Mystery

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).


Heatwave (1982, Phillip Noyce)

Heatwave is not a film noir. It seems like it ought to be one, but it’s not. It’s got all the pieces to be a film noir, but the way director Noyce assembles them doesn’t result in noir. There are occasionally these heavily stylized slow motion sequences. Sometimes Noyce and editor John Scott emphasize relief, sometimes violence, sometimes heat. The film’s narrative distance isn’t noir enough. It’s a really cool narrative distance, but it’s not at all noir. It’s a breakneck paced thriller, only with two protagonists who don’t realize they’re in a thriller. They think they’re in entirely different stories.

Second-billed Richard Moir (who’s actually the lead) is an architect whose big new project is running into some snags. The project is a futuristic condo, made mostly of glass (Noyce never gives the model a close-up so nothing’s too specific), with trees inside and natural lighting and so on. To get the project built, the developers are going to kick out the working class residents and tear down their homes. The project is called “Eden”; Heatwave is perfectly matter-of-fact with quite a few things. It barely runs ninety minutes and has a bunch of characters, lots of story; Noyce and co-writer Marc Rosenberg never waste time, they’re pragmatic to the point of obvious but it works because Moir’s astoundingly naive. So long as he doesn’t have to compromise his designs, Moir doesn’t really care about anything. Wife Anna Maria Monticelli, who also works with him in some unexplained capacity, is a social climber. Moir’s from a working class background, Monticelli’s a blue blood. She wants to show the world her man’s made good. He’s indifferent but happy to play along; he’s getting recognized for his amazing architectural designs, everything else is gravy. But not even gravy worth caring about too much.

Then there’s top-billed Judy Davis. She’s a blue blood who went to college, got radicalized, now tries to help the working class with their plight. She works for independent, crusading journalist Carole Skinner. Skinner’s not a blue blood and she lends Davis some cred. There’s a non-subplot about Skinner and Moir being good friends before Moir went to the U.S. to study architecture and get better indoctrinated with capitalism. When he got back they weren’t friends any more. Or so the movie says. Moir’s got zero reaction to Skinner’s eventual mysterious disappearance. Notice I just gave Davis’s paragraph away? Gave it to Moir? Because the movie does the same thing, over and over.

It’s fine, it works out. But Moir’s nowhere near as interesting as Davis. At least in terms of performance. Moir’s just aloof and naive. Kind of pseudo-preppy. He’s constantly tagging along with the real alpha males, developer Chris Haywood and lawyer John Gregg. Davis gets to do a lot more. Even when Moir gets interested in Skinner’s disappearance, it’s only because he’s not cool with how scummy Haywood and Gregg are willing to go evicting residents. And because not-independent newspaper reporter and fun old guy John Meillon wants Moir to get involved.

Moir does stay involved for his own reasons… primarily Davis. He’s got the hots for Davis because she says and thinks all the things he didn’t know he kind of wanted to say or think. As for Davis… her being interested too is one of the film’s plotting efficiencies. Maybe one Noyce should’ve taken more time with, but Davis is always getting shafted on story time.

She gets a decent amount of action, but she also ends up with a bunch of the exposition. Noyce has this great device for exposition—characters sitting, listening to the radio. Because it’s too hot to do much besides sit and listen to the radio. Heatwave takes place during a winter heatwave. The film starts before Christmas, ends on New Year’s. Everyone is miserably hot, visibly miserably hot, no one ever complains, they just endure it as best they can. It’s a great built-in constant, agitating the plot whenever needed.

Heatwave’s efficient to a fault.

Excellent performance from Davis, really good one from Moir. Haywood’s good, Gregg’s good. Meillon’s decent. He’s functional for the script more than anything else. Meillon’s able to imply depth; the script doesn’t want it from him. It would be really nice if Gillian Jones were able to imply depth. She’s got a small but important role and… it’s not a good performance. Might not be Jones’s fault, given her character and the character’s writing. But still. That aspect of the film being better might have brought it up to another level.

Then again Jones is one of the noir pieces and Heatwave isn’t a noir.

Great photography Vincent Monton. Good music from Cameron Allan. Ross Major’s production design is another plus. Noyce’s direction is extravagant but never self-indulgent.

Heatwave is a rather good stiflingly hot Christmas, not noir but noir-y, stylish conspiracy thriller.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Phillip Noyce; screenplay by Noyce and Marc Rosenberg, based on a story by Mark Stiles and Tim Gooding; director of photography, Vincent Monton; edited by John Scott; music by Cameron Allan; production designer, Ross Major; produced by Hilary Linstead; released by Roadshow Film Distributors.

Starring Judy Davis (Kate Dean), Richard Moir (Stephen West), Chris Haywood (Peter Houseman), Bill Hunter (Robert Duncan), John Gregg (Philip Lawson), Anna Maria Monticelli (Victoria West), John Meillon (Freddie Dwyer), Dennis Miller (Mick Davies), Carole Skinner (Mary Ford), Gillian Jones (Barbie Lee Taylor), Frank Gallacher (Dick Molnar), Tui Bow (Annie), and Don Crosby (Jim Taylor).


This post is part of the Hotter’nell Blogathon hosted by Steve of MovieMovieBlogBlog II.

The Mighty Quinn (1989, Carl Schenkel)

Right until the action-packed finale of The Mighty Quinn, there’s nothing the film can do lead Denzel Washington’s charm can’t forgive. But the finale, which incorporates poorly choreographed and poorly shot capoeira (from obvious fight doubles), a helicopter, a machine gun, suddenly awful music from composer Anne Dudley, and a handlebar-mustached M. Emmet Walsh in a tropical shirt… well, Washington can only do so much. And it seems like Quinn realizes it, because it doesn’t even try to leverage Washington for the rushed epilogue. Actually, it sort of leans away from him.

Because even though Washington is The Mighty Quinn, the film’s never comfortable being about him. Certainly not about his mightiness. Instead, Washington’s protagonist—police chief on a small, unnamed Caribbean island—is in a state of disarray. He’s functionally separated from wife Sheryl Lee Ralph (because he’s trying to sell out like island governor Norman Beaton, though we don’t find out about it until relatively late in the film), he’s a loving but absent dad to son David McFarlane, and he’s a lousy best friend to local pothead and ladies man Robert Townsend. Townsend’s barely in the film, but the whole thing hinges on him. He is the prime suspect in a murder investigation, after all, but he’s also the people’s hero. Washington is not. Washington (we find out—again—very late) went off to the States to join the Marines and then go to FBI school only to return home to the island… presumably for Ralph, but it’s very unclear. Washington’s character revelations usually come either in brooding expository scenes or drunken expository scenes. The film avoids Washington’s backstory, instead concentrating on the mystery… and Washington’s charm.

And the charm focus works. For a long, long time.

The mystery? Not as much.

At the start, there’s conflict with crappy White guy resort manager James Fox. There’s never overt racism from Fox but it’s always there. Until Fox disappears anyway. The scenes aren’t good because Fox is a lousy villain-type. He can’t stand up to Washington, but the character’s written to be pompous and Fox isn’t believably pompous. There’s also the weird way director Schenkel handles tone. Fox’s part of the mystery, including Mimi Rogers as his unhappy, abused, unfaithful wife, is all noirish. Or Schenkel’s version of it, which is stylized and self-aware. After Fox disappears, Rogers sticks around a bit to provide some flirtation for Washington. She’s that part of the film’s femme fatale, even though the film doesn’t really need one, because the mystery soon turns more to conspiracy thriller involving a suitcase of money, a company man (M. Emmet Walsh) arriving in town to clean-up the situation (officially), and a professional soldier (Alex Colon) also in town, but unofficially. Townsend figures into the conspiracy thriller a little, but never the noir stuff.

Not even when the film tries really hard.

After the conspiracy thriller takes over, there’s more of Washington away from the White folks. And the movie’s better when he’s away from them. The mood is lighter. He’s got gross old white man Walsh tagging along for a bit, but for those scenes, Schenkel still has the more playful touch. It’s the best stuff in the film—Washington with McFarlane and Ralph (even though the former scenes are just for exposition on the island’s colonial history and the best moment between Ralph and Washington was created in editing, not with the actors opposite one another), Washington with the other cops, whatever. Everything but the subplot about some other woman after Washington. Because Schenkel can’t figure out the mix on the noir and comedy in it, because a femme fatale stalking a sullen but lovable cop is noir but it’s for laughs. The film doesn’t know how to be sincere. It wants to be, but Schenkel doesn’t make it work.

It’s not all his fault, of course. Townsend is… lacking. He’s amusing enough. And some of the problem is the direction, but Townsend doesn’t have a presence opposite Washington. Fox doesn’t have one either. Only Ralph and Walsh hold up their part of the scene. Rogers does too—mostly—but there are a lot of style problems in her scenes, often both visual and narrative. Townsend needs to be Quinn’s secret mighty weapon and he’s not. Not even when he gets action sequences, which always come off like the filmmakers are trying too hard on their limited budget. Lots of silly at the end of Quinn. Lots of silly.

Until the end, there’s also fantastic editing (except on the action set pieces) from John Jympson and an affable score from Anne Dudley. Neither of them come through in the finish. Though Jacques Steyn’s photography is unchangingly solid throughout the film. It has some good moments, but what appear to be stylistic choices sometime just turn out to questionable standards. Schenkel’s direction isn’t successful, but it’s interesting and engaging. If he could get the mix between comedy and thriller right, it’d be fine.

Washington is mighty but Quinn is not.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Carl Schenkel; screenplay by Hampton Fancher, based on a novel by written by Albert Z. Carr; director of photography, Jacques Steyn; edited by John Jympson; music by Anne Dudley; production designer, Roger Murray-Leach; produced by Ed Elbert and Dale Pollock; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Denzel Washington (Xavier Quinn), Robert Townsend (Maubee), Sheryl Lee Ralph (Lola Quinn), M. Emmet Walsh (Fred Miller), Art Evans (Jump Jones), James Fox (Thomas Elgin), Esther Rolle (Ubu Pearl), Norman Beaton (Governor Chalk), Alex Colon (Jose Patina), Tyra Ferrell (Isola), and Mimi Rogers (Hadley Elgin).


Mister Buddwing (1966, Delbert Mann)

Mister Buddwing is kind of amazing. And exceptional. But only if both those descriptors are used as pejoratives. Like. Wow. What a mess it is.

What’s funny is how director Mann maybe sees what he’s trying to do with the film but doesn’t see how he’s not achieving it. The film wants to be edgy mainstream and is instead occasionally rather painfully square. Most of the problem is leading man James Garner. He hasn’t got a handle on the performance—getting no help from Dale Wasserman’s screenplay and then somehow even less from Mann. Worse, Mann uses a lot of close-ups on Garner during the movie, usually for reaction shots, and he’s never good enough. He’s rarely ever giving a passing performance. Like, he just doesn’t get the part. No one does, apparently.

Garner wakes up in the first scene in Central Park, with Mann shooting in first person point of the view. The titles roll as Garner (we’ll soon find out) goes into the Plaza Hotel and looks at himself in a mirror. Pretty soon we figure out he’s an amnesiac who remembers absolutely no details of his life. Not even his name. He gets his first name from Angela Lansbury, who he calls when he finds her number in his pocket. Lansbury’s not great, but she’s a lot of fun. And the film will go awhile without any fun. So she should be in it more.

The last name he makes up coincidentally, narrating about it. Though it makes no sense why he so desperately needs a last name other than the script is trying to make the title’s relevance painfully clear. Garner’s narration is terrible. Poorly written, poorly delivered. And then it’s gone, which is weird because regardless of it being good or not, it makes sense. Garner spends a lot of the movie wandering around Manhattan by himself. It might help to know what’s going on since his expression has three varieties of blank. Blank ought to work for the character. Wooden even. But it doesn’t, because Buddwing is so amazing in how it never works.

There’s this amazing scene where Garner has been followed by an old man—the first half of the movie is lousy with over-interested supporting players talking to Garner so there can be exposition. Garner will eventually yell about how he can’t remember his identity; almost every scene has him yelling about not remembering. So the old man (George Voskovec) wants to blackmail Garner into being his manservant. It’s a weird, dumb scene and does absolutely nothing. Doing nothing would be fine if the film wanted to do nothing and, until that point, it seems like it might not want to do much. Garner has just had the first flashback scene, with Katharine Ross appearing as Garner’s years ago love interest. He thinks he knows her—in the present—then we get this long flashback sequence of obnoxiously cut together scenes—Fredric Steinkamp’s editing is really bad, both conceptually and practically (though a lot of both have got to be Mann’s fault)—where Ross plays the woman she’s not. Just in Garner’s imagination. Only it’s unclear how much of the flashback he remembers and how much of it is just for the audience’s edification. Narration might help clear it up. Even bad narration.

Only there isn’t any. There’s Voskovec harassing Garner instead.

It’s such a bad, deliberate move. Especially since the return to the present sequence opens up the film’s periphery as far as people go; Buddwing’s New York is really empty. Except cars. Mann’s inconsistent if there are people around Garner—who never interact because the film’s just the story of one ant among millions—sometimes there are montages with people in the background, sometimes the city’s empty. But there are always cars in the distance. It’s like they couldn’t get the shot they needed so they took the one they got and it didn’t work, which is pretty much the movie overall.

Eventually Suzanne Pleshette comes into the movie and then there’s a flashback where she plays the girl Ross had previously played. Later it’s Jean Simmons. Now, the flashback sequences are written even worse than the present, because they’re hurried along stylistically, but basically they’re all about Garner becoming more and more of an abusive shitheel. Now, the film would never characterize it as abuse, but it’s scary intense. Mann and Wasserman need to keep Garner sympathetic in the present so they have to demonize the “girls” in the past. They even do it in the present when Lansbury makes a too minor but very welcome near third act return.

Only then in comes Simmons and her present tense mystery woman—infinitely wealthy and drunk and with a past sounding just like the flashbacks and Garner’s memories. At least it seems like he remembers the flashbacks by the time the movie gets to Simmons. He never really shows it, not in performance or dialogue, but Wasserman’s script definitely implies it by the third act. We just missing it, even though the movie is supposed to be about Garner finding out his identity, not the audience finding it. Instead, the film informs the audience first, Garner offscreen. Dumb. And weird.

The third act actually has potential. It’s the strangest thing. If they’d pulled off the third act, Buddwing would probably work, even with Garner’s flat performance and Mann’s jarred direction. Because Simmons is fantastic. In the present. In the past she gets into the problem Ross and Pleshette had; Wasserman writes the part something awful. But in the present, just having fun, Simmons is fantastic. Makes up for Garner even.

Pleshette is affected in the present, but still sort of sympathetic. She’s nothing but sympathetic in the past because she gets the brunt of Garner’s abuse. It’s not really interesting—her affected present day performance—but at least it’s distinctive. Ross is background in her section, which seems weird since Lansbury at least gets her scenes. Ross just gets to be stalked. But in that genial sixties way because Wasserman’s shallow.

Strange small part for Jack Gilford—who wants to convince Garner he’s Jewish because Wasserman’s script is weird in addition to shallow. Joe Mantell’s terrible as a cabbie who seemingly tells Garner an important story. Raymond St. Jacques comes off best, even if he’s poorly written. He’s in the Simmons section and gets to enjoy in its heightened quality. Nichelle Nichols has a tiny part and is phenomenal. More than anything else in the film—even Simmons, who’s stuck with Garner—Nichols seems like she’s visiting from the alternate reality’s Mister Buddwing where it’s great. She definitely gets cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks’s best work in the film.

Fredericks shoots a really flat New York city, seemingly unintentionally. Or is it supposed to be so dull even when it’s obviously not.

Kenyon Hopkins’s score is similarly disjointed. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, sometimes it’s wrong. The one thing the music needs to be right about, it’s never right about, even when it’s good. But it gets bad and wrong at some point near the third act and never gets any better. Even when Simmons shows up. She succeeds in the harshest of conditions.

Mister Buddwing would need to be seen to be believed. But it doesn’t need to be believed.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Delbert Mann; screenplay by Dale Wasserman, based on a novel by Evan Hunter; director of photography, Ellsworth Fredericks; edited by Fredric Steinkamp; music by Kenyon Hopkins; produced by Douglas Laurence and Mann; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring James Garner (Mister Buddwing), Jean Simmons (3rd Grace), Suzanne Pleshette (2nd Grace), Katharine Ross (1st Grace), George Voskovec (Shabby Old Man), Jack Gilford (Mr. Schwartz), Joe Mantell (1st Cab Driver), Raymond St. Jacques (Hank), Nichelle Nichols (Dice Player), and Angela Lansbury (Gloria).


Stormy Monday (1988, Mike Figgis)

Stormy Monday is beauty in despondence. The film is set over a few days in Newcastle, where the local businesses have given up hope on any economic recovery of their own and instead are letting shady American businessman Tommy Lee Jones spearhead an “American week.” You get a discount for being American, there are U.S. flags everywhere, the radio is playing American music. There’s even a scene where Jones addresses politicians and businesspeople and tells them there’s no hope but for them to embrace the American way of… not life, exactly, but mode of corruption. Jones wants to build a development.

The only thing standing in his way is Sting, who owns a little jazz club. Turns out Sting isn’t what he appears (and Jones is less than he appears). They’re playing a chess game against one another, though neither are fully aware of it. Not at the start at least.

But Sting versus Jones for the economic and development future of Newcastle-upon-Tyne isn’t the main plot of Stormy Monday. The main plot is Sean Bean and Melanie Griffith falling for each other. Bean’s new to town and finds a job at Sting’s night club. Griffith is a waitress, but also under contract as Jones’s femme fatale. She convinces politicians for him. When the film starts, it’s been a while since they’ve seen each other and Griffith’s kind of done with it.

Figgis–who, in addition to writing and directing, did the music–has a very gentle hand when it comes to exposition. Bean’s backstory is a note in a read fast or it’s lost shot in the beginning montage. There’s some dialogue, some setup, but for at least ten minutes of Stormy Monday, it’s just Figgis arranging some of the chess pieces with protracted narrative distance, set to an expository radio program. Bean and Griffith are both listening to it on headphones, walking around town, cut off from the world, but–unknowingly–connected to one another.

There’s another plot line involving a Polish jazz ensemble who’s going to be playing at Sting’s club. One of Bean’s first job tasks is to get them from the airport. Coincidence will have them show up in Jones’s story line (they’re all at the same hotel), but eventually Andrzej Borkowski–as the band’s manager–and Dorota Zieciowska, as a Polish woman living in Newcastle, become familiars in the supporting cast. They have their own romance narrative running alongside the main plots. It’s one of the film’s truly lovely details, as none of the principals have much illusion about the unpleasantness around them.

Bean and Griffith pursue romance knowing that unpleasantness, actively working against it, dreaming against it, juxtaposed against Borkowski and Zieciowska’s hopeful one. Not naive though. One of Stormy Monday’s other themes is how ignorance isn’t just bliss, it’s simultaneously dangerous and necessary.

But Figgis never talks about it, of course, because Figgis never really talks about anything. Griffith and Bean will have these intense moments, deep moments, with short dialogue exchanges and endless mood from Figgis (as writer, director, and composer), cinematographer Roger Deakins, and editor David Martin. Deakins’s contributions to the film are outstanding, but don’t define it in the same way as Figgis and Martin’s cutting of scenes, cutting of sound. Stormy Monday is never rushed; there’s tension, there’s danger, but Figgis never races to get there. Even when he’s got a brisk pace, he’s more interested in keeping the established tone and making the dramatics fit into it.

Everything is precise; the film’s just over ninety minutes and Figgis, not changing the tone (which he sets in those first ten or fifteen minutes), employs numerous subtle devices for exposition and plot development. For example, how Figgis handles Sting’s character development (Stormy Monday is Sting’s story, we just don’t follow it). Bean’s fortunes change once he overhears a couple of Jones’s hired goons–James Cosmo and Mark Long, both terrifying–talking about confronting Sting. So Bean’s at Sting’s house for breakfast, telling him about it (information the audience already has; audience actually has more information it turns out), and Figgis does the whole thing from Prunella Gee’s perspective. She’s Sting’s wife. It’s her one scene. But it’s more character development than Sting gets almost anywhere else.

Figgis sets up the audience’s narrative distance, which is different than Bean’s, different than Griffith’s. Even though Bean and Griffith are the leads, co-protagonists. Well, after the first act, Griffith mostly takes over. I’m also using first act rather loosely. Figgis is as exuberant as he can be–stylistically–about breaking plotting expectations. Not plot expectations so much, Stormy Monday has some predictable twists (or maybe more not it just doesn’t have twists as much as reasonable developments), but how the plots run concurrent and where they intersect.

The acting is all good. No one’s particularly spectacular. Figgis doesn’t really ask a lot from his cast in terms of performance; they serve the film, which Figgis is going to precisely cut, precisely score. Lots of silent, thoughtful moments for Bean and Griffith, who both essay them beautifully. For their characters, the saying isn’t as important as the hearing, the sitting with what’s been said. It even comes up as a minor plot point later.

If Figgis’s ambitions for the narrative were stronger, Stormy Monday might be singular. Instead, it’s a phenomenal style exercise (with a solid script). If it were more narratively ambitious however, Jones and Sting would probably be liabilities. Sting gets a lot of help from Figgis’s direction, while Jones always seems like he’s just about to be exasperated with the thinness of the part. Figgis knows how to pivot to a better angle on the character, always implying more depth.

Stormy Monday is a masterfully, exquisitely, intelligently made film. It just doesn’t want to be anything more. Figgis fills it with content–good content–but no potentiality.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Mike Figgis; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by David Martin; music by Figgis; production designer, Andrew McAlpine; produced by Nigel Stafford-Clark; released by Atlantic Releasing.

Starring Melanie Griffith (Kate), Sean Bean (Brendan), Sting (Finney), Tommy Lee Jones (Cosmo), Andrzej Borkowski (Andrej), Scott Hoxby (Bob), Dorota Zieciowska (Christine), Mark Long (Patrick), Prunella Gee (Mrs. Finney), and James Cosmo (Tony).


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