★★½

Fast Color (2018, Julia Hart)

Fast Color spends most its runtime saying it’s not a superhero movie—it’s just about people who happen to have superpowers—only for the third act to play like a low budget X-Men outing. And it’s not just the not-battle-in-the-streets battle-in-the-street resolution, it’s also how lead Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s character arc becomes all about her superpowers and not her returning to her abandoned home, abandoned mother (Lorraine Toussaint), and abandoned tween daughter (Saniyya Sidney). It’s also not about how Mbatha-Raw’s gotten sober—drugs help keep her out-of-control powers in check—or how the world hasn’t had rain in the last seven or eight years. There’s a lot going on in the world of Fast Color and director Hart does a great job showing its more mundane side—utilizing the limited budget well—but engaging with the superhero movie tropes after promising to avoid them… it doesn’t undue the work of the film through most of its runtime, but it does leave the potential unrealized.

For instance, just when Mbatha-Raw and Sidney could be really connecting, the film concentrates on the superpowers. And it doesn’t even go all the way with the superpowers. It doesn’t just not show them, it doesn’t show their effect on anyone, so it’s like they’re not even there. Sorry, Fast Color’s finish is about the only disappointing thing in the film (as it compounds the problems with Toussaint’s part). Hence the harping.

The film opens with Mbatha-Raw on the run. She’s got some kind of earthquake power, which she can’t control at all but she at least tries to mitigate the damage. Water is an expensive item because of the lack of rain fall, but there’s still booze, eggs, electricity, all sorts of things just no smartphones. The whole no more rain subplot is fine but doesn’t add anything to the film. It mostly ends up serving as a budget limiter; so fine. But just fine.

Pretty soon we discover nerdy government scientist Christopher Denham is after Mbatha-Raw but also she’s gotten to her hometown, which he doesn’t realize. So she goes to mom Toussaint’s farm, even though Mbatha-Raw’s never met Sidney and Sidney doesn’t have any expectation of ever meeting Mbatha-Raw and then Toussaint makes Mbatha-Raw sleep out in the barn because her powers are so out-of-control. The film never directly addresses how Mbatha-Raw’s terrible life, on the run but also before, instead focusing on what she can do to improve her footprint, which is fine because it centers itself around Sidney’s well-being. Mbatha-Raw’s motivations and thoughts play out in her expressions versus actions or dialogue. She’s haunted by flashback sequences too. Mbatha-Raw gives an excellent lead performance but her part isn’t really enough the lead as far as the plot goes.

Most of the film is about what’s going to happen without raising much expectation. David Strathairn plays the local sheriff who’s also on Mbatha-Raw’s trail, trying not to let Denham and the feds take his case. Given how much the film ends up leveraging Strathairn, at the expense of other characters (and their actors), it’d have been nice if Strathairn weren’t involved in one of Fast Colors big secrets. The film has a lot of big secrets—well, either secrets or lies, because Toussaint wants to keep Sidney sheltered. See, Toussaint and Sidney also have powers, but they’re not as potentially damaging or affecting as Mbatha-Raw’s. When Mbatha-Raw bonds with Sidney, it’s over the powers, which is weird but the acting’s good—Sidney’s phenomenal—so Color can do whatever it wants as long as it stays focused on the characters.

The end abandons that focus and… the film suffers.

Technically, the film’s outstanding. Save the occasionally too DV night time photography. Many of photographer Michael Fimognari’s night time shots are fantastic, but when there’s a lot of movement on the screen… it looks off. Martin Pensa’s editing is good, Rob Simonsen’s music is good, Hart’s direction is good… Fast Color’s got all the pieces—well, okay, not Denham (who’s way too eh)—the script just doesn’t quite get them assembled right at the end.

The film gives Mbatha-Raw a solid lead, Sidney an okay supporting showcase (Sidney could handle more), and Toussaint a disappointing one. The film utilizes her but doesn’t showcase her, which really hurts in the third act.

Fast Color’s successful without exactly being a success.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Julia Hart; written by Hart and Jordan Horowitz; director of photography, Michael Fimognari; edited by Martin Pensa; music by Rob Simonsen; production designer, Gae S. Buckley; produced by Horowitz, Mickey Liddell, and Pete Shilaimon; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Ruth), Lorraine Toussaint (Bo), Saniyya Sidney (Lila), Christopher Denham (Bill), and David Strathairn (Ellis).


RELATED

Blinded by the Light (2019, Gurinder Chadha)

What’s not clear about Blinded by the Light is how much of the film’s success is because of lead Viveik Kalra or because about ninety straight minutes of soundtrack consists of The Best of Bruce Springsteen. The film, based on an actual British Pakistani Springsteen stan, is about teenager Kalra discovering Springsteen at just the right time in his life—it’s 1987, Thatcher’s England has no jobs and overt skinheads (it’s also funny how this film, set in the 80s and in the UK, feels very 2019 for the US), Kalra’s got a controlling dad (Kulvinder Ghir, in the film’s most troubled part), he’s starting at a new school, his best friend (Dean-Charles Chapman) has got a Pet Shop Boys knock-off band and accompanying style. Kalra’s feeling caged and, after a chance encounter with the only other East Asian guy at his new high school—Aaron Phagura, who’s appealing enough but literally has no personality beyond a smile. Phagura loans Kalra a couple Springsteen tapes; it takes him a few days and a few significantly severe new problems in his life to listen.

Once he does, Light becomes an attempt at visualizing how a person connects with a song. It’s obvious stuff—emphasized lyric excerpts on the screen with some Adobe animation on the text itself—but director Chadha goes all in on it. Get over whether to not it’s creative enough and focus on whether or not it’s functional enough. Because the film tries to avoid ever actually talking about politics. It shows the politics. It shows Ghir gets attacked by Neo-Nazis; they’re matching and blocking the way to Kalra’s cousin’s wedding. But it doesn’t get close to the characters as they experience it. There’s a detached narrative distance, which gets stylized to some degree with the music, but the film never explicitly ties the events surrounding Kalra to the accompanying Springsteen songs. It seems like there’s an intentional clue from Chadha on how to watch the film at one point—Kalra is in an East Asian dance club and puts on Springsteen and watches how the sixteen year-old working class Pakistani girls really are just the sixteen year-old working class American girls in the song. And so on. It’s a great moment, though Chadha doesn’t know how to amplify it. Though Light’s even keel, tone-wise, is one of its most consistent successes. Other than Kalra. And the accompanying Springsteen songs doing their job because they’re Springsteen songs.

The film’s got a lot of inconsistent successes. Something works here for a while, stops working for a while, starts working again. Or something working goes away then comes back, still working. The plot is better than the script, which is most exemplified with dad Ghir. Ghir’s got the film’s biggest personal journey—Kalra’s Bruce Springsteen obsession is indicative of far more serious problems—and Light is way too comfortable letting Ghir be a caricature. When it’s time for Ghir to get a moment to act and not react to someone else, the film cuts away. By the time Ghir starts putting his foot down about Kalra’s very un-Pakistani attitudes, it’s too late for the scene to carry much weight. The film actively encourages everyone involved to give up on Ghir because even as he’s a Springsteen song character too… the way the film grafts it with the working class Pakistani father in the eighties story doesn’t give Ghir much agency. It’s a really effective performance from Ghir, but it’s not a good part.

To be fair, there aren’t a lot of good supporting parts. There are lots of good supporting performances, but the parts are all rushed; if you’re a supporting cast member, you don’t get a complete story arc. You’re lucky if you get even a brief subplot—like Kalra’s sister, Nikita Mehta, clubbing and having a boyfriend—or Kalra’s eventual love interest, Nell Williams, and her struggle against her conservative parents. Williams is a great eighties movie character—the costuming in Light are fantastic, ditto the production design. By Annie Hardings and Nick Ellis, respectively. Director Chadha is definitely able to realize a comprehensive vision here, it’s just a very safe one. The film doesn’t go hard on the musical stuff; there are some musical numbers, which are good, but they go away pretty soon in the second half, replaced by montages, which are different. It also doesn’t go hard on the political stuff. Outside the fight with the Neo-Nazis, Kalra and Ghir are always keeping a stiff upper lip and turning the other cheek as far as the racism goes. And Light never gets into the characters’ heads for their reactions to it.

So the good supporting performances—Mehta, Chapman, mom Meera Ganatra (who gets the film’s worst part, but kind of because it should be from her perspective instead), Williams; Phagura’s fine. He’s got nothing to do but he’s likable. The only iffy performance is Tara Divina as Kalra’s cousin who comes to live with them recently before the movie it seems like… maybe? There’s something murky in the ground situation but she’s a brat and Divina’s too thin about it. Great cameos from Rob Brydon, Hayley Atwell, David Hayman.

Blinded by the Light hits its target but isn’t aiming high enough; it’s just too middle of the road, leveraging Kalra and Springsteen instead of informing them.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Gurinder Chadha; screenplay by Sarfraz Manzoor, Chadha, and Paul Mayeda Berges, based on a book by Sarfraz Manzoor and inspired by music by Bruce Springsteen; director of photography, Ben Smithard; edited by Justin Krish; music by A.R. Rahman; production designer, Nick Ellis; produced by Jane Barclay, Chadha, and Jamal Daniel; released by Entertainment One.

Starring Viveik Kalra (Javed), Kulvinder Ghir (Malik), Dean-Charles Chapman (Matt), Nell Williams (Eliza), Meera Ganatra (Noor), Aaron Phagura (Roops), Nikita Mehta (Shazia), Tara Divina (Yasmeen), David Hayman (Mr. Evans), Hayley Atwell (Ms. Clay), and Rob Brydon (Matt’s father).


Biloxi Blues (1988, Mike Nichols)

Biloxi Blues has some rather peculiar, rather significant third act problems. Like, it doesn’t have a third act. Did they cut a bunch to keep the PG rating or something? Because at a certain point the rising action stalls out and the film goes into montage summary overdrive. After giving lead Matthew Broderick and ostensible love interest Penelope Ann Miller an amazing “meet cute” first dance, full of chemistry and energy, Miller never gets another line. She’s in a few montage shots, as Broderick romances her, but she’s not even present in the film, just visible. It’s a very weird development, especially considering how phenomenally director Nichols shoots that dance scene.

And Nichols has a lot of very thoughtful direction in the film, which is another reason it feels like it doesn’t have a third act. None of the direction is thoughtful. In fact, it’s tonally regressive. The end of the film—the last real scene—turns everything into a smile, with writer Neil Simon and Nichols running as far away from every question or difficult thought they raised as fast as they can. It just doesn’t make any sense. Unless Simon didn’t have an ending to the movie and for some reason everyone—Nichols, the producer, the studio—just shrugged and said, “Yeah, Matthew Broderick can sell it with narration, he’s Ferris Bueller, it’ll be fine.”

Is Broderick’s narration read good? Yeah… it’s not bad. It’s not great, but it’s not bad. It’s also not his fault because Simon doesn’t give him anything to say really. Whatever lessons Broderick learned from his time in boot camp in 1945 Biloxi don’t come through in the narration. Or Broderick’s onscreen performance. It also turns out he’s supposed to be narrating it from the present, which seems weird with the accompanying shots. There’s got to be a story behind Blues’s production. There’s just got to be.

Because no one has a full character arc in the entire film. Not even Christopher Walken, who’s about one great scene away from a fantastic performance. He never gets his great scene, never unconditionally. It’s usually a combination of script and Broderick; Broderick, not in performance or in role as written, never gets to honestly react to Walken. Walken hounds Broderick for much of the film, because Broderick’s a New York smart-ass and, well, he’s also Jewish. Walken’s not going to take a cheap shot about the Jewish thing, but it’s there. Anytime Walken and Broderick have some kind of showdown where you want to see Broderick’s reaction—or, hell, Walken’s—the action goes to the rest of the platoon.

The rest of the platoon is alpha Matt Mulhern, wannabe alpha Markus Flanagan, average guy Casey Siemaszko, popular but good guy Michael Dolan, and super-nerd (and fellow Jewish guy) Corey Parker. All of the performances are good. It’s exceptional Parker’s able to get away with such an exaggerated stereotype, especially since there’s not a lot of consistency with the character in the script. He starts the film constantly farting and having to take a crap. Apparently it stops being a problem after he starts eating the army food. He’s also supposedly having all sorts of run-ins with Walken; we see some of them, but never the fallout. It’s just like with Broderick… Simon’s not interested in the characters developing from their experiences in Blues.

But Nichols directs for it. The way he positions the actors—Broderick, Parker, Mulhern, Flanagan, Siemaszko, Dolan—Nichols has got a distinct focus. Only then the script goes somewhere else and Nichols lets the film lose that focus. As a result, it always feels like something’s missing. Especially with Walken; especially after the “third act” reveals on Walken. Biloxi Blues should given Walken a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and doesn’t.

Mulhern’s really good. Dolan’s really good. Flanagan and Siemaszko are sort of flat good; the script doesn’t really give them enough. In Siemaszko’s case, Simon forgets about him too.

Great cameo from Park Overall. Good photography from Bill Butler, good music from Georges Delerue, great production design from Paul Sylbert. The forties soundtrack selections aren’t great and tend to be during the ill-advised “for laughs” sections, but they also make the film seem artificial and vaguely insincere, which is definitely not what it ought to be doing.

Biloxi Blues should be really good. It’s got the pieces to be really good. Instead, it’s decent, but a misfire.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mike Nichols; screenplay by Neil Simon, based on his play; director of photography, Bill Butler; edited by Sam O’Steen; music by Georges Delerue; production designer, Paul Sylbert; produced by Ray Stark; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Matthew Broderick (Eugene Morris Jerome), Christopher Walken (Sgt. Toomey), Matt Mulhern (Joseph Wykowski), Corey Parker (Arnold B. Epstein), Markus Flanagan (Roy Selridge), Casey Siemaszko (Don Carney), Michael Dolan (James J. Hennesey), Penelope Ann Miller (Daisy), and Park Overall (Rowena).


Black Orpheus (1959, Marcel Camus)

There’s a lot to love about Black Orpheus. Director and co-writer Camus does a bunch of great stuff, just not when it comes to how he and Jacques Vito adapt the legend part. Orpheus is about, you know, Orpheus (Breno Mello), who is now a Brazilian trolley car driver slash musician slash dancer, and Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), who is now a… young woman who comes to Rio trying to avoid a stalker (Adhemar da Silva). They meet and Mello is immediately infatuated, which is complicated by his impending nuptials to Lourdes de Oliveira. For her part, Dawn doesn’t fall for Mello until she hears him singing.

Now, Camus and Vito go rather on the nose with the adaptation—de Oliveira and Mello hear about the legend from the marriage license clerk. Apparently Mello has never heard of it before, which seems… if not impossible, at least improbable. If Dawn knows about the legend or hears about it during the film’s present action, it happens off screen.

But it’s not clear how much this matter-of-fact handling of the source plot is going to affect the film until the finale, when it turns out Camus and Vito don’t have anything up their narrative sleeve. Mello’s trip to the underworld—updated to late 1950s Brazil—is perfunctory. Narratively, Camus and Vito have spent most of the film building the subplots; even though Dawn knows she’s on the run from this stalker and in danger, she doesn’t get to be the protagonist when it’s important. She does for the chase scenes (one of them), but Camus and Vito’s narrative distance doesn’t really allow for traditional protagonists. Mello, for example, is a constant mystery. First, you wonder how he’s got it worked out in his head de Oliveira is going to be okay with him throwing her over for literal stranger Dawn on the day they get their marriage license. It’s also a little weird Dawn’s cousin, Léa Garcia, is so supportive of Mello’s conquest—though, some of it might just be every woman in Black Orpheus secretly hates every other woman in Black Orpheus, at least if they’re not related. The parts are fifty percent good, fifty percent iffy.

Visually, most of the film is about movement. It’s Carnaval. It’s time to sing and dance and there’s a lot of it going on. Camus and editor Andrée Felix do a fine job editing together these sequences, which are often focused on the dancers’ expressions (and how they convey the experience) rather than their footwork. But there’s some very impressive footwork. Mello’s great.

And the third act loses that movement. Sure, Camus still focuses on some movement, but they’re smaller scale movements. For example, when Mello’s at a de facto seance, Camus showcases someone who’s got the spirit and is speaking tongues. Is their movement important to the scene overall? Not really, but it gets even worse when it turns out it’s all a foreshadowing MacGuffin.

Of course, the third act loses a lot more. Camus and Vito drop supporting cast, but they also turn the cast they’ve got into avatars at best and caricatures at worst. They all become functional, losing their personality. It’s worst with kids Jorge Dos Santos and Aurino Cassiano. They’re omnipresent in most of the film; they think Mello’s awesome and follow him around, trying to get him to play guitar for them; they think Dawn’s amazing and follow her around, trying to help with her burgeoning romance with Mello. But then they lose most of their agency in the final third, inexplicably separated on the way to Carnaval just to provide for a reuniting moment at Carnaval. It ought to be foreshadowing things might not go well for the wrap-up, something further confirmed when it turns out the value the characters place on human life is… shockingly low. That and manslaughter. And guilt.

The best acting is from Garcia, de Oliveira, and the kids. Mello and Dawn are both likable but their performances aren’t particularly deep. They’re never able to convincingly convey their characters apparent desires, though everyone around them is fine doing so. Maybe it’s how they’re written.

Great photography from Jean Bourgoin, great music from Luiz Bonfá and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Feix’s editing is uneven but only because there are constantly shots where the cast is clearly looking at someone for direction. Not clear if Feix just didn’t cut right or if he didn’t have an alternative.

As far as the surface goes—setting Orpheus in modern-day Brazil during Carnaval—Black Orpheus does fine. But it definitely doesn’t fully utilize its available resources.

And the big dramatic finish seems way too rushed in how Camus shoots it.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Marcel Camus; screenplay by Camus and Jacques Viot, based on a play by Vinicius de Moraes; director of photography, Jean Bourgoin; edited by Andrée Feix; music by Luiz Bonfá and Antonio Carlos Jobim; production designer, Pierre Guffroy; produced by Sacha Gordine; released by Lux Compagnie Cinématographique de France.

Starring Breno Mello (Orfeo), Marpessa Dawn (Eurydice), Lourdes de Oliveira (Mira), Léa Garcia (Serafina), Waldemar De Souza (Chico), Alexandro Constantino (Hermes), Jorge Dos Santos (Benedito), Aurino Cassiano (Zeca), and Ademar Da Silva (Death).


RELATED

Adam’s Rib (1949, George Cukor)

Adam’s Rib has a great script (by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin), but outside director Cukor not being as energetic as he could be—he might’ve been able to compensate—the script is the biggest problem with the film. There are the really obvious problems, like when Spencer Tracy gets reduced to a supporting role in the third act but instead of giving that extra time to Katharine Hepburn, which would make sense because she’s the other star, it spreads the time out way into the weeds. Not the courtroom resolve, of course, but every other scene is just contrived to not get too close in on the lead characters. And there are some communication issues—like were we supposed to get Tracy’s bigger philosophical objection to Hepburn taking her case, which is his case too.

Let me back up.

The movie opens with this great exterior sequence in New York City, following Judy Holliday as she stalks some guy (Tom Ewell). Turns out he’s her husband and he’s cheating on her so she’s got a gun and she’s going to do something about it. He doesn’t die; she’s arrested and charged with attempted murder. Hepburn wants to defend her—the jilted husband gets a pass on shooting at cheating wives and their lovers, why not women too. Tracy’s the assistant district attorney. He doesn’t agree with Hepburn’s opinion, then really doesn’t agree with her becoming Holliday’s defense attorney.

Most of the movie is them fighting it out in the courtroom, then catching up with them in the evenings, seeing how the professional competition is taking a toll on their marriage. But a comedy.

A comedy with what turn out to be a lot of big ideas, which it would’ve been nice if they’d talked about during the movie instead of doing a big subplot around Tracy and Hepburn’s neighbor, David Wayne, who’s a popular musician; he’s also got the hots for Hepburn and sees his chance as the case starts to destabilize the usually wonderful marriage.

That usually wonderful marriage is what makes Adam’s Rib so much fun. Tracy and Hepburn are phenomenal together. Their married banter, thanks both to the actors and their script, is peerless. And they’ve got a great relationship. The script does a great job in the first act establishing their wedded bliss separate from their careers, which then collide and spill over, but not in a way the first act’s handling would predict. The script’s much tighter in the first act as far as establishing the ground situation but it doesn’t do anything to set up the character development. Again, great script, but a big problem one too.

Also in the first act the film seems like it might take Holliday’s murder trial seriously. Like as a procedural. Because the film tries not to utilize screwball humor. It can’t resist, which is a problem as the film’s set up to not be screwball so the screwball scenes don’t play. That lower energy Cukor direction; he respects and enables the actors but nothing else. He doesn’t even showcase them as much as their ability to execute the routine. Good, but not as good as it should be.

Anyway, Holliday—who’s sort of the protagonist of the whole thing, or ought to be—disappears into background. She’s great, but she gets almost nothing to do. There’s potential for some kind of relationship, though not friendship, between Holliday and Hepburn—even a client and attorney one—but the film doesn’t do anything with it. And Tracy never gets shown presenting his case. Or working on his case. So not a good procedural, which is a bummer since—once the finale reveals Tracy’s motivations—it could’ve been a great courtroom drama.

Instead, it’s a wonderfully charming and almost always entertaining Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn picture. The production values are strong, Cukor’s more than adequate, the script’s great, Holliday’s excellent, Wayne doesn’t get too tiresome even though it seems like he might, George J. Folsey’s photography is nice, George Boemler’s editing not so much, but… it works. It all works. It just doesn’t try hard enough. Maybe some of it is Production Code related. But the way the script compensates really doesn’t work, leaving Tracy and Hepburn with good roles in a fun comedy instead of great parts in a better film.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by George Cukor; screenplay by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin; director of photography, George J. Folsey; edited by George Boemler; music by Miklós Rózsa; produced by Lawrence Weingarten; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Adam Bonner), Katharine Hepburn (Amanda Bonner), Judy Holliday (Doris Attinger), Tom Ewell (Warren Attinger), David Wayne (Kip Lurie), Jean Hagen (Beryl Caighn), Hope Emerson (Olympia La Pere), Eve March (Grace), and Clarence Kolb (Judge Reiser).



Downton Abbey (2019, Michael Engler)

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

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

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

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

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

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

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

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


The Three Musketeers (1973, Richard Lester)

The Three Musketeers is so much fun, you barely notice when the film takes a turn in the last thirty or so minutes. The Musketeers are on a mission—they’ve got to deliver a letter to England to save at least one lady’s honor, possibly two—and just as the film reunites them all with the promise of action… it starts shedding them. They get in individual fights or duels, leaving Michael York to go on alone. Well, he brings faithful servant Roy Kinnear along, but Kinnear’s just there for the (very good) laughs. It’s not like he’s going to tell York the important things, like how to get off England since it’s an island.

York’s the film’s protagonist, though George MacDonald Fraser’s script isn’t great about treating him like it once all the “guest stars,” not to mention Raquel Welch’s cleavage (once Welch’s cleavage arrives, it’s all anyone present gives any attention, cast and crew alike), come into the film. York’s D’Artagnan, would-be Musketeer, who happens across a trio of real Musketeers who could always use another partner in literal crime. See, the Musketeers work for the King, meaning they brawl (sword brawl) with the Cardinal’s guards. The film never bothers explaining why there’s the animosity between the groups or why, although loyal to the King (Jean-Pierre Cassel), his Musketeers fight with the Cardinal’s men, even though the King is allied with the Cardinal. Charlton Heston, with what appears to be a fake goatee, is the Cardinal.

Doesn’t matter, the guys in red are bad, the guys in (mostly) black are good. The good guys are Oliver Reed (Athos), Frank Finlay (Porthos), and Richard Chamberlain (Aramis). Reed’s the drunk pensive but heroic one, Finlay’s the vaguely inept dandy, Chamberlain’s the adept dandy as well as the trio’s Don Juan. Chamberlain, we’re told, likes the married ladies. So does York, as Welch is married, and the film gets a lot of laughs out of mocking her cuckold (a fantastic Spike Milligan).

The first half of the film introduces York, the Musketeers, evil (he’s eye-patched so there’s no mistaking it) Christopher Lee, and the political ground situation. See, Cassel is useless fop who’s going to let Heston do whatever Heston wants to do, so long as Heston at least pretends Cassel isn’t a useless fop. The film shot on location—in Spain, not France, but still in palaces and such—so you’re seeing the intrigue play out with these impeccably costumed (Yvonne Blake’s costuming is magnificent) “royals” lounge around palaces and deserve a Revolution more by the minute. It adds a wonderful subtext to the film, which showcases and romances the grand opulence of historical royalty without being able to not show it also as, you know, utterly pointless and a really bad way for society to function. Because the Musketeers are alcoholic gambling addicts who end up stealing from the commoners. Arguably, the Cardinal’s guards are “better” civil servants. Though—again, Fraser doesn’t dwell—the Musketeers are mercenaries between wars; adventurers in the sense drunken carousing is adventuring.

And, arguably, the big mission at the end is against the King, though arguably for France. Musketeers is lightly bawdy adventure comedy for the whole family—though, unless she really, really, really likes Michael York, there’s nothing anywhere near approaching the male gaze equivalent of Raquel Welch—so no dwelling on politics, infidelity (klutzy Welch doesn’t even seem aware her husband might mind being cuckolded), or even its characters. See, one of the things you realize in the finale—besides how, outside a cat fight between Welch and bad lady Faye Dunaway in ball gowns (and what glorious gowns they are), the ball Welch and Dunaway are dressed for, and some solid sight gags, the finale’s action is rather uninspired and unenthusiastic—you also realize the titular Three Musketeers are totally unimportant to the film at this point. York getting the most to do makes sense, but the film goes so far as the make the other Musketeers comic relief. Brief comic relief.

It’d be fine if the sword fights were better, but they’re not. Three Musketeers starts with a gymnastic training sword fight scene between York and his father and then some more nonsense with York (he’s naive to the point of buffoonery, which is rather endearing as York plays it completely—and very Britishly—straight); it takes the film awhile to deliver a great sword fight, but then it does deliver a great one, with Lester’s best action direction, John Victor Smith’s best cuts, but also Dons Challis and Sharpe’s sound editing. Three Musketeers goes from being a “handsome” period piece to a considerable period action picture. And then the fight’s over and it’s back to handsome period piece, funny, active. But once Welch’s cleavage enters the literal frame, Lester and the film’s ambitions for an action picture disappear.

There’s a decent night time sword fight with the opponents using hand lanterns to see, but the finale’s fireworks-lighted long shot swordplay brawl isn’t anything special. The most impressive thing about a grand action picture’s third act shouldn’t be the awesomely ostentatious costume ball costumes but then you also wouldn’t think David Watkin’s photography would be so much better on the ball than the action sequences either. Three Musketeers goes into the third act somewhat soft and never really recovers.

At least solid performances from everyone. It’s hard with Welch because she’s got a lousy role and you almost wish she was bad so she wouldn’t work in the lousy role. But she’s not. She’s not a comedic genius but Lester’s not interested in her performance, he’s interested in her anatomy. York’s a good lead. Reed’s awesome. Chamberlain’s got like six lines. Finlay’s good. Supporting cast… Milligan and Kinnear are great, Cassel’s fine, Lee’s great, Dunaway’s okay (again, crappy part), Heston’s tolerable.

Of course, I’ve skipped mentioning the subplot about French Queen Geraldine Chaplin and British prime minister Simon Ward, somewhat unintentionally, but suffice to say, it’s an important subplot and both actors are good. Even if theirs is the far more interesting story than anything else going on in the picture. Especially the Welch cuckolding Milligan subplot, which is sometimes hilarious, usually funny, but not interesting. It’s cheap laughs. Chaplin and Ward… Fraser and Lester could’ve done something. They do not. Nice roles for both actors though. Thin but nice.

The Three Musketeers is glorious, gorgeous adventure. It has the pieces to be better but not the ambition. It’s easy; sometimes easy is good enough.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Lester; screenplay by George MacDonald Fraser, based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas; director of photography, David Watkin; edited by John Victor Smith; music by Michel Legrand; production designer, Brian Eatwell; produced by Alexander Salkind, Ilya Salkind, and Michael Salkind; released by CFDC-UGC.

Starring Michael York (D’Artagnan), Raquel Welch (Constance de Bonacieux), Oliver Reed (Athos), Richard Chamberlain (Aramis), Frank Finlay (Porthos), Christopher Lee (Rochefort), Geraldine Chaplin (Queen Anna), Jean-Pierre Cassel (King Louis XIII), Faye Dunaway (Milady), Spike Milligan (M. Bonacieux), Roy Kinnear (Planchet), Simon Ward (Duke of Buckingham), Georges Wilson (Treville), and Charlton Heston (Cardinal Richelieu).


This post is part of the Costume Drama Blogathon hosted by Debbie of Moon in Gemini.

Return to Oz (1985, Walter Murch)

Return to Oz has gumption. It’s got confidence and professionalism too, but its gumption is something different. Director Murch is making it work with what he’s got—a scale limited by budget and reality—because he’s sure of the project. Gumption.

He knows he’s got the right lead—eleven year-old Fairuza Balk as Dorothy. He knows the special effects he’s going to rely on are going to be impressive, whether the grand claymation as stop motion finale, the various mechanical aspects of the suits (Return raises the question of whether it’s people in costumes or people in suits), the talking chicken as second lead for the beginning of the second act, all of it. Except the street gang villains, who have wheels attached to their hands and feet. The effects are fine because they’re doing it and the design of the outfits is… inventive, but they’re still nerdy white guy street gang villains from the eighties. It’s campy—eighties camp. And Return’s never campy.

Also impressive are the voice performances. Denise Bryer as the chicken, Sean Barrett as the steampunk robot, Brian Henson as the effects-heavier Scarecrow-stand in, Jack Pumpkinhead. Murch knows how to time the effects shots to get the later effect. Return is beautifully edited; director Murch cut his teeth editing before directing it and the film editor Leslie Hodgson has some wonderful cuts. The film’s technically strong. It’s principal cast is good. Balk’s great. So what’s the problem. Besides the budget and effects only being able to do so much? It doesn’t have a good ending. It’s way too small. While the film isn’t a sequel to The Wizard of Oz: The Movie, it does acknowledge that film’s legacy. Return is grittier, late nineteenth century Kansas far less idealized, Balk is a tween in definite danger, there is a villain who takes off their head, and there’s electro-shock therapy. And there’s Piper Laurie as Aunt Em, which is an interesting casting decision and maybe not the best one. Laurie’s playing a literal “Piper Laurie mom-type” to the point I wondered who they got who looked so much like Piper Laurie. Because I assumed Laurie would be able to handle the accent and she’s not. It’s not good. It’s a missed opportunity. Same goes for Uncle Owen (sorry, Uncle Henry) Matt Clark. Missed opportunity. Clark’s fine, but he’s got no added value presence. Return is a perfect franchise starter thirty years too soon; Murch is too busy focusing on how they’re going to realize the magic to worry about the supporting performances. Same goes for Jean Marsh as the bad witch. She’s got no charm, no energy.

On the other hand, Nicol Williamson is amazing as the villain. Like, Murch gets it with Williamson, because he’s voicing the villain; the visual villain is an effects sequence and Murch knows he’s got to sell that effects sequence. So Williamson’s performance matters. Again, bigger budget, more time, it’d probably have been fine. But Return is very much a victim of reality. Besides the budget, there’s the weight of the de facto sequel, there’s the state of special effects. Most of Return is really, really good. They just don’t have the ending. It’s too little. The film’s promising Balk’s Return to Oz, Oz meaning her friends—and the familiar characters—it’s promising the magic. Balk finds herself having to fight through a lot of darkness to find the happy again. She’s got a hero arc and needs a solid resolution to it. Murch doesn’t have the money for it and rushes it, minimizes it. Maybe it could be rushed, maybe it could be minimized, but it can’t be both. It’s too little for what the film’s built up.

And then the epilogue is sweet enough but not strong enough. Return to Oz is almost there. It’s so close and for a good while, it seems like it’s going to make it. And you want it to succeed because, maybe Henson’s Jack Pumpkinhead aside, the new sidekicks are good enough, especially in the grittier Oz.

Finally, David Shire’s score. It’s a perfect metaphor for the film. It gets really close to clicking, then doesn’t. Shire’s music is perfectly adequate for a “kid in the olden times” picture, but not for a magical adventure.

Return to Oz is rather awesome, but it’s also a bummer. They made the magic, they just didn’t know what to do with it.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Walter Murch; screenplay by Murch and Gill Dennis, based on novels by L. Frank Baum; director of photography, David Watkin; edited by Leslie Hodgson; music by David Shire; production designer, Norman Reynolds; produced by Paul Maslansky; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Fairuza Balk (Dorothy), Mak Wilson & Denise Bryer (Billina), Michael Sundin, Tim Rose, & Sean Barrett (Tik-Tok), Stewart Harvey-Wilson & Brian Henson (Jack Pumpkinhead), Stephen Norrington & Lyle Conway (Gump), Jean Marsh (Mombi), Piper Laurie (Aunt Em), Matt Clark (Uncle Henry), Emma Ridley (girl), and Nicol Williamson (The Nome King).


This post is part of the Wizard of Oz Blogathon hosted by Rebecca of Taking Up Room.

Pearl Harbor (2001, Michael Bay)

Pearl Harbor is a couple things. It’s a breathtaking historical visualization of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And it’s a patronizing, cynical, disinterested war melodrama. The big problem with the melodrama is Randall Wallace’s script, which is vapid at best. It also barely factors in to the attack sequence. The attack sequence is all director Bay, for better and for worse, along with some unfortunate digital blurring to keep the rating down.

The Pearl Harbor sequence comes about halfway through. The movie runs three hours, the attack is at eighty minutes. Before the attack, there are some scenes with the Japanese (led by Mako and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who are both great) planning the attack and the Americans worrying about an attack. The Americans are mostly Jon Voight as FDR, Dan Aykroyd as the Naval Intelligence guy who can’t convince anyone to be worried, and Colm Feore as the Pearl Harbor base commander. But even if Aykroyd did get boss Graham Beckel to listen, the Japanese plan was too good. The Americans are just unprepared, which actually brings in the closest thing to a political statement the film makes. It makes various implications regarding the American military brass, as opposed to guys on the ground like Feore or Alec Baldwin’s Doolittle; Voight’s FDR isn’t with the brass either. It’s… interesting.

It’s probably what happens when history fails the politics of the filmmakers.

In other words, the film does a terrible job essaying how 1941 felt to the average person. Because Wallace does a crappy job in general and Bay’s really not interested in doing anything with regular people, not when he gets to do a special effects heavy war movie. As for the melodrama… the only person more disconnected from the melodrama than Bay is leading lady Kate Beckinsale, who doesn’t even get a caricature to play. Wallace’s script is, actually, quite interesting when you realize Beckinsale doesn’t just have less character than practically every other nurse (who are all man-starved caricatures, the slutty one, the sweet one, the fat one, the nerd), but her lack of character is what obliterates the film’s potential. Not just Beckinsale’s performance, which is… fine, given the circumstances. It’s vaguely believable she’s interested in Ben Affleck, but they—Wallace and Bay—can’t figure out how to get Beckinsale interested in third love triangle leg, Josh Hartnett.

See, Affleck and Hartnett are childhood best friends from Tennessee—the accents are better than you’d think; maybe not authentic, but better than you’d think. Affleck’s the alpha, Hartnett’s the beta. Though Affleck’s still fallible, he’s got dyslexia in 1941.

So let’s talk about the melodrama.

The movie opens with a flashback showing Hartnett’s character has a bad but sympathetic dad (William Fichtner in a flashback-redeeming cameo—or at least flashback-evening cameo) and sets Affleck up as his protector. Only Affleck’s about to ship out to England to get in the war because he’s getting old and still wants to be a war hero. He lies to Hartnett about volunteering and breaks new girlfriend Beckinsale’s heart, but she’s going to wait for him. Coincidentally Navy nurse Beckinsale and Army flier Hartnett both get posted to Pearl Harbor, where they see each other to say hello but don’t hang out. Or maybe they do. Because their supporting casts hang out but the film doesn’t do anything with Harnett or Beckinsale’s character development. What you’ve got with Pearl Harbor is a film wanting a beta to alpha arc for Harnett, but resenting Hartnett for being a beta, and then accidentally coming to the conclusion the alpha and beta labels are a bad way to think about masculinity. Only it can’t recognize that possibility because… dudes. There’s nothing more painful than the scenes when Affleck and Hartnett try to bond after Affleck gets back to find Hartnett and Beckinsale together. Much like when Beckinsale’s character is so exceptionally shallow you have to wonder how she made it through the scene without just defaulting to an honest answer and then when she becomes literal background in the third arc, you eventually welcome Hartnett and Affleck just standing around looking pensive as opposed to trying to talk about their incredibly complex situation.

Even though there are a couple times they’re supposedly going to have a hard talk. And there are a couple times Beckinsale’s going to get real with someone. Only she doesn’t have enough agency to do it. And Wallace doesn’t know how to write men talking about anything not military or war expository-related except Affleck and Hartnett’s buddies trying to figure out the best way to manipulate the nurses into bed. But they don’t mean it in a bad way—come on, it’s 1941, no one knew women were people yet.

Not even women.

So, spoiler, no, Beckinsale doesn’t have some kind of empowerment arc.

In fact, even though she gets the ill-advised, poorly written, and awkwardly placed end narration… Bay cuts her out of the end of the movie because she’s not a dude.

I guess to simplify the problem with the melodrama plot—it’s about Hartnett having a man-crush on Affleck because Affleck’s a square-jawed superman only to realize he’d rather have a lady, something Affleck seemingly wanted for himself but wasn’t ever going to tell puppy dog Hartnett about, and then Beckinsale—the object of their affections—doesn’t have enough of a character to react honestly to either, but with Affleck there’s at least movie romance cuteness; with Hartnett it’s a chemistry-free, erotic-free, erotic affair. It’s wholesome. With shtupping. Is it wholesome shtupping? Eh? Bay’s really bad at directing sex scenes.

Really, really, really, really bad. You’re surprised the actors aren’t blushing red from the stupidity.

Not like the canoodling, which Bay does somewhat well. Hartnett and Beckinsale’s romance is mostly short montage sequences where they cuddle and breath heavy on each other and it looks like a perfume commercial.

But the Pearl Harbor attack sequence is awesome filmmaking. Editors Roger Barton, Mark Goldblatt, Chris Lebenzon, and Steven Rosenblum don’t get jack to do before it and about twice that amount after it, but the attack is breathtaking thanks to them. Their cuts are so good the digital vaselining of the frame to insure the PG-13 doesn’t matter. It doesn’t work, but it doesn’t matter. John Schwartzman’s photography is great throughout, especially on the attack. Even an uncaring bastard like Bay is able to make each death tragic. It also reveals if Cuba Gooding Jr., who’s shoehorned into the movie to give it a single Black character with a story arc, is Bay’s real hero. Gooding’s a cook who ends up shooting down Japanese planes; Bay’s a lot more interested in the ground action than the flying action. Pearl Harbor doesn’t reinvent any wheels (or even try), but it definitely gets a lot less interest when it’s “leads” Affleck and Hartnett hitting the sky to avenge.

But getting them to the planes to go into the sky? Bay’s all about their (ground) trip to it. It’s a problem. Bay’s a problem.

Other great crew contributions? Nigel Phelps’s production design is fantastic. Hans Zimmer’s score is fine. Nothing special, but nothing bad. It’s all about that editing though. All about that editing.

Now for the acting. Lots of good supporting performances. The film has a bunch of sturdy character actors giving sturdy performances in bit parts. In the bigger ones, Aykroyd’s pretty good. Voight’s no qualifiers good. He’s really able to turn FDR into an action hero. It’s something. Baldwin’s great as Doolittle. Gooding’s fine. It’s a shallower performance than it’s the part because Wallace does a crap job with it. Bay and Wallace believe in institutional racism in 1941 but not person-to-person racism. The movie’s patronizing as hell.

Of the main cast—Hartnett’s flying sidekicks and Beckinsale’s nursing sidekicks—Michael Shannon is a revelation, Tom Sizemore’s good, Ewen Bremner’s able to get over his stutter, which is only there to get sweet nurse Jaime King to fall for him. Jennifer Garner’s bad but likable as the nerdy nurse. Some of the better glorified cameos are Feore, Leland Orser, and Kim Coates.

Affleck’s a really good lead. He’s able to do it all. He’s not able to give he and Beckinsale enough chemistry to give their romance depth, but its all so disingenuous it’d be a miracle. And Pearl doesn’t have any miracles.

Hartnett’s got some really good moments and some potentially good scenes. It’s hard to wish for more because it’s so clear the film’s disinterested in him. Hartnett and Beckinsale start their flirtation just as the Pearl Harbor attack preparations subplot really gets going and, again, it’s not like Wallace and Bay are actually interested in how anyone existed in fall 1941 in Pearl Harbor and definitely not with a girl.

Beckinsale’s… never bad. She’s never… wholly unconvincing. Though she has an utter lack of chemistry with Hartnett, who she needs some with because they get so little in the script, and still not quite enough with Affleck to get over the silly romance stuff. You’d say she was miscast but she’s good with the straight nursing stuff.

In case anyone’s wondering, Pearl Harbor intentionally and utterly fails Bechdel. I suppose it’s technically exempt when they’re talking about the wounded but… the rest of it? This group of nurses moves from rural U.S.A. to paradise Hawaii and has no reaction other than “boys, boys, boys.”

When Wallace and Bay are bad at something… they’re real bad at it.

It’s shame the movie’s not better. But it’s far from a failure; Bay lacks narrative instinct and interest, he’s indifferent to his actors’ performances—which nicely doesn’t matter because most of the parts are thin and the performances grand—but he’s ambitious to the nth with the attack sequence and he’s at least willing to acknowledge it does need some kind of bookends. Unfortunately for the actors, the audience, the film, Wallace is writing those bookends. Because he’s inept. You’d expect more from an intern who watched a week of History Channel. Some of its Bay’s fault—if he’d cared about the melodrama, it’d be fine….

As is, thanks to the cast and crew’s work, Pearl Harbor is tolerable when it’s not phenomenal, which isn’t bad at all.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Bay; written by Randall Wallace; director of photography, John Schwartzman; edited by Roger Barton, Mark Goldblatt, Chris Lebenzon, and Steven Rosenblum; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Nigel Phelps; produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Bay; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Ben Affleck (Rafe), Josh Hartnett (Danny), Kate Beckinsale (Evelyn), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Miller), Alec Baldwin (Doolittle), Ewen Bremner (Red), Michael Shannon (Gooz), William Lee Scott (Billy), Tom Sizemore (Earl), Jaime King (Betty), Jennifer Garner (Sandra), Catherine Kellner (Barbara), Sara Rue (Martha), Mako (Yamamoto), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Genda), Dan Aykroyd (Thurman), Kim Coates (Richards), Leland Orser (Jackson), Colm Feore (Kimmel), Raphael Sbarge (Kimmel’s Aide), and Jon Voight and the President of the United States.


Superbad (2007, Greg Mottola), the unrated version

Superbad is exceptionally funny. In terms of how often you lose your breath from laughing, it’s hard to think of a better movie than Superbad. Watching Superbad probably burns between 118 and 315 calories. This unrated version anyway. The rated version would burn about four minutes less. Next time I watch it I’ll have to try to measure it on my Apple Watch. It’s one of the funnier films ever made. A smartly done, utterly obscene teen male virgin comedy. It’s a peerless success in terms of those laughs, a combination of script, actors, and material. Utterly obscene teen male virgin comedies—the kind screenwriters Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg apparently grew up watching—needed the Internet and culture to hit 2007 to fully realize the genre’s potentials.

But it’s just a smartly done, utterly obscene teen male virgin comedy. The script’s got an amazing first act, plotting-wise; the rest of the movie doesn’t. Director Mottola takes a hands-off approach, not really showing much personality until the last shot when you get the feeling he wishes he were making a different, less utterly obscene teen male virgin comedy, but maybe even smarter. Lead Jonah Hill (playing “Seth”) loses his first act protagonist role once the second act hits. By the third act he’s even more reduced. Instead, it’s more about Hill’s best friend, Michael Cera (playing “Evan”), and their awkward third wheel, the hilarious Christopher Mintz-Plasse. They’re all high school seniors. It’s the last two weeks of school. They’re going to a party.

Mintz-Plasse’s side plot is all about his fake ID, liquor, and two party animal cops (Bill Hader and Rogen—who are playing older analogues to the teen boys, but not generally, it’s not one-to-one). It’s the even funnier stuff in the extremely funny movie. Because even though Hill and Cera have a lot of humor in their own liquor hunt (Hill promised dream girl Emma Stone he’d bring all the booze for her party, Cera promised dream girl Martha MacIsaac he’d bring her a special bottle of vodka), they’ve also got their “best friends since the fourth grade who go to different colleges and can’t be joined at the hip anymore” arc. For all their excellent insights into the male psyche, Rogen and Goldberg can’t crack that arc. Meanwhile Mottola is focused on the “boys finally learn girls are people they want to spend time with” arc, which is really awkward because Hill, Cera, and Mintz-Plasse are way too old for that arc.

Their being too old for it does provide a decent backdrop for some of the jokes, but the only time it gets directly referenced is with dream girl Stone. She’s too wise for Hill; he’s been intentionally confusing maturity and vulgarity his whole life and it won’t work with Stone. Meanwhile Cera gets this strangely paternalist arc with MacIsaac, which—given how shallow Cera’s performance schtick gets as the film goes along—is really bad for her. MacIsaac gets a little more screen time than Stone (it feels like a lot more; Stone’s forgettable) and somehow even less character. They’re both dream girl caricatures (albeit 2007 ones). The film never even hints at them being anything more. MacIsaac’s got friends, Stone’s got parents out of town. Done.

Other big problems include the progressive gay jokes. It’s lazy writing more than anything else. Superbad’s got a really big anti-toxic masculinity statement it hints around making without ever having the balls to make it. Also interesting is the lack of teen male virgin shaming, which sort of breaks the genre.

I also don’t understand how the Richard Pryor shirt Hill wears through the first act didn’t become the Garfield-in-the-car-window of the late aughts. Pryor’s expression gets laughs of its own, like he’s offering commentary on the surrounding events. It’s awesome.

Lots of Superbad is awesome. It’s peerlessly funny. It’s also astoundingly not ambitious.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Greg Mottola; written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg; director of photography, Russ Alsobrook; edited by William Kerr; music by Lyle Workman; production designer, Chris Spellman; produced by Judd Apatow and Shauna Robertson; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jonah Hill (Seth), Michael Cera (Evan), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Fogell), Seth Rogen (Officer Michaels), Bill Hader (Officer Slater), Kevin Corrigan (Mark), Martha MacIsaac (Becca), Emma Stone (Jules) and Joe Lo Truglio (Francis the Driver).


Scroll to Top