ones, but Hiller’s got to do a lot in short amounts of time. The film often uses Hiller to establish character stuff for Scofield. She’s part of his ground situation, revealing more as the film progresses, without ever doing exposition dumps. Far from it. Hiller’s concise.

As for Scofield… the story’s about people wanting to hear what Scofield’s going to say next and the film’s about staring at Scofield and waiting to see what it’ll be. He’s in the spotlight the entire film. Great direction, great script, great supporting cast, but Man for All Seasons is Scofield’s performance. And it’s an exceptional one.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Fred Zinnemann; screenplay by Robert Bolt, based on his play; director of photography, Ted Moore; edited by Ralph Kemplen; music by Georges Delerue; production designer, John Box; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Paul Scofield (Thomas More), Susannah York (Margaret), Wendy Hiller (Alice), Leo McKern (Cromwell), John Hurt (Rich), Nigel Davenport (Duke of Norfolk), Corin Redgrave (Roper), Orson Welles (Cardinal Wolsey), and Robert Shaw (Henry VIII).


The King’s Speech (2010, Tom Hooper)

There’s a lot of fine direction in The King’s Speech. Hooper does exceedingly well when he’s showcasing lead Colin Firth’s acting or showing how Firth, who starts the film as Duke of York and ends it King of England, moves through the world as this sheltered, unawares babe. Of sorts. These successful sequences would stand out even if there weren’t Hooper’s really, really, really questionable distorted camera lens thing he does when he’s trying to show how uncomfortable Firth feels existing with his stammer. The film’s about how Firth, as the man who would be King George VI, gets help with his stammer leading up to him becoming the king as well as the country going to war with Germany. There’s a prologue set in the mid-twenties, the first time Firth has a public speaking engagement—in addition to everything going on with Firth’s complicated ascension to the throne, the Nazis coming to power, there’s also the radio revolution (David Seidler’s script does bite off a lot to chew)—with most of the film set in the middle thirties, as Firth starts working with speech therapist Geoffrey Rush.

The film gets a lot of humor playing Firth and Rush off one another. Rush is this patient, thoughtful, compassionate guy while Firth’s prince (most of the film occurs before he’s king) is sullen, quick-tempered, but incredibly gentle-hearted. Rush’s Australian doesn’t go in for the pomp and circumstance when it comes to treating royals, whereas Firth doesn’t have any idea how to interact with anyone not breaking their back coddling him. The film’s already established Firth’s gentle nature—with this devastating scene (for Firth anyway) where he tells his daughters a story, working his way through his stammer, the frustration and regret and adoration all over his face. Firth’s performance is magnificent. Rush’s great and all—so’s Helena Bonham Carter as Firth’s wife—but Seidler doesn’t give them great parts. Firth doesn’t even have a great part. He just gets to have this great performance. Speech is all about the change in Firth’s character and the resulting development of the performance. It’s all about the acting, even if the part itself is fairly thin. Yes, he gets to show vulnerability and Speech even goes as far to imply emotional abuse and bad parenting caused his nervous condition, which in turn caused his stammer, but the movie never gets too far into it. Speech avoids a lot. Like delving too deep on Firth, or giving Bonham Carter anything to do except fret about him, or continue Rush’s subplot—he gets more to do in the first act than anywhere else. The rest of the time he’s just Firth’s sidekick.

There are a lot of familiar faces in the supporting cast, some more successful than others. Michael Gambon is great as Firth’s father, Derek Jacobi isn’t as the archbishop; Timothy Spall’s in between as Winston Churchill. Guy Pearce plays Firth’s brother, first in line for the throne but willing to throw it all away for married American girlfriend Eve Best. Pearce is in some weird makeup, which does most of the acting for him. Sadly it doesn’t do a particularly good job of it. Best is merely ineffectual more than anything else. She’s not in it enough. Like many of the subplots, she and Pearce just disappear from the film when they stop being useful. You get through Speech seeing all these major events—some for everyone, some just for the royal family—without ever getting Firth’s prologued reaction to them. He’ll bitch to Rush about Pearce, but finding out Best is a Nazi sympathizer has no substantial effect. Because Seidler’s not willing to get into Firth’s head too much. Speech is the inspiring tale of an unlikely king who managed to overcome a not insignificant disability. Seidler or Hooper never do anything without that purpose in mind.

Including all the distorted camera lens.

Other than not telling Hooper those shots are a bad idea and simultaneously condescending and insipid, cinematographer Danny Cohen does an excellent job. Hooper has got a handful of really excellent shots, which Cohen executes flawlessly. There’s one great exterior shot of Firth walking where I kept waiting for it to cut away but Hooper kept holding it, every second making it better. Because even though the lengthy shot is unlike a many of Hooper’s other shots, it showcases Firth’s performance, which Hooper does a superb job with. Except when the lens are distorted.

The only other significant supporting cast member is Jennifer Ehle, as Rush’s wife. It’s a too small part, with Ehle not getting anything much to do when she’s in the film, but she’s good and rather likable. It’s a shame Speech didn’t take more time with Rush. Not even once he and Firth form a sincere friendship; it’s all about Firth, not about Firth and friend. So certainly not about Firth’s friend’s family life. Other than the occasional sweet scene.

The film looks great—sets, costumes—sounds great; even though Alexandre Desplat’s score is a little bland, the sound design itself is outstanding. It’s a good production.

The King’s Speech showcases a spectacular performance from Firth, which is basically all it needs to be a success (as far as its own ambitions go). Rush and Bonham Carter both being excellent as well—Bonham Carter and Firth are lovely together—doesn’t really matter. It’s a shame Seidler and Hooper weren’t more ambitious but they still got that phenomenal Firth performance.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Tom Hooper; written by David Seidler; director of photography, Danny Cohen; edited by Tariq Anwar; music by Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Eve Stewart; costume designer, Jenny Beavan; produced by Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, and Gareth Unwin; released by The Weinstein Company.

Starring Colin Firth (Bertie), Geoffrey Rush (Lionel), Helena Bonham Carter (Liz), Guy Pearce (David), Jennifer Ehle (Myrtle), Derek Jacobi (Archbishop Lang), Timothy Spall (Churchill), Eve Best (Mrs. Simpson), and Michael Gambon (King George V).


Chimes at Midnight (1965, Orson Welles)

Chimes at Midnight opens with Orson Welles and Alan Webb, both aged men in the Medieval Ages, bumbling (probably at least somewhat drunkenly) in for the night; they sit at a fire and gently reminisce about their youth. The scene gives a first look at screenwriter, director, star Welles in all his giantic grandeur as Shakespeare’s Falstaff (either the film’s title is Falstaff or Chimes at Midnight; the film itself isn’t sure, opening with Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight); I’m not sure what preference Welles had). There are a lot of corpulence jokes at Welles’s expense, which is just one of the many rather interesting things going on in the film. And Webb’s distinct too, even though he’s not coming back for a while.

Ralph Richardson narrates the film (after that scene), but adding another layer to it is the source of his narration. He’s narrating from a 1577 history book (so 170 years after the events in the film), but Welles’s script is adapted from Shakespeare’s Henry series, which is even later than that history book. But Welles adds yet another layer to it by playing the history straight but doing it people’s history. Yes, there’s great material stuff for the royals, but it’s really all about the plebs. Those great scenes for the guys playing the kings, princes, and knights, they end up just priming the emphasis on the reality of the age. As a filmmaker, Welles is exceptionally giving to his actors and very confident in their performances. Sure, Welles gives himself the juiciest part—one where he gets to put a target on himself for all sorts of comparisons, not to mention Welles is, amongst other things, a writer and Falstaff is a Brobdingnagian bullshit artist. But a bad one. Like, a lot of the first half of Chimes is watching people get the better of Welles, except while not getting the shit end onscreen, he’s not just making this exceptional film experience, he’s also giving his cast a lot of great material. They’re all potential Judases, basically, and at least one of them already knows he’s a Judas.

No spoilers.

After the titles, Richardson takes over explaining things. John Gielgud is a new king, one who had to fight for the throne. While he worries about maintaining rule, his son, the Prince of Wales (Keith Baxter), is off drinking and whoring, as well as committing occasional robberies, egged on by his best friend, Welles. While Welles, Baxter, and Tony Beckley (Beckley’s the noble friend who low-key hates Welles because Baxter likes Welles more than him) are sometimes literally screwing around, Gielgud’s got to deal with Norman Rodway and Fernando Rey starting a rebellion. It quickly turns into Rodway’s subplot, which is great because Rodway’s fantastic. He’s got this amazing scene with his wife, Marina Vlady. Like, adorable and cute and sexy and from out of nowhere. Just a neat detail in their character relationship. It also goes to establish that people’s history reality; Chimes is going to show private moments of historic, fictionalized characters, but certainly showing them more… potentially bawdy than in the original fictionalization. It gets really good. There are occasional scenes where Welles weaves this amazing narrative flow and then the way he shoots it, cuts it, moving the film through the dialogue… it’s gorgeous.

It’s also often just for laughs.

Welles, Baxter, Beckley? It’s slapstick. Sure, it’s handled with a firm grasp on the film’s reality, but it’s slapstick. There are gags. Welles is very ambitious with his adaptation, he’s exceptionally assured (especially with the filmmaking devices he uses to compensate for the low budget) but never overconfident. There are plenty of things could go wrong—like Baxter, who’s got the film’s most difficult character arc. But it all works. Baxter makes a shift when he needs to make a shift—the first half of the film is about Gielgud’s fight with Rodway and how it’s going to affect actual heir Baxter. The second half is set a few years later, after Baxter has gotten a little more serious and had less Welles in his life. They’re going to get back together though, only Welles is no longer the same fun loving guy he was before. Sure, he’s still constantly drunk, but he’s mopey about his age—hanging out with fellow old fogey Webb—even though young and relative hottie Jeanne Moreau really does seem to adore Welles.

In between these two very different films—it never feels awkwardly assembled either; Welles and company make it feel like a totally natural transition. Anyway, splitting the two time periods is the battle scene. It’s a phenomenal sequence; runs around nine minutes. There’s comedy (Welles is played as a complete joke during the battle, but he’s got a funny sequence before it when he’s “recruiting”), there’s terrible medieval bloodshed, there’s chivalry, there’s tragedy. Welles figures out how to do it “authentic” without a lot of money. It’s a breathtaking battle scene. Chimes has lots of moments, lots of different kinds of them, but this battle sequence is wild.

Great editing from Elena Jaumandreu, Frederick Muller, and Peter Parasheles. Really good black and white photography from Edmond Richard; gorgeous production design from Mariano Erdoiza; Angelo Francesco Lavagnino’s music… is perfect for the film. It’s actually one of the film’s bigger risks, but it works out. But just as music… I’ll bet you could write a book about the film’s post-production. Because it’s exceptionally well-assembled. Chimes at Midnight works out. Every bet Welles makes with the film works out.

The biggest bet is Baxter, who’s great. It’s his story, Welles, Gielgud, Beckley, whoever… they’re just all along for the ride. He’s the rightful heir. Who else’s story could it be?

Gielgud’s amazing, Moreau’s good, Rodway, Vlady; Margaret Rutherford’s awesome as Welles’s suffering landlord.

And Welles is great. Really great. He doesn’t give himself a lot of big moments—he gives himself the comedy instead—but when he gets a big moment, wow, does he nail it.

Chimes at Midnight is peerless.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Orson Welles; screenplay by Welles, based on plays by William Shakespeare and a book by Raphael Holinshed; director of photography, Edmond Richard; edited by Elena Jaumandreu, Frederick Muller, and Peter Parasheles; music by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino; production designer, Mariano Erdoiza; produced by Ángel Escolano, Emiliano Piedra, and Harry Saltzman; released by Brepi Films.

Starring Orson Welles (Falstaff), Keith Baxter (Prince Hal), Norman Rodway (Henry Percy), John Gielgud (Henry IV), Tony Beckley (Ned Poins), Alan Webb (Shallow), Margaret Rutherford (Mistress Quickly), Marina Vlady (Kate Percy), Fernando Rey (Worcester), and Jeanne Moreau (Doll Tearsheet); narrated by Ralph Richardson.


Downton Abbey (2019, Michael Engler)

I’m trying to decide if Downton Abbey is wholly incomprehensible to someone who didn’t watch the television show, or if they’d appreciate it. Julian Fellowes’s screenplay is very tidy, no loose strings, always the right mix between A, B, and C plots, so one can at least appreciate the pacing without knowing exactly why it’s so especially funny when footman Kevin Doyle makes a fool of himself in front of the King and Queen, but one would still get the surface humor. Downton’s got a bunch of great surface humor, including Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton, which is a rather impressive feat for Fellowes, Smith, Wilton, and director Engler because the film doesn’t do any setup. There’s not just very little ground situation establishing going on, there’s none. The movie opens with the hook—the King and Queen send a letter to Downton Abbey, let’s watch the letter get there via 1920s transportation, oh, how lovely and quaint, thanks to Ben Smithard’s gorgeous photography (they go Panavision for the movie, which is full of lingering shots on the country house itself, also showing off the increased helicopter budget)—plus the letter getting to the town and the familiar sights before the house itself. Maybe, with the quaintness, the lovely photography, and John Lunn’s always very effective theme… an unfamiliar could get in the right mood.

Because while it’s impressive how successfully Fellowes writes the almost two hours, with the fifteen or twenty person principal cast, it’s not a surprise he’d accomplish it. Fellowes wrote many years of the show, including some extended length holiday specials. Downton Abbey: The Movie feels very much like a very special holiday episode. There’s not a lot of progress from when the show ended, at least not in terms of new cast. There aren’t any new regulars, there are a lot of previously emphasized, sort of unresolved subplots examined—Sophie McShera still hasn’t decided if she’s getting married, Robert James-Collier’s still miserable in the closet, and… um. Okay, maybe there’s not a lot on that front. But James-Collier gets one of the bigger B plots, and McShera’s got a solid C. The only reason James-Collier’s subplot, involving actual romance for him, isn’t an A plot is Fellowes keeps it on low until the third act when he needs some drama to juxtapose with the chaos at the royal dinner. It’s a very smart script, just self-indulgent enough, just pleasant enough.

Is it particularly ambitious? No. The biggest A plot—besides everyone in the movie preparing for the royal visit in one way or another—is Allen Leech. Leech gets to do the “Irishman under investigation” subplot and he gets to do a “maybe the widower finally move on” subplot. Laura Carmichael gets a solid B plot. Michelle Dockery, however, is seated at the “here to support other people’s plots with none of my own” table, along with Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern. There are good moments for everyone and all the acting is good, they just don’t get anything special to do. No heavy lifting.

Though Dockery does get a little at the end, as she’s the one who gets to have the big moment with Maggie Smith. In its last few minutes, Downton: The Movie unintentionally reveals its great potential would not have been as an extended, Cinemascope holiday special, but as something from Smith’s perspective. The ambition isn’t there though. The film’s got just the right amount of fan service as well as new material.

Technically the only complaint is, occasionally, Engler chooses the wrong character to—literally—focus on in a shot. It’s like he doesn’t have the right sense of some scenes’ emotionality. And, of course, it’s over too soon. It’s not too short. But it is over too soon.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Engler; written by Julian Fellowes; director of photography, Ben Smithard; edited by Mark Day; music by John Lunn; production designer, Donal Woods; produced by Fellowes, Gareth Neame, and Liz Trubridge; released by Focus Features.

Starring Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), Allen Leech (Tom Branson), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Talbot), Maggie Smith (Violet Crawley), Elizabeth McGovern (Cora Crawley), Hugh Bonneville (Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham), Penelope Wilton (Isobel Merton), Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes), Jim Carter (Mr. Carson), Robert James-Collier (Thomas Barrow), Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates), Brendan Coyle (Mr. Bates), Sophie McShera (Daisy Mason), Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore), Michael Fox (Andy Parker), Raquel Cassidy (Miss Baxter), Kevin Doyle (Mr. Molesley), Harry Hadden-Paton (Bertie Hexham), Imelda Staunton (Maud Bagshaw), Tuppence Middleton (Lucy Smith), Kate Phillips (Princess Mary), Geraldine James (Queen Mary), Simon Jones (King George V), Max Brown (Richard Ellis), Stephen Campbell Moore (Captain Chetwode), Susan Lynch (Miss Lawton), David Haig (Mr. Wilson), Mark Addy (Mr. Bakewell), Philippe Spall (Monsieur Courbet), and Richenda Carey (Mrs. Webb).


The Big Red One (1980, Samuel Fuller)

The Big Red One is a fairly even split between action and conversation. The film tracks a single squad as they start fighting in North Africa, follow the war into the Mediterranean, participate in D-Day, then go east. The film skips to each event. There’s usually some epilogue to the event, something like character development or character revelation, then it’s on to the next event, starting with the time and place in the war. Squad member Robert Carradine narrates the film, which includes bridging the gaps between the events. He’ll occasionally have something to say about his fellow squad members, something to further reveal their character, but he doesn’t have much opinion of that new reveal. Even if it’s something bad. Even though the film’s about these five men, it’s not about their relationship. We’re not invited. Carradine fills in some details, very occasionally contextualizes, but there’s something going on in One away from the viewer. Director Fuller is telling the audience a story, which is somehow different from telling a story. How he’s telling the story is very important.

Fuller centers the film around the sergeant, played by Lee Marvin. He’s not just the center of the movie, he’s the hero of Carradine’s narration, which is more important; Carradine’s not the hero of his own narration. It’s not his story he’s telling, it’s Marvin’s, even though Marvin’s an intentional mystery. And not a mystery Fuller’s inviting the audience to solve. Or even attempt to solve. Marvin’s the hero. He’s the older, gruff sergeant with a heart of gold. A World War I vet too (the film opens in a flashback to it; good de-aging makeup). But Marvin’s never a stereotype. Neither are Carradine, Mark Hamill, Bobby Di Cicco, or Kelly Ward. Because Fuller doesn’t even give them that much character in the script. All the personality to the characters comes from the actors, which is an exceptionally odd choice for Fuller to make. And a completely successful one. That open space where Fuller could’ve written character—remember the movie’s half conversation, so these guys are always talking, sometimes about themselves, but nothing about anything to do with themselves. Hamill’s an artist. We find out nothing about it, he’s just drawing all the time. Carradine’s a writer, we find out a bunch about it… but he’s never actually writing. Di Cicco and Ward imply these complicated characters in their deliveries of one-liners. It’s a very strange, very good way to… get out of doing the character work but not let it go to caricature.

Fuller does something similar with Marvin, but gives him more backstory and experience because he’s older and has more experience and backstory. But Fuller’s still relying on Marvin for all the action reactions and processing of the events he’s experiencing.

Because in many ways, the four younger guys—they’re all privates—the four privates, they’re interchangeable. During the action scenes, anyway. When one of them does something significant, sure, then they’re different—usually Fuller forecasts the character’s taking center stage—but some of the point is how everyone in the squad except Marvin is interchangeable. Fuller sets the leads apart from the other four squad members (you usually only know one other squad member at a time, the other two or three are screen filler), but not in any way to make them exemplars. They’re just the guys who hang around Marvin the most and have some unrevealed history together. It’s none of our business, they’re just our protagonists.

And, incredibly, Fuller gets away with it. Di Cicco’s charming enough, Carradine’s funny enough, Ward’s surprisingly alpha enough, Hamill’s sufficiently sad enough. See, Hamill’s the movie’s second-is lead. It’s really Carradine but the movie pretends it’s Hamill because Ukelay Ywalkerskay. And Hamill gets a fairly intense arc all to himself and Fuller makes him do it all on his face. The film charts Hamill’s abilities at emoting improving until they’re finally successful enough they cover the absence of exposition on Hamill’s subplot. Fuller avoids it, then leaves it up to Hamill to make it all right to avoid it.

It’s so well-directed. Fuller’s so thoughtful about it all. He rarely lets the film go off on tangents and usually they’re only because he’s interested in something separate from the main cast, their concerns, their needs. Fuller occasionally checks in with German sergeant Siegfried Rauch, who’s basically evil Lee Marvin. He’s got similar experiences; not just the last war, but also taking on these wet-behind-the-ears new recruits; he’s just really evil. Fuller likes using Rauch to distract from what he’s not doing with the main cast, like developing their characters. Rauch isn’t like the other main characters; Rauch never gets to mug his way through a scene. He doesn’t get free rein to do whatever on his character between his lines. He’s different.

Because, you know, he’s the Nazi.

Good photography from Adam Greenberg, great editing from Morton Tubor, very strong, very often disquieting score from Dana Kaproff. It’s a somewhat traditional war movie score, but Kaproff takes it in different directions, which help to reveal (presumably accurately) more about the lead characters.

Performances—Marvin’s great, Carradine’s great, Hamill’s good, Di Cicco and Ward are great. Marvin’s really great. He gets some great material and makes it even better.

The Big Red One is superb.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Samuel Fuller; director of photography, Adam Greenberg; edited by Morton Tubor; music by Dana Kaproff; produced by Gene Corman; released by United Artists.

Starring Lee Marvin (The Sergeant), Mark Hamill (Griff), Robert Carradine (Zab), Bobby Di Cicco (Vinci), Kelly Ward (Johnson), Joseph Clark (Shep), Ken Campbell (Lemchek), Doug Werner (Switolski), Perry Lang (Kaiser), Howard Delman (Smitty), and Siegfried Rauch (The German Sergeant).



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.


Ever After (1998, Andy Tennant)

Ever After imagines the Cinderella story as a vaguely historically accurate period drama. It’s desperate to present itself as “realistic,” including bookends with special guest star Jeanne Moreau adding some actual French to the film, which is set in France and acted by Americans or Britons of various origin. Moreau’s got a scene and a couple voiceovers; she’s telling the Brothers Grimm they got the Cinderella story wrong and she’s going to tell them the whole truth. No singing birds, just Leonardo da Vinci saving the day.

Until the ball, which is its own thing, Ever After is lead Drew Barrymore suffering or falling in love with Prince of France Dougray Scott. She’s a progressive, he’s a royalist. She challenges him though; he’s never met a noble like her. Little does he know she’s not nobility—it’s unclear why not, given her widower father (Jeroen Krabbé) married a widowed Baroness, Angelica Huston. Of course, Krabbé drops dead—in the flashback—the day after he brings Huston and her two daughters back home with him, leaving his wife without a husband and Barrymore (or the kid who plays young Barrymore) without a father. Huston predictably becomes an evil step-monster immediately and puts Barrymore to work around the house while Huston and daughters Megan Dodds and Melanie Lynskey live it up. Relatively speaking. When the film gets to the main action, Huston’s run up a bunch of debt and is selling off servants and furniture to maintain her lifestyle. All she’s got to do is marry Dodds off—Lynskey’s ostensibly too heavy to deserve a man’s attentions (Lynskey being too “heavy” is only slightly less realistic than the da Vinci stuff)—and it will have been worth it.

Little does she realize Barrymore is sneaking off to seduce Scott with her mind and whatnot.

Huston’s great, Dodds’s great, Lynskey’s great. They’re in this black comedy, set aside from the rest of Ever After, which is de facto about Barrymore showing more agency than any of the other women in… well, existence at the time, and Scott learning maybe he needs to be less of a thoughtless snob. It’s not until the dance, when the film heads into the third act—the plotting is fine, it’s the actual scenes where the problems arise—and, of course, the film avoiding the hell out of Barrymore just when it should be focusing on her.

But that dance. It reveals how little Ever After has done to actually establish Barrymore as protagonist; she’s just the victim and straight man in Huston’s story. Sporting a da Vinci—designed dress (you’d think he’d do better, he thinks some angel wings and glitter makeup are enough), Barrymore shows up at the Ball, apparently has a moment of apprehension, which makes no sense for the character in general or specifically in the scene, and then everything goes to crap so there can be a third act redemption arc for characters needing one. Along with some reveals; one of them raises more questions than it answers. Ever After doesn’t have a good script. Susannah Grant, director Tennant, and Rick Parks turn in an entirely mediocre screenplay, even if you forgive all the “real” nonsense.

Tennant, as a director, does lots of sweeping crane shots, playing up the location shooting, and trying to make it into a grounded fairy tale romance. An intellectualized one, where Barrymore’s peasant pretending to be royalty is able to show Scott how stupid he’s been about his life. Unfortunately it has the result of making Scott the protagonist in the third act, which is a bit of a slight to Barrymore, given it’s supposed to be her story. Her “real” story, which is fake. Either Ever After started with the gimmick of a realistic Cinderella adaptation or it added it later. A better director might do some magical realism, but Ever After doesn’t have much in the way of ambition. Not given how little it actually gives Barrymore to do. It gives her a lot of action, but not a lot of acting.

She’s fine, though. Better at some points than others. Same goes for Scott, who’s never quite charming enough to be a Prince Charming, but he’s likable. Neither of them can compare to the supporting cast; Huston’s amazing, Judy Parfitt’s really good as Scott’s queen mother, Richard O’Brien has a great bit part as a rich lech after Barrymore.

Nice enough score from George Fenton. He plays up the fairy tale romance, which matches all of Tennant’s big shots. Shame Tennant’s big shots are almost always poorly conceived so Fenton’s music is always going on about fifteen seconds too long.

After some genuine drama in the third act, the wrap-up is way too pat. But Ever After is still a lot more successful than you’d think from the tacky prologues.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Andy Tennant; screenplay by Susannah Grant, Tennant, and Rick Parks, based on a story by Charles Perraul; director of photography, Andrew Dunn; edited by Roger Bondelli; music by George Fenton; production designer, Michael Howells; produced by Mireille Soria and Tracey Trench; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Drew Barrymore (Danielle), Dougray Scott (Prince Henry), Anjelica Huston (Rodmilla), Megan Dodds (Marguerite), Melanie Lynskey (Jacqueline), Patrick Godfrey (Leonardo), Judy Parfitt (Queen Marie), Timothy West (King Francis), Jeroen Krabbé (Auguste), Lee Ingleby (Gustave), Kate Lansbury (Paulette), Matyelok Gibbs (Louise), Walter Sparrow (Maurice), Jeanne Moreau (Grande Dame), Anna Maguire (Young Danielle), and Richard O’Brien (Pierre Le Pieu).


The Best of Enemies (2019, Robin Bissell)

Chris Rock has a joke about waiting to see if the evening news—it’s an old joke—report on a crime is going to have a Black perpetrator or a White one, just so he (Rock, a Black man) can figure out if his white coworkers are going to ask him if he knew the perp (if he’s Black).

In other words, I had to check and see if Best of Enemies writer, director, and producer Robin Bissell was a White person. He is. He’s also fifty, which… isn’t a demographic to be making The Best of Enemies in 2019. Or ever, really. There was never a good time for a fifty year-old White guy to make a movie about a North Carolina Klan leader in the early seventies realizing Black people are people because they can be nice to him. Best of Enemies is basically the reverse of those White “liberals” who tell Black people to stop complaining or they’ll have to vote GOP next time when, in reality, you know they all voted for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein anyway. It’s about lead Sam Rockwell—the aforementioned Klan leader—realizing not just Black people are people but also how the system is rigged against poor Whites and Blacks alike and that rigging seems to be the point.

Less on the second part, however, because it might be interesting to see that development in Rockwell’s life and the film avoids any interesting developments.

I’m going at Enemies a little harder than usual for a few reasons. First, Taraji P. Henson is top-billed. She’s the Black woman community organizer who works with Rockwell and contributes to his ability to see the humanity in… you know, humans. Rah for him, sure, but a movie? Not sure it’s worth a movie. Especially since the movie sets itself up to be this great anti-buddy buddy pic between Henson and Rockwell and it’s not. Henson, it’ll turn out somewhere in the very lengthy two hour plus runtime, is red herring. She’s got nothing to do in the movie. Not even supporting player scraps after the movie shoves Rockwell into the lead. So The Best of Enemies, which ostensibly is about two “born enemies”—a Klan leader and, you know, a Black person—becoming something together, is really just a White Savior movie for Rockwell. And he’s not even the most interesting White Savior in the picture.

John Gallagher Jr.’s the most interesting White Savior. He’s just in a bit part, which is too bad because he’s a lot more useful a character than some of the bigger stunt casts in bit parts—fifth-billed Wes Bentley, for example; around to be the creepy, greasy Klan guy who you think is going to crack and kill someone.

And then there’s Nick Searcy, who’s—as usual—quite good. This time he’s quite good as a piece of shit upper class racist who gets Rockwell’s poor White Klan boys to do his dirty work. Is the film aware of… Nick Searcy’s optics? Like. You can leave a lot at the door. You can’t leave Nick Searcy at the door. It’s not a good enough part for it really to be worth it. Though no one’s part is really good enough.

Henson’s great. Even after Bissell’s scared to give her scenes with other Black people. Or maybe he’s not scared. Maybe he just doesn’t have the interest in her story. She and Rockwell are working on a charrette, which doesn’t make the Apple dictionary (says something, I imagine), and is “any collaborative session in which a group of designers drafts a solution to a design problem.” The problem in Enemies is school integration. Rockwell and Henson end up co-chairs, forced into working together by facilitator Babou Ceesay. Cessay’s in town doing the charrette because the judge doesn’t want to have to rule on school integration and wants to pass the buck.

It’s not a metaphor for the film’s proclivity for passing the buck, but only because Bissell wouldn’t know how to do a metaphor.

Technically, the film’s fine. It’s clearly on too low of a budget to do the period well. Almost no extras in the exteriors of strangely empty streets and so on. Bissell’s not bad at composition. He’s perfectly pedestrian, which does the film no help in getting over the budget constraints. Presumably most of the money went to Rockwell and Henson, who both do their best, but… there’s only so far they can go with the script and what the script gives them. Or, in both their cases, what the script doesn’t give them. Henson just doesn’t get material. Rockwell gets material but no character development arc. The whole point of the movie is shitbag racists are people too but Bissell never wants more than a caricature from Rockwell. Maybe a 3D one, but still just a caricature. You can see Rockwell getting bored in Enemies. The part doesn’t give him anything to do. Not really. Not sincerely. Some of his best scenes in the movie ought to be the ones where he’s just hanging out with wife Anne Heche, only there’s so much expository dumping in those scenes—because Heche isn’t a big-time racist, she just loves one. So she makes him different than the Bentleys or the Searcys of the film. Her and Rockwell having a son with Downs in the South in 1971 and still, you know, loving him. Best of Enemies exploits its cast in a lot of ways—after a while, if she’s not just building up Rockwell’s humanity, Henson’s part is reduced to crying helplessly—after a certain point, Bissell can’t even pretend he’s not just objectifying anguish… but no one gets it worse than Kevin Iannucci as the son. Bissell’s a callous filmmaker.

Probably because he can’t figure out how to make the movie work. Possibly because it’s not Rockwell’s movie but Bissell can’t imagine it any other way.

It’s a waste of the cast. Maybe not Bentley but everyone else. Bentley’s fine he’s just not promising. Everyone else is at least promising. Like Bruce McGill. Or Nicholas Logan, who’s creepy as the bland blond Klan redneck (versus Bentley’s greaser one, who needs a Johnny Reb cap to be distinct).

Really good songs on the soundtrack. Seventies stuff. Because they were listening to early Bowie in South Carolina in 1971. It’s Bissell bumbling his way through softening the audience with nostalgia.

Is there a good movie in the true story? Probably. The clips over the end credits of the real people Rockwell and Henson are playing is a better movie than the previous two hours and five minutes and they’re just clips.

There’s some good acting work in the film and Jeannine Oppewall’s production design is good and whoever did the line producing did well, but… The Best of Enemies is way too shallow. Bissell knows there’s a movie in the story, he just can’t find it. Especially not in his script.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robin Bissell; screenplay by Bissell, based on the book by Osha Gray Davidson; director of photography, David Lanzenberg; edited by Harry Yoon; music by Marcelo Zarvos; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; produced by Matt Berenson, Fred Bernstein, Bissell, Tobey Maguire, Matthew Plouffe, Danny Strong, and Dominique Telson; released by STX Films.

Starring Sam Rockwell (C.P. Ellis), Taraji P. Henson (Ann Atwater), Anne Heche (Mary Ellis), Nick Searcy (Garland Keith), Babou Ceesay (Bill Riddick), Wes Bentley (Floyd Kelly), Nicholas Logan (Wiley Yates), John Gallagher Jr. (Lee Tromblay), Caitlin Mehner (Maddy Mays), Kevin Iannucci (Larry Ellis), and Bruce McGill (Carvie Oldham).


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