★½

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, Francis Ford Coppola)

On one hand, with the Wojciech Kilar score, Bram Stoker’s Dracula can get away with just about anything. On the other, with Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves playing leads… well, it needs something to help it get away with anything.

It helps neither Ryder or Reeves are the actual star of the film. Neither is top-billed Gary Oldman (as the Count). The star is director Coppola and his crew—cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, production designer Thomas E. Sanders, costume designer Eiko Ishioka (for better and worse), editors Anne Goursaud, Glen Scantlebury, and Nicholas C. Smith. And Kilar, of course. And whoever did all the amazing practical special effects; Bram Stoker’s is a very audiovisual experience. As the story itself belies reality, why should the film itself be any different an experience. Lots of inventive transitions, lots of creative composite shots to show Oldman’s faraway yet so close impact on the world of his victims. Shame James V. Hart’s screenplay isn’t anywhere near as experimental or imaginative. The script’s big deviation from the novel—in addition to Anthony Hopkins’s Van Helsing being crude—is Ryder falling in love with Oldman because she’s his reincarnated fifteenth century wife, who killed herself thinking he’d died in battle, which caused him to renounce God and become… a vampire.

The most interesting thing about Bram Stoker’s is how any of it would make sense. Like, Oldman’s castle is full of paintings done after Ryder’s death—Ryder the queen, not the young British woman with the questionable accent. Did he pay the painters or eat them? Because even though the film “humanizes” Oldman a little, it never makes him particularly reasonable as a character. Why, for instance, does he regrow a mustache when he de-ages himself and then shed it when he gets old again. Also, why does he get old again so often. Why did he get old in the first place? Wasn’t he eating enough villager? Seems like he was eating plenty of them.

Anyway.

None of those details matter because Bram Stoker’s looks great and has that Kilar score. Ryder can be bombing a questionably written scene—though, to be fair, it’s not like there are any strong performances in the film. Oldman’s got a few strong moments, a lot of okay ones, and some piddly ones too. But Kilar’s score can save the heck out of a scene. Given the lack of chemistry from Oldman towards Ryder and the lack of chemistry, accent, and acting from Ryder towards… everyone (save, maybe, best friend Sadie Frost), the melodramatic nineteenth century romance but kind of saucy scenes where Oldman has to remind himself to keep the fangs in are all mesmerizing thanks to how the music compliments the image. Bram Stoker’s is masterfully made. It’s far from a cinematic masterpiece, but Coppola does provide a solid facsimile of one. As long as you ignore the acting and the writing.

Whether Ryder would be better if the character were better—she falls in love with Oldman while fiancé Reeves is being held captive in faraway Oldman’s castle (it’s kind of hilarious how easily Reeves slips her mind—the film utilizes the novel’s epistolary format, turning the diary entries into narration from cast so we know she’s not thinking about Reeves); the falling in love while the dude’s away is literally her only thing. Ryder’s not even worried about Frost, who Oldman’s attacking every night because she’s slutty and Ryder’s virginal. Or something. It’s unclear why Oldman targets Frost in the first place, though maybe there was a scene explaining it… along with his London base being right next door to Richard E. Grant’s sanitarium, which is important but not really thanks to Hart’s script. It’s like Coppola came up with all the visual machinations to distract from Hart not having the best narrative.

Of course, it’d be disingenuous to the source material if Bram Stoker’s had a solid narrative.

And at least Ryder and Reeves are failing with questionable (at best) accents. Actual Brits Grant, Frost, and Cary Elwes all have extremely bad moments where you wish they’d just be screwing up accents. Grant can’t seem to take the thing seriously, Frost is out of her depth, and Elwes always seems like he’s just coming into the film for the first time, scene after scene. He makes no impression. Neither does Billy Campbell (as a very Texan Texan). In an extremely odd case of stunt-casting, Tom Waits disappoints as Oldman’s first solicitor, who’s gone mad and been committed and now eats bugs. Waits’s eccentric take seems more appropriate for a TV commercial than drama.

As for Hopkins… he could be worse. He’s not good, he doesn’t take the part seriously (how could he), but he could be worse.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a gorgeous exercise in technical filmmaking. And not much else.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola; screenplay by James V. Hart, based on the novel by Bram Stoker; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Anne Goursaud, Glen Scantlebury, and Nicholas C. Smith; music by Wojciech Kilar; production designer, Thomas E. Sanders; produced by Coppola, Fred Fuchs, and Charles Mulvehill; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Gary Oldman (Dracula), Winona Ryder (Mina), Anthony Hopkins (Van Helsing), Keanu Reeves (Harker), Richard E. Grant (Seward), Cary Elwes (Holmwood), Billy Campbell (Morris), Sadie Frost (Lucy), and Tom Waits (Renfield).


Savage (2018, Cui Siwei)

Savage is not savage. It’s got some violence, some of it rough, and it’s got some mean bad guys, but it’s never savage. I mean, unless it’s supposed to be referring to hero—more than protagonist or lead—Chang Chen. He beats up some suspects pretty bad at the beginning because he’s mad about partner Li Guangjie getting killed in the third or fourth scene, after its established Li and Chang both want the same girl, doctor Ni Ni. Li dies in what should be a routine traffic stop and Chang can’t forgive himself, leading to a bad year between him and Ni (see, she actually wanted him anyway), which catches us up to the present action. Some of the year before stuff is important, most of it not. In fact, they could easily get away with none of it because the dead partner bit plays more to the melodrama, less to the tight, tough action noir. Savage takes too long getting started and ends badly but between the two is a well-executed, continuous (though not real time), very simple, and very physical action movie.

One year after robbing a gold shipment—which opens the movie, it seems somewhat savage but still not enough—robbers Liao Fan, Huang Jue, and Zhang Yicong return to the scene of the crime, where they also killed Li. Savage gives Chang every opportunity to avenge himself upon his foes but he never gives in, much to the film’s detriment as well as the lives of people around Chang. He hasn’t learned much since Li got killed apparently, other than beat up people and get away with it because you’re a cop. Though the guys in the restaurant harassing Ni had it comes and it’s nice to see her not getting smacked around when threatened, which happens a lot in the second half of the movie.

So Chang’s never Savage with the main villains. It’s weird.

The big boss is Liao Fan. He doesn’t talk much, just watches, thinks, acts. Liao’s great. Probably the film’s best performance. He’s fairly savage, but also not. For instance, he’s not as ruthless as Huang Jue, who’s gold-crazed. And excellent. Huang’s also great. Last guy is Zhang Yicong, playing Liao’s dipshit punk little brother. Liao makes Huang babysit Zhang. Zhang’s fine. He doesn’t any heavy lifting but also doesn’t seem to be capable of handling it if he did. Liao and Huang, who both mainly stay reflective versus proactive, seem like they’re in a different and better film in their scenes with Zhang. He doesn’t get it, which is meta, since his character doesn’t get it either.

The problem might just be director Cui and his interest in the actors. Cui and cinematographer Du Jie do a phenomenal job with the snow-pocalypse mountain where Chang chases the bad guys, but Cui couldn’t give a toss about the performances. The melodrama’s better at interior dialogue sequences (i.e. when the characters aren’t worried about getting buried in an avalanche but instead wondering why they can’t find any Swiss Miss in the lodge. The action’s either outside or in the lodge. Once it becomes clear everyone’s going to end up at the lodge, the strong action’s timer starts ticking down. It’s just obvious from early on Cui isn’t going to do as well inside a snowed-in lodge as he does in a snow-drowned wilderness. Cui likes taking time with the action; he needs lots of space.

Ni’s good even if she’s got a crap part and then is a punching bag to emphasis how the bad men are bad. Liu Hua’s good as the partial comic relief, the lodge manager who’s also infamous for poaching.

Even without dialogue, just being present, Liao kind of becomes the lead. Not the protagonist; Ni’s kind of the protagonist. So cop Chang’s the hero, damsel Ni’s the protagonist, and villain Liao’s the lead. It’s a very confused narrative. Cui’s script isn’t quite there.

Awesome music. I’ll be damned if I can find the name of the composer anywhere.

Savage is pretty good for most of its too long runtime. The melodrama doesn’t work, doesn’t inform the plot or the characters… the film’s lean, just not in the right way. And the parts could be a lot better. Cui really fails his actors, in script and direction. Worse, it’s just through indifference. Cui’s not even passionate about not being passionate about them.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Cui Siwei; director of photography, Du Jie; edited by Du Yuan; produced by Terence Chang; released by Huaxia Film Distribution.

Starring Chang Chen (Wang Kangho), Ni Ni (Sun Yan), Liao Fan (Lao Da), Huang Jue (Lao Er), Zhang Yicong (Lao San), Liu Hua (Guo San), and Li Guangjie (Han Xiaosong).


Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959, John Guillermin)

Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure is a fairly solid action thriller. Tarzan (genial, musclebound Gordon Scott) is hunting nemesis Anthony Quayle through the jungle. The movie opens with Quayle and his crew robbing an African settlement. They’re after the dynamite but they end up killing a couple people. They’re also in blackface, which would just be a dated oddity if you didn’t realize they were in blackface until one of them is deliberating the fate of an actual Black person, a sick African child. It’s this really weird moment in the film and it’s the first really memorable sequence. Greatest Adventure seems a little different from the start.

So the gang. Sean Connery is the cocky, rough and tumble one, Niall MacGinnis is the nerdy Dutch one (he’s the diamond guy—turns out it’s all about diamonds), Al Mulock is the secretive boat driver, Scilla Gabel is Quayle’s woman. Connery and Gabel are flirty but it’s never a thing for Quayle because Quayle’s so secure. Connery worships him, MacGinnis is terrified of him, and Mulock respects him. Because Quayle and Mulock are the older guys who aren’t shifty Dutchmen or cocky heartthrobs, they’ve got the experience. Half of Greatest Adventure is this “after the heist” movie, just set in Africa on a questionable boat. There are certain exterior shots where the boat looks really fake. And I think always when it’s on a set. And now I guess I better just get the set-talk over with.

Greatest Adventure has profound production deficiencies. Director Guillermin and cinematographer Edward Scaife are mixing location shots from two obviously different locations—usually with a jump cut courtesy Bert Rule—but Guillermin and Scaife also have some set shots, then some projection composites, then stock African safari footage. And then Rule’s jump cuts. And Guillermin’s composition. He’s so close on it, every time. The way he shoots leading lady Sara Shane ruins her performance. Well, okay, Rule’s cutting probably hurts it worse, but Guillermin has a very strange way of shooting Scott and Shane—like he doesn’t trust them with the scene, and then when they succeed (occasionally with qualifications, yes, but still success), Guillermin doesn’t acknowledge it. Scott and Shane have this relatively effective love affair in this tense experience. Because Shane didn’t mean to tag along with Scott, she just wanted to be a jerk to him—Shane’s a model but mostly just a special friend to a very rich guy. The characterization of Shane and Gabel—their character setup—is not great. But Gabel and Shane get caught up in the events—Scott hunting Quayle, Quayle deciding to hunt him right back—and both women start their own character arcs, totally separate from the boys.

It’s cool. Even with all the issues.

Scott’s fine. Well, until the end when he needs to carry the movie, even for a moment and he can’t, but he’s fine. Even with the goofy dialogue. He’s got very goofy dialogue to show he’s Tarzan and not some regular dude. Formal but grammatically incorrect or something. But it’s all about Quayle. Quayle gives a truly superb performance. He gets to Ahab out, he gets to bare his soul, he gets to handle the mundane personality conflicts between his crew, he gets to have this weird but sincere romance with Gabel. Quayle takes the role as written and adds all sorts of depth to it. Guillermin helps a lot with adding texture—with the bad guys, anyway—but it seems like Quayle’s out there on his own and Guillermin is just getting to watch like the rest of us. It’s a great villain performance. And rather grounded, especially considering it’s Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure.

It gets good for a long while, then the end fumbles. Badly.

But Guillermin tries a lot and some of it succeeds. Quayle’s legitimately fantastic performance, for example.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by John Guillermin; screenplay by Berne Giler and Guillermin, based on a story by Les Crutchfield and characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs; director of photography, Edward Scaife; edited by Bert Rule; music by Douglas Gamley; produced by Sy Weintraub; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Gordon Scott (Tarzan), Anthony Quayle (Slade), Sara Shane (Angie), Niall MacGinnis (Kruger), Sean Connery (O’Bannion), Al Mulock (Dino), and Scilla Gabel (Toni).


A Tattered Web (1971, Paul Wendkos)

For its sub-genre of TV movie, A Tattered Web is pretty great. It’s a dirty cop story, only the dirty cop—Lloyd Bridges—is only a dirty cop because he’s trying to protect himself from a murder change and he’s only trying to protect himself from a murder charge so he doesn’t upset his daughter (Sallie Shockley). See, Bridges only killed this woman Anne Helm because Helm was sleeping with Shockley’s husband, Frank Converse. And Bridges didn’t even mean to kill her, he was just shoving her against the wall and, boom, somehow killed her. It was an accident. And Bridges was really about to call it in before he realized he didn’t want to go to prison; even if he got a jury sympathetic to the manslaughter nature of it… Bridges was there to harass Helm for sleeping with Converse. He was abusing his authority big time. And Web is from the early seventies so theoretically he might get in trouble for it.

So the movie is Bridges trying to stay ahead of his partner, a better than his material Murray Hamilton, while trying to convince Converse there’s another murderer—because the cops are after Converse because he’s the lover—and trying to make sure Shockley doesn’t find out about Converse and Helm. There’s always a lot going on in Tattered Web; it’s got a great pace.

It’s also got a rather strong script. There are a lot of narrative shortcuts and whatnot—it’s a seventy-some minute TV movie, after all—but writer Art Wallace still takes the time to have Bridges, now fully conspiring with Converse and framing an innocent man (Broderick Crawford), there’s still this scene where Bridges just gleefully watches Converse get his ass kicked. Even though the subplot doesn’t do much for the story, Web does have this one about Bridges becoming a violence junkie. It’s not great, writing or acting, but it’s weird and imaginative and you can cut it some slack. It’s nice Wallace cares enough to do character development, which isn’t just for Bridges.

Though Bridges also has this great one about the self-loathing his cover-up is causing. There’s visible pain in Bridges’s face when he manipulates Crawford. It’s often a good performance; Bridges isn’t phoning it in. He gets carried away but only slightly. If he doesn’t rein it in himself, it’s like the film’s Converse standing by to pull Bridges back.

Converse gives the best performance. It takes him a while to get going—as he’s doing more dick things at the beginning—but then he starts getting actually good. Shockley you wish was better because she’s clearly capable of it (she pulls off the weird infantilizing interrogation scene she has with Hamilton), but she gets abandoned for the end.

The end is a drag down fist fight on cliffs overlooking the Pacific. There’s no room for girls there, just the men who have to prove themselves. It’s a poorly done action scene—Bridges’s stunt man has brown hair versus blond—but it’s a great idea in the narrative.

A Tattered Web is all right.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Paul Wendkos; written by Art Wallace; director of photography, Michel Hugo; edited by John McSweeney Jr.; music by Robert Drasnin; produced by Bob Markell; aired by the Central Broadcasting System.

Starring Lloyd Bridges (Sgt. Ed Stagg), Frank Converse (Steve Butler), Sallie Shockley (Tina Butler), Murray Hamilton (Sgt. Joe Marcus), Broderick Crawford (Willard Edson), Anne Helm (Louise Campbell), John Fiedler (Sam Jeffers), Val Avery (Sgt. Harry Barnes), and Whit Bissell (Mr. Harland).


I Died a Thousand Times (1955, Stuart Heisler)

Going into the third act of I Died a Thousand Times, the film is in great shape. It’s got a strange pace but it’s all working out, mostly thanks to lead Jack Palance’s peculiar and strong performance, and it doesn’t seem like it could do anything wrong enough to screw things up. Unfortunately, the resolution is one giant choke. One where Palance is basically a bit player (or less) and the script fully embraces the casual misogyny it’s been flirting with the entire time. It seemed like it had gotten over it–Thousand’s casual misogyny has highs and lows, what with slut-shaming female lead Shelley Winters and then damsel in distress Lori Nelson’s arc from sweet young girl to callous, shallow tease (the film’s also got issues with the young people and their fast music, eventually—and perfectly—personified in an uncredited Dennis Hopper, who Palance sadly doesn’t beat to a pulp). But for the finish, when the film’s drained everything positive like sap, it brings back that casual misogyny. It’s not just disappointing and beneath W.R. Burnett’s script, it’s also annoying.

The film opens with Palance driving through the desert, headed west. We get the ground situation in pieces. He’s an ex-con bank robber, paroled after eight years. He’s not hostile so much as guarded. But he lets his guard down right away with kindly old couple Ralph Moody and Olive Carey. And not only because of their fetching, though club-footed and shy granddaughter Lori Nelson. Palance and Moody have a good rapport, which may or may not get some context in the script later on. Writer Burnett’s got some really big first act dialogue problems—when Palance and Winters first meet and shoot really bad slang at each other–but the script’s got a really delicate arc for Palance. It makes some leaps and bounds, particularly with the relationship with Palance and Winters, but it doesn’t ever seem rushed, just truncated. Lots of the credit goes to Palance, whose performance is initially as much about presence as delivery.

We meet Winters after we get the setup—courtesy cop turned crook James Millican (it also doesn’t help the film’s take on law enforcement takes a 180 for the third act)—crime boss Lon Chaney Jr. (who’s delightful) pays to get Palance pardoned so Palance can knock-off the jewelry stored at a swanky mountain resort. Even in 1955 dollars, I imagine it must have cost Chaney a lot to get Palance pardoned—despite being in for life—from a federal penitentiary. Probably more than the heist is worth. And if it was so expensive, why not have good backup for Palance? Instead, Chaney’s hired young punks Earl Holliman and Lee Marvin. Not only do they like fast music, they also bring along a dame—Winters. Ostensibly she’s there with Marvin, but she’s also keeping Holliman on a low boil. It’s because she’s manipulating the young sociopaths Palance lets her stay. See, Palance is actually a big softy. We know it with Moody, then we really know it once he friends the puppy at the tourist cabins where they’re all staying. He never entertains Winters, but he doesn’t disrespect her. He trusts her to handle the boys. It’s a very interesting relationship between them, because every time Palance seems like he’s warming up, he pulls back immediately, no warning. It’s a really nice performance.

Winters has her hands full, in the first act, with Marvin and Holliman (despite not having many scenes with them). Died has that weird structure I mentioned earlier. The first and second acts almost overlap because two such distinct things are going on. There’s Marvin, Holliman, Winters, and inside man at the resort Perry Lopez goofing off at the cabins, then there’s Los Angeles with Chaney and Millican, but also kindly old folks Moody and Carey (not to mention Nelson). When they’re finally gearing up to pull the heist, there’s a shock because there’s been no expectation of seeing Holliman or Marvin actually having to participate. They seem way too passive, not just in their behavior, but also in how the film positions them.

Though, actually, they’re in the background of the heist, just like they’re in the background of Palance and Winters. So it seems Heisler and Burnett agree. Or just didn’t want them in the way during the heist, which is fine. Marvin and Holliman are fine, but they’re not interesting to watch. Palance, Winters, even someone with a lesser performance like Nelson or Millican… they’re interesting to watch. A lot of Died takes place outside, often on location, and the film just feels more natural outdoors—another irony given the ending. Heisler rarely has ambitious shots outside the location shooting, but he and cinematographer Ted D. McCord succeed with that location shooting so credit there—but he’s more interested in the cute puppy than the relationship between aging career criminal Palance and girl with a past Winters, though Heisler does perk up a little once they’re making face. Because Winters falls hard for Palance. He’s a big tough guy who occasionally poetically describes the human condition and likes puppies and is kind to old people.

Winters doesn’t get the best part. Like, her exposition feels like it’s been given a G rating when it needs to be an NC-17. Because 1955. But Winters gets it across. The strongest thing, which the film doesn’t pursue, is how Winters interacts with Palance after she’s realized he’s a sweetie. The end fails the hell out of her too. It’s a real bummer.

I Died a Thousand Times—which actually makes no sense as a title since Chaney at one point talks about how you can “only die once”—really needs a better third act. It’s not even as competent, technically speaking, as it ought to be. Because it’s foreshadowed from the first or second scene, only in a really obvious way where they shouldn’t have really gone for it. Especially not since there’s another bookending device sitting there available, apparently just a passive addition to serve the plot but with a lot more possibility than the actual ending.

Is it worth seeing? Yeah. If it had a solid ending, it would’ve given Palance an amazing lead performance and possibly a great supporting one for Winters. It’s just… a real bummer.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Heisler; written by W.R. Burnett; director of photography, Ted D. McCord; edited by Clarence Kolster; music by David Buttolph; produced by Willis Goldbeck; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Jack Palance (Roy Earle), Shelley Winters (Marie Garson), Lon Chaney Jr. (Big Mac), Earl Holliman (Red), Lee Marvin (Babe Kossuck), Ralph Moody (Pa Goodhue), Olive Carey (Ma Goodhue), Lori Nelson (Velma), Perry Lopez (Louis Mendoza), Howard St. John (Doc Banton), James Millican (Jack Kranmer), and Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez (Chico).



Free Solo (2018, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin)

Free Solo is ostensibly about rock climber Alex Honnold’s obsession to free solo (climbing alone without ropes, maybe falling to a gruesome death) Yosemite’s El Capitan mountain. You know, from Star Trek V. Does Honnold beat Captain Kirk’s time? You could watch and find out. Or Google.

Only it’s not about Honnold’s obsession because the film takes a year off from the story. So is it about making a movie about Honnold’s preparation to climb El Cap? No. So is it a movie about Honnold? No, not at all. At some point the movie seems to realize Honnold’s not sympathetic at all, even when he’s doing good works (which don’t really figure into his psyche, which would be far more of an interesting subject—how did this affectless person get the idea to start a charity). That discovery of the lack of sympathetic nature comes before Honnold’s girlfriend shows up—but after Honnold says he doesn’t want a serious relationship because it might screw up his climbing—and Free Solo does try to investigate some of his lack of affect. Is it because his amygdala doesn’t register danger? Don’t know, he gets medically questionable MRI and then it’s over. Is it because his mom only spoke French to him as a child? Don’t know, Mom disappears real quick after she shows up (she only speaks English in the movie so Honnold telling the French anecdotes sound specious). Because Honnold’s not a reliable narrator. He’s always lying to his girlfriend, whose interview segments initially seem like they’d be good training for a couples’ counselor but once they buy a house together it becomes the girlfriend’s craven middle class ambitions and Honnold’s utter disinterest. Presumably he’s fixating on his El Cap obsession but we never find out because the film doesn’t get deep with its subject.

Its subject who apparently set up the film project himself for himself. But there’s no ego. Honnold treats the film as an inconvenience, which makes sense. There are a number of rather inauthentic devices directors Vasarhelyi (who’s never in the film) and Chin (who’s in it a bunch) use.

In theory, Free Solo could just be about using amazing camera technology to film this guy free climbing El Capitan for the first time in history but… it’s not. The film’s very shady about how they actually shoot the climb. After eighty minutes of the camera crew being omnipresent, they disappear for the climb itself, even though the cameras are obviously there (and Chin talked to his camera crew all about their placement). But there are lots of cameras. And some really good microphones. At least, there had better have been really good microphones because if they added the sound of Honnold grunting through his climb into the movie? It’d be bigger bullshit than the scenes with the camera crew fretting over possibly recording Honnold fall to his death. They’re not just camera guys, they’re rock climbers and they’re Honnold’s friends. At least as close as he seems to get to friends. They’re going to be really sad if he dies and they’re filming it for this movie.

So the movie ends up being about the camera guys worrying Honnold’s going to fall and die. It’s not about his girlfriend worrying, it’s not about his challenge and achievement, it’s the camera guys feeling like if he dies, they’re partially responsible for turning it into a movie.

But Vasarhelyi and Chin already know if Honnold falls to his death. They know before the movie starts. They present the last third, featuring the footage of his climb, like an exploitative thriller, even hiding where they’ve got cameras and cameramen in the resolution. Wouldn’t it make more sense to showcase Honnold’s ability?

He’s the only guy who’s ever done this climb. This climb, captured on “film,” has never happened before. And they treat it like a chance to terrify instead of champion.

And given Honnold’s really questionable take on reality—he blathers about being a warrior and is a possibly obnoxious vegetarian (but not vegan, so it’s like, what are you bragging about). He’s also an emotionally absent boyfriend, but, hey, his girlfriend likes him… for reasons.

Is there a great movie in Free Solo? With better editors, a more earnest, more authentic narrative distance, not to mention better music… probably. But the filmmakers sit on some amazing climbing footage, which they tease out, set to iffy music by Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts and lackluster cutting from Bob Eisenhardt. It’s a bummer.

Especially since Honnold’s probably best observed through a telephoto lens.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin; directors of photography, Chin, Clair Popkin, and Mikey Schaefer; edited by Bob Eisenhardt; music by Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts; produced by Chin, Vasarhelyi, Shannon Dill, and Evan Hayes; released by National Geographic Documentary Films.


The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018, Terry Gilliam)

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote opens with a “twenty-five years in the making” title card; it seems for every year it took director Gilliam to get the film made, he added another ending. Don has a troubled third act, with Gilliam and co-writer Tony Grisoni tacking on false ending after false ending, trying to get the story where it needs to go for the film to get its finish. Is it an effective finish… no. The finish looks pretty–Don always at least looks pretty thanks to Nicola Pecorini’s photography, even if some of Gilliam’s Panavision aspect shots are a little boring. Another thing you’d think he might’ve been more ready with—especially since there’s a plot point about storyboards in the first act.

The first act is less successful than the second act and better than the third act; it’s a little lazy, a little disingenuous, but it doesn’t have the herky-jerk narrative of the third act (when the film moves from ending to ending). Don is about wunderkind commercial director Adam Driver, who’s having a disastrous shoot on his latest project. He’s doing some kind of commercial—either the product isn’t mentioned or it isn’t repeated enough for me to remember—and he’s using a Don Quixote character, filming on location in Spain. Why Spain? Not sure. I mean, we soon find out Driver shot a student film in the area (about Don Quixote) but apparently forgot about it until confronted with a bootleg of said film. He’s just a whiny prima donna director, surrounded by a sniveling entourage. If Driver’s got enough charm to get through this portion of the film, Gilliam didn’t have him use it. The leads’ ineffectiveness ends up playing a big part in why Don fails.

Anyway. Pretty soon Driver’s remembering he spent two months making a zero budget Don Quixote film and goes off to visit the village where he shot it. There are a bunch of flashbacks to the first film’s production, with the moppy-headed Driver far more likable than his slick commercial auteur; it softens Driver up enough to get him sympathetic for the second act. It also introduces Don Quixote himself, Jonathan Pryce, and impressionable, vivacious teenage girl, Joana Ribeiro. Before the film, Pryce was a shoemaker and Ribeiro was just daughter of the restaurant owner. When Driver gets to the village, he finds out Ribeiro has—in the ten years since—become a fallen woman and Pryce has gone insane and thinks he’s actually Don Quixote.

After Driver reunites with Pryce, sees what’s happened, and flees, there’s a little bit more with the commercial-making—the film relies heavily on a subplot involving Stellan Skarsgård as Driver’s boss, Olga Kurylenko as Skarsgård’s wife and Driver’s occasional lover, and Jordi Mollà as the Russian oligarch who Skarsgård’s wooing—but it’s all water treading to finally team Driver up with Pryce. So they can go on great adventures.

Are the adventures great?

Eh.

There are moments during the adventures when Driver and Pryce click. Not enough of them. And not after Ribeiro returns to the story and Driver decides he’s got to save her from the really bad situation she’s in. Don is very paternalistic with its female characters, which is rather unfortunate since Ribeiro and Kurylenko are much better than the male actors in the film.

Neither Driver or Pryce have enough star wattage for the film. Not the way Gilliam directs it or writes it. Neither of them command the screen. They’re constantly upstaged by supporting players. They also have a lack of rapport they really need. Again, some of it is the script, some of it is the direction, but more compelling leads would get Don where it wants to go a little more smoothly.

Mollà’s either miscast, poorly directed, or bad; he doesn’t actually have enough material for it to matter. But he certainly doesn’t have the heft the part seems to require. Skarsgård’s in a similar situation, but he’s at least affable and enthused.

What else… oh, the ostensible political asides. Gilliam doesn’t want to commit to any of them but he does want to acknowledge “reality.” Not sure why. It just tacks needless minutes onto the film’s laborious runtime.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote could be a lot worse. Driver and Pryce are never bad, they’re just not… good enough. Ribeiro and Kurylenko are good enough, they just never get enough material. Though, to be fair, neither of them belong in the film. Without their subplots, maybe Driver and Pryce would spend enough time together to find some rhythm.

But given that twenty-five year lead time, you’d think it’d be a lot tighter of a production.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Terry Gilliam; written by Gilliam and Tony Grisoni; director of photography, Nicola Pecorini; edited by Teresa Font; music by Roque Baños; production designer, Benjamín Fernández; produced by Mariela Besuievsky, Amy Gilliam, Gerardo Herrero, and Grégoire Melin; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Adam Driver (Toby), Jonathan Pryce (Don Quixote), Joana Ribeiro (Angelica), Olga Kurylenko (Jacqui), Stellan Skarsgård (The Boss), Óscar Jaenada (The Gypsy), and Jordi Mollà (The Oligarch).


It Happened Tomorrow (1944, René Clair)

At first blush—with the way too obvious exception of Jack Oakie—It Happened Tomorrow seemingly has all the parts needed for success. Seemingly. Dick Powell’s an affable lead; only the role requires no heavy-lifting, which is problematic considering he spends much of the film in one mortal danger or another. Linda Darnell’s an appealing love interest; only she gets less than squat to do in the film. Director Clair does really well with some of the sequences; only other ones he doesn’t. Powell and Darnell are at least consistent—he’s consistently affable and his role consistently requires very little, she’s consistently appealing and she consistently gets treated like scenery. Sometimes inanimate scenery. Clair’s frustratingly back and forth.

Tomorrow has some really saccharine bookends, which Clair and co-screenwriter Dudley Nichols sort of bungle. It goes on way too long, it’s never as cute as Clair seems to think, and it’s just there to manipulate audience expectation. The film then settles into the flashback setting—the late nineteenth century (as embodied by studio backlot) newspaperman Powell has just gotten his big promotion to reporter. He’s written his requisite 500 obituaries, it’s time for the front page. Only he’s nervous about it (and completely blotto); kindly newspaper archivist John Philliber talks fancifully about how if only Powell had tomorrow’s paper, he’d know what he was going to do. Powell doesn’t think much of it and goes out for more drinking, ending up at Oakie and Darnell’s magic show.

It’s love at first sight for Powell and Darnell (well, Powell anyway). Oakie’s her protective uncle, who starts the film with a bad Italian accent, which later disappears without any comment because apparently he’s not actually Italian. It never gets mentioned but it’s also not like you could tell if Oakie was doing a bad sincere Italian accent or a bad insincere one. His performance is abysmal. It must have played different in 1944 because Clair lets him crowd everyone out of his scenes with these protracted deliveries. They never amount to anything. The main plot is Powell and the future newspapers Philliber (who’s not good) ends up giving him, but the ostensible main subplot about Powell and Darnell becomes Powell and Oakie. Once Darnell gets some potential, the film dumps her back into the set dressing category.

At least guys aren’t just ogling her then.

Everyone’s ignoring her. I’m not even sure she’s in some of the shots she’s supposedly in. At one point she doesn’t get to participate in Powell trying to get rich quick because nineteenth century sexism but it’s a movie about magical newspapers so why can’t Clair and Nichols let her into the betting room?

Because there’s not enough room. Because Oakie’s already pushing Powell out.

The first half or so Tomorrow is okay build-up; the second half is constant disappointment.

Edward Brophy has a small part as the betting guy and you wish you could hug him. The film doesn’t have very many wholly successful performances, big parts or small. For example, Edgar Kennedy ought to be great as the police inspector who knows something’s up with Powell and his fortuneteller reporting-style, but it’s—again—a lousy part.

There are a couple great moments in the film. Powell and Darnell’s first date, where they get distracted by their chemistry. And when Darnell’s got to wear one of Powell’s suits. There’s some promise in that scene. Shame Darnell gets downgraded right after it.

The scene where she protests she won’t be treated like anyone’s property then somehow gets treated even worse is foreboding, but even it doesn’t foretell the excessive use of Oakie in the second half.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by René Clair; screenplay by Helene Fraenkel, Dudley Nichols, and Clair, based on a play by Lord Dunsany and a story by Hugh Wedlock Jr. and Howard Snyder; directors of photography, Eugen Schüfftan and Archie Stout; edited by Fred Pressburger; music by Robert Stolz; produced by Arnold Pressburger; released by United Artists.

Starring Dick Powell (Lawrence Stevens), Linda Darnell (Sylvia), Jack Oakie (Cigolini), Edgar Kennedy (Inspector Mulrooney), John Philliber (Pop Benson), and George Cleveland (Mr. Gordon).


This post is part of the Made in 1944 Blogathon hosted by Robin of Pop Culture Reverie.

The Straight Story (1999, David Lynch)

The Straight Story wants to present its characters as real, but it then exaggerates their reality. They’re better than real. Superior imitations. And it’s the film’s undoing.

Well, and the music. The eschewing of cartoon for caricature and the Angelo Badalamenti score. It is not the music to tell the story of a man born in 1920s Minnesota, who later moves to Iowa at some point and now at seventy-three is driving a riding mower to Wisconsin to see his estranged brother. Badalamenti’s main theme is ostentatious; even if you like it, it’s ostentatious. The movie’s all about how this guy, played by Richard Farnsworth, isn’t ostentatious. How could he be? He gives folksy, somewhat progressive wisdom and always pays his way. He never takes handouts, but he’ll compromise as long as it doesn’t fundamentally break his code. He’s a cowboy, on the steel green horse—well, steel green mule of a John Deere riding mower—he rides.

Straight Story isn’t a character study; its protagonist is never subject, never driving force (no pun intended). Director Lynch and writers John Roach and Mary Sweeney shrug off the idea of Farnsworth’s motivations until the third act when he dumps them in some heartfelt, folksy exposition. Straight Story is based on a true story, yet the film does whatever it can to make its characters seem utterly contained to their scenes. They stop existing when the film, sometimes jarringly, cuts away from them. It’s somewhat appropriate, however, as Sweeney also edited the film. The film has a handful of really rough cuts, not to mention when all of a sudden in the second half it employs frequent fades to black to end scenes. Occasionally the cuts are rough because clearly the actor onscreen didn’t think their scene was over. The movie’s just done showing this good, simple folk being kindly to one another. Point made, time to move on. Though, more often than not—especially in the second half—it’s just cutting to some other good, simple folk being kindly to one another scene.

It’s too bad. There are some occasional really strong moments. There’s a scene where Farnsworth witnesses a car accident and its frantic aftermath. Or when he’s hanging out with fellow old guy Wiley Harker at a bar and they’re having a profound emotional moment talking about World War II. Harker’s monologue is way better than Farnsworth’s and clearly so, which is concerning since Harker’s only in two scenes and Farnsworth is, you know, the movie. But even so, when Lynch and Sweeney bring in a non-diegetic war sounds track, it ruins the actors’ scene. Why would you give the actors this great opportunity then junk it for pedestrian memory sounds. It’s so strange. The Straight Story puts sugar in its own gas tank, time and again.

And then there’s Farnsworth’s daughter, played by Sissy Spacek. She gets a character revelation after her character is basically gone from the movie and it’s just to hammer in how progressive Farnsworth can be compared to, well, the younger generation. Straight Story positions Farnsworth as the world’s greatest grandad, only it’s a secret power and he can only use it on strangers, who hear more about his motivations for the trip than daughter Spacek. Of course, Spacek is—according to Farnsworth—a little slow. Spacek plays the character maybe autistic? Or with a speech impediment. But not slow. Not given the ideas she’s got to talk about in the dialogue she’s got. It’s kind of the most egregious of the film’s problems, just because the movie later uses Spacek just to develop Farnsworth and even then, only in a trite, contrived way. The film never feels less “real” than when Farnsworth is explaining how he’s so real. And manly.

Because he’s a cowboy. He’s a real American hero, which might explain why the movie treats him like an action figure. He moves where the film needs him; never once seems to have agency his own.

Even more distressing is when, in the final scene, a very special guest star outacts the 110 minute sum of Farnsworth’s performance without even speaking.

The film isn’t exactly condescending or patronizing, but it’s got a very definite narrative distance; it displays the events, doesn’t create them; it displays the people, doesn’t give them agency. They don’t develop. At all. And the exposition dumps are always manipulative.

Especially since it’s called The Straight Story.

Farnsworth is okay. It should be the kind of part you can go on and on about, analyzing the performance and whatnot, but you can’t. Because he’s just okay. Partly because Lynch doesn’t have any idea what kind of performance he’s directing. Spacek’s okay too, even if she’s the film’s narrative device doormat. James Cada’s good in one of the supporting roles, which are usually cast based on the actor’s appearance rather than their… acting ability. Or even casting appropriateness.

Good photography from Freddie Francis. Okay direction from Lynch. There are issues. There are peculiar choices when it comes to the ostensible character study stuff. There are weird, frankly silly zoom-ins.

It’s long, its plotting structure stalls, the music is annoying (even after the repeated use of the theme disappears—possibly when those fades to black come in, I wasn’t paying attention)… Straight Story has its sincerities, but never where it needs them.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by David Lynch; written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney; director of photography, Freddie Francis; edited by Sweeney; music by Angelo Badalamenti; production designer, Jack Fisk; produced by Neal Edelstein and Sweeney; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Richard Farnsworth (Alvin), Sissy Spacek (Rose), James Cada (Danny), Wiley Harker (Verlyn), Anastasia Webb (Crystal), and Everett McGill (Tom).


Picnic (1956, Joshua Logan)

Picnic is all about sex. It can never talk about being all about sex because it’s from 1956 and it’s set in small-town Kansas anyway and no one in small-town Kansas was going to be talking about sex. Not when schoolteachers like Rosalind Russell are trying to ban books for even hinting at sex.

But it’s all about sex.

Mostly it’s about women wanting to have sex with William Holden, who’s a drifter come to town looking to get a job as an executive from his old college buddy Cliff Robertson. Holden was thirty-seven in Picnic and, regardless of his beefcake factor, looks at least thirty-seven. Robertson was thirty-two. He looks about twenty-seven. It’s never clear how much time has passed since they were in college together though when Russell finally loses it and dresses Holden down for, basically, rejecting her drunken advances, she brings up the age thing. So are they supposed to be mid-thirties? They’re at least old enough Kim Novak ought to be rethinking her de facto engagement to Robertson.

Novak is nineteen. Her mom, Betty Field, wants her to marry Robertson before he gets tired of waiting for sex. Novak just wants men to stop objectifying her. Field says it’s all she’s got going for her so she better use it to get a ring on it ASAP. Couple years, she’ll be way too old to catch a good rich man. I guess the “good” thing about Field utterly devaluing her daughter’s worth is she’s not greedy about it? Field doesn’t want Robertson and Novak to take care of her, she just wants Novak taken care of. She’s selfless. Field doesn’t like Holden strutting around with his shirt off—her sexagenarian neighbor, kindly Verna Felton gets Holden out of his shirt as fast as she can—but Field doesn’t like it. Because it’s catching Novak’s eye and if Novak decides she might want to have sex with some guy instead of just doing it out of duty, well, she’s going down the wrong path.

Field’s got another daughter, a younger one, Susan Strasberg. Strasberg is a bit of a tomboy, super-smart (there’s some throwaway line in the first act, which is full of throwaway lines, about Strasberg having a four year scholarship except then she goes back to high school), and she too takes notice of Holden. Not in an inappropriate way but in the same way Felton notices Holden; they understand he’s a foxy man and there ain’t no other foxy men in Kansas. But they don’t lust after him in the same way as… oh, Russell, who gets drunker and drunker as the day progresses and finally gets so touchy-feely with Holden she tears off half his shirt. Got to let the beefcake out!

Russell’s all about the sex; even as she describes herself as the “old maid schoolteacher” what she really means is she hooks up with hot younger dudes out of town then brags about it to her friends at work. In town she’s stuck with decidedly not sexy, not younger Arthur O’Connell. He’s a local shop-owner, a bachelor stuck in his ways. Who, sure, gets hammered and talks Russell into going off after the picnic to “drive” in his car. There’s a great line from Felton about how everyone disappears after a picnic—Field is wondering where everyone went because she’s forgotten what it’s like to want sex—but Felton remembers. And she’s like, “They’re all off having sex.” And you’d think Field would remember because she told Novak to go off with Robertson and give him some play so he stays interested.

Now, Novak’s a good girl, from a good family, she’s just not a rich girl. Or a smart girl. She’s quiet and a little sad. Being socialized to accept paper boy Nick Adams hitting on her every morning no doubt has something to do with that sadness.

She just wants someone to take her seriously. And not because of how she looks.

So when she and Holden have this super-charged sexy dance at the Picnic, which sets off Strasberg’s jealousy and resentment as well as Russell’s beefcake lust, well… is it different when Holden ogles her? Because it’s William Holden and not Nick Adams or Cliff Robertson.

Or, in the film’s grossest revelation, Arthur O’Connell. Who goes over to visit Russell (who lodges with Field and daughters) and ogles Novak.

O’Connell recovers from that moment, mostly because he’s got Russell holding up their scenes, but… yuck.

If Picnic could talk about sex, would it be better? Well, not if it still had such unbridled passion for patriarchal relationships. Novak and Holden have zero chemistry, which would be a bigger problem if the script ever needed them to have any. But Novak’s written so thin—she’s constantly asking people to define her character in the first act, which gets tedious fast because the character relationships ring hollow. Director Logan, who directed the original play on Broadway, has no patience or regard for his actors. He’s always in a hurry, always shooting in these boring long shots (though James Wong Howe’s photography is fantastic). Often there will be some terrible cut; editors William A. Lyon and Charles Nelson shockingly won an Oscar for the film, which is something since there’s not a single smooth transition between long shot and close-up in the entire film.

While I’m talking about the crew, might as well get George Duning’s score out of the way. It’s too loud, too bombastic, too obvious, too melodramatic. Jo Mielziner’s production design is excellent though. It’s a shame Logan doesn’t have better shots for it. He’s got some really awkwardly pedestrian shots, like he’s scared of cranes or something. The film’s wide Cinemascope aspect ratio is another problem. It opens the film up too much and Logan rarely can compose for it.

The big dance scene is about the only intentionally well-directed sequence in the film, though there are occasional unintentional good shots.

It’s never incompetent, it’s just never anything but competent.

The film peaks somewhere in the second act, during the picnic. Regardless of all the problems, Picnic has a great pace. At least until the third act, when it starts to drag on and on, introducing these juxtapositions between Novak and Russell, O’Connell and Holden. Only none of the characters do enough for the juxtapositions to make any narrative sense, much less drum up any dramatic effect.

Great performance from Russell, really good ones from O’Connell and Felton. Okay—all things considered—one from Holden. He’s pretty good in the first act. By the last act you wish he’d rethought agreeing to the film (given he was worried he was too old for the part he’s obviously too old to play). Novak’s… she could be worse. Same goes for Field, though she’s immediately grating. Strasberg’s great, but the part’s crap. Worse, it’s a big part. It’s just a big, crappy part. If the movie were actually about her and Novak, it’d be something. If the movie were about Novak, it’d be something. If it were about any of its characters, it’d be something. But the smorgasbord approach? Doesn’t work. No one gets enough time or space.

Though it probably wouldn’t matter because they still couldn’t talk about sex. Picnic is fixated on it. Even if all of its ideas about it are at least bad, sometimes icky, sometimes much, much worse.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Joshua Logan; screenplay by Daniel Taradash, based on the play by William Inge; director of photography, James Wong Howe; edited by William A. Lyon and Charles Nelson; music by George Duding; production designer, Jo Mielziner; produced by Fred Kohlmar; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring William Holden (Hal Carter), Kim Novak (Madge Owens), Susan Strasberg (Millie Owens), Rosalind Russell (Miss Rosemary Sydney), Arthur O’Connell (Howard Bevans), Cliff Robertson (Alan Benson), Betty Field (Flo Owens), Nick Adams (Bomber), and Verna Felton (Helen Potts).



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