★★★½

Get Out (2017, Jordan Peele)

What’s particularly stunning about Get Out is how nimble director (and writer) Peele gets with the protagonist, Daniel Kaluuya, and the narrative distance to him. Peele’s very patient with his cuts. Lots of long shots, establishing what Kaluuya is seeing (as well as the audience); the audience has no point of view outside Kaluuya. Then the film gets to the third act and Peele completely changes up the point of view. He sort of changes protagonists for ten minutes or so, long enough to ratch up some more suspense; it also serves to open up Get Out. Peele doesn’t save the reveal for the last moments, he lets poor Kaluuya live through it, because–while the film’s suspense horror and Kaluuya sort of a damoiseau at times, he’s still the protagonist. And it’s kind of an action movie. Kind of.

It’s also a terrifying social commentary comedy.

Kaluuya and girlfriend Allison Williams are in the country visiting her family. He’s meeting them for the first time. He’s Black, she’s white. She assures him it won’t be an issue with her progressive family; Obama-loving dad Bradley Whitford, psychiatrist mom Catherine Keener, and creep brother Caleb Landry Jones. Whitford bonds with Kaluuya thanks to his social awareness, Keener’s accepting but doesn’t like Kaluuya smoking and wants to hypnotize it out of him, Jones wants to fight him. Oh, and then it turns out the family has some extremely docile and socially awkward Black servants, who (rightfully) weird out Kaluuya.

But he’s got Williams and she’s on his side and, as things get weirder and weirder, even she starts to think maybe they ought to head home. Of course, they’re her family so she’s not on Kaluuya’s side when he’s just been hypnotized against his will by mom Keener or fondled by party guests (turns out Williams forget she was bringing him home on a big party weekend), it takes until the only other black guy (Lakeith Stanfield) at the party–not a servant, anyway–kind of flips out and attacks Kaluuya.

The film runs an hour and forty-five minutes. The party probably doesn’t finish up until seventy minutes in, with Kaluuya unintentionally discovering the secrets of his visit after it’s over. Get Out takes place over five days at most, with most of the runtime dedicated to the first two days, which is Kaluuya and Williams’s arrival and then the party the next day. Those first two days of present action are creepy, disturbing–the movie opens with a Black man, lost in suburbia, attacked so Peele gets the audience on edge before his leading man even appears on screen–and they’re also funny, they’re also (socially) gross. Kaluuya gives a fantastic performance; he holds it all together.

And then, all of a sudden, the movie shifts entirely over to his best friend and dog sitter, TSA agent extraordinaire Lil Rel Howery, trying to figure out what’s going on with Kaluuya’s weird weekend.

Taking the film away from Kaluuya and letting Howery do a bunch of exposition does a few things. Like I said before, it ratchets up the tension. It also has some humorous relief valves, because even though the audience knows some of what’s going on, Howery’s investigation doesn’t have any of those details. It just perturbs on Howery’s–sometimes hilarious–concern. Including a fun cameo from Erika Alexander as a missing persons detective.

The conclusion mixes suspense, horror, sci-fi, action, and comedy. Peele knows how to pace all the different genres. Get Out’s not a kitchen sink, all those different genre approaches work in conjunction. He and editor Gregory Plotkin do a magnificent job with the film’s cutting; Peele and cinematographer Toby Oliver always have these precise shots and Plotkin cuts them just right. Michael Abels’s score is fantastic (and essential) too.

All of the acting is good. Even Keener, who’s the least effective in the film–she’s always something of a creep. Whitford can be terrifying, but he also can be really funny. Peele’s direction of the supporting cast is phenomenal; he can follow them around for five minutes, with them running the scenes (giving Kaluuya a tour, for example), but then it turns out he’s just been showcasing Kaluuya’s perception of them. Get Out’s exceptionally well-made.

Besides Kaluuya, Williams and Howery give the best performances. Once the party hits and there are all sorts of new people coming on screen, getting introduced, Whitford, Keener, and (thankfully because he’s such an unpleasant character) Jones become background. It’s just Kaluuya, experiencing all these weird, indescribably suspicious white people, and then checking in with Williams about it.

Peele’s ambitions with the film are matter-of-fact. He’s making a suspense thriller with some humor and some social commentary. The social commentary he does make is more potentially disturbing than anything the film actually discusses. There’s no obvious, “aha they’re racist” moment. It’s far more disturbing, even at the connotation level where Peele keeps it throughout. It’s unspoken observations, sometimes passed between Kaluuya and Williams–which makes the unspoken observations passed between Kaluuya and Whitford even crazier after the reveal. It’s delicate. Get Out is a very, very delicate and precise film.

Even in its action movie conclusion, where Peele decides to reward the audience since it turns out he doesn’t have a particularly deep message with the narrative. Get Out is, while disturbing and scary and grody, entertainment. It’s superior entertainment, masterfully produced, and often exquisitely acted.

Even if Keener and Jones do utterly lack subtext; they’re not bad, their characters aren’t thin, their performances are just obvious. Kaluuya, Williams, and Howery easily make up for them.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jordan Peele; director of photography, Toby Oliver; edited by Gregory Plotkin; music by Michael Abels; production designer, Rusty Smith; produced by Jason Blum, Sean McKittrick, and Peele; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Daniel Kaluuya (Chris), Allison Williams (Rose), Lil Rel Howery (Rod), Bradley Whitford (Dean), Catherine Keener (Missy), Caleb Landry Jones (Jeremy), Betty Gabriel (Georgina), Marcus Henderson (Walter), Lakeith Stanfield (Logan), Stephen Root (Jim Hudson), and Erika Alexander (Detective Latoya).


The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966, Sergio Leone)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly ends up being about three criminals–of varying type–hunting down some stolen Confederate gold. But that Confederate gold story line takes a break after getting setup in the first ten minutes–for almost an hour of the two and a half hour plus film–so Good, the Bad and the Ugly can introduce its protagonist and his antagonist. Eli Wallach, playing the Ugly, is the protagonist. Clint Eastwood, the Good, is the antagonist. Lee Van Cleef is the Bad, but he doesn’t really figure in until the second hour.

Wallach’s a criminal. Eastwood’s a bounty hunter. Only they’ve got a scheme worked out where Eastwood will bring Wallach in, collect the bounty, then save him from hanging. Only things go bad in their partnership, partially because Wallach’s such a scumbag, partially because Eastwood’s greedy. The film follows Wallach, with Eastwood getting maybe five scenes to himself away from Wallach. And at least two of them are Eastwood with Van Cleef. Eastwood’s practically a special guest star in the film, despite being top-billed.

The film opens with vingettes setting up the three characters. Well, not Eastwood. His setup vingette is a continuation of Wallach’s. Van Cleef’s vingette introduces the missing Confederate gold. He then gets some occasional investigation scenes before disappearing for a half hour or so. The film’s got to move Wallach and Eastwood into position to intersect with the missing gold plot line. Through exceptional plot contrivance.

It’s fine though, because Good, the Bad and the Ugly can get away with plot contrivance. Director Leone’s style and Wallach and Eastwood’s performances (more Wallach, Eastwood just has to be charming) can carry it through. There’s a lot of humor–Wallach’s such an abject bastard he’s lovable–and some rather excellent action scenes.

But then, in the second hour, Good, the Bad and the Ugly changes completely. It’s no longer a Western with Civil War trappings, it’s a Civil War picture with Eastwood, Wallach, and Van Cleef shoehorned in. Even if Van Cleef’s working as a Union prison camp sergeant hoping to get a line on that missing gold. During that sequence, which involves Van Cleef’s enforcer (Mario Brega) viciously beating Wallach for information, while the Confederate soldiers play a song to cover the noise, Leone transitions from making that Western to the Civil War picture.

Only he still then follows the plot of that Western quest for gold, gunfighters, bandits, doublecrosses. But until the end of the film, none of the non-Civil War stuff (save Wallach’s solo hilarities) can compare to what Leone’s doing with the Civil War stuff. The prison camp sequence is jarring and affecting, it’s also nothing compared to what Leone’s got coming.

There’s a shorter sequence involving Eastwood and Wallach coming upon a Union encampment. They’re on one side of the river, the Confederates are on the other. They’re fighting over the bridge. The Union captain (Aldo Giuffrè, in what’s got to be one of the best dubbed performances ever) is a drunk, crushed under the weight of sending his men to needlessly die twice a day for a bridge he wishes he could destroy.

If Eastwood had a real character arc, this sequence would kick off its final stage. He doesn’t though, but the movie uses him like he does and–for a while–gets to pretend it’s a thoughtful look at the two bandits encountering an entirely different kind of violence than they’re used to experiencing. It doesn’t even last as long as Eastwood and Wallach are at the Union camp, but it’s spectacular. It picks up again a little when they continue on their way to the inevitable showdown over the gold; just for Eastwood though. The film’s back to treating Wallach as the lovable bastard.

The Civil War material is passionate–with the Ennio Morricone score having a different, more romantic tone than the Western action sequences–and technically ambitious in terms of scale. The Western action sequences (for the most part, Eastwood and Wallach taking on Van Cleef’s thugs is a confused mix of the two styles) are a glorious mix of composition, editing, music, and photography. The cemetery-set finale, with Van Cleef, Eastwood, and Wallach in a standoff, the cuts getting more rapid between their faces, the tension (and music) intensifying with each cut, is a fantastic style culmination.

It’d be even better if Leone could’ve somehow figured a way to integrate the film’s differing tones. He doesn’t even try. He toggles away from the war rumination and back to the Western action. It’s great action. It’s just nowhere near as special (or as ambitious) as that war rumination.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a technical marvel, with some great performances–Wallach, Van Cleef, Giuffrè–and superior photography, editing, and music. Eastwood’s perfectly good, he just doesn’t get any material. Visually, Wallach’s his stooge. Narratively, with the two Civil War reaction exceptions towards the end, Eastwood’s Wallach’s stooge. Van Cleef isn’t in it enough to be distinct to the narrative, his vicious, brutal performance does wonders what little he does get.

In the supporting roles, Giuffrè is the standout, but there are some other strong ones. Despite a large cast, the supporting players don’t get a lot of material. Brega’s a great villain, Antonio Molino Rojo has a good scene as Van Cleef’s knowing commanding officer, and Enzo Petito has a swell single scene as one of the unfortunates who encounters Wallach. And Luigi Pistilli has a good scene as Wallach’s brother; it’s the two and a half hour film’s single attempt at character development.

Morricone’s score, both for the Western action and Civil War sequences, is singular. Eugenio Alabiso and Nino Baragli’s editing is glorious. Leone’s composition, ably facilitated by Tonino Delli Colli, is excellent. Good, the Bad and the Ugly is an outstanding success.

It’s just nowhere near as ambitious as it ought to be, as Leone seems to want to make it to be.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Sergio Leone; screenplay by Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni, and Leone, based on a story by Vincenzoni and Leone; director of photography, Tonino Delli Colli; edited by Eugenio Alabiso and Nino Baragli; music by Ennio Morricone; production designer, Carlo Simi; produced by Alberto Grimaldi; released by Produzioni Europee Associate.

Starring Eli Wallach (Tuco), Clint Eastwood (Blondie), Lee Van Cleef (Angel Eyes), Aldo Giuffrè (Captain Clinton), Mario Brega (Cpl. Wallace), Luigi Pistilli (Father Pablo Ramirez), Antonio Molino Rojo (Capt. Harper), Enzo Petito (Storekeeper), and Antonio Casale (Bill Carson).


Frances Ha (2012, Noam Baumbach)

Frances Ha relies on exposition but depends on summary. Or it depends on exposition but relies on summary. One or the other. Director and co-writer Baumbach and star and co-writer Greta Gerwig move Frances in the summary. Even when the film slows down for a longer scene, the style and tone don’t really change, so it feels continuous. Time passes–the film takes place over a year or so–but is never particularly defined. Because Gerwig’s Frances doesn’t seem to particularly define time either.

The film’s a fractured character study. Baumbach and Gerwig’s script plays with the narrative distance a lot; they established Gerwig’s character as a somewhat unreliable narrator at the start–using comedic social awkwardness to call into question the degree of the unreliability–but as the film progresses, they further explore that unreliability. The film examines Gerwig, while–for the most part–she’s also the protagonist.

Though it’s not a traditional character study by any means. There’s a decided lack of melodrama, partially because Gerwig and her costars live in a carefree New York City, partially because Frances (film and character) willfully create that carefree New York City. There’s a varying narrative distance to the film’s four locations (New York, Sacramento, Paris, Vassar College) as well, as Gerwig experiences them. As the film moves along, more and more people come into it. Even if they’re background; New York, at the beginning, is entirely focused on Gerwig’s experience of it. In crowded rooms, for instance, the focus is all on Gerwig and the objects of her immediate attention. The film doesn’t show Gerwig around other people. Because she’s living in her head.

The film does have a structure, however. It has chapters with titles. Not the locations but Gerwig’s changing address. The first one doesn’t make much impression, but eventually they become a guide to the film. The narrative distance might be changing, time to adjust your attention. As a director, Baumbach is very intentional. He and cinematographer Sam Levy–shooting in black-and-white–keep a lot out of focus. They let shadows be too dark. They guide the viewer’s eyes, they cause them frustration. But that attention to detail might be surpassed by Jennifer Lame’s transcendent editing. Even when the film is at its most cloying–which isn’t bad, it’s just cute banter comedy, which is cloying for Frances–Lame is able to maintain that summary momentum. Not just the cuts in the actual montage sequences, but the cuts in expository scenes. Lame cuts for actors’ performances, whether they’re in the middle of a monologue or silent in a long shot. It’s a beautifully made film, as well as being utterly gorgeous to watch.

Gerwig’s performance is outstanding. And entirely overshadows the rest of the cast. The inciting action of the film is Gerwig’s best friend and roommate, Mickey Sumner, moving in with someone else. It sets things in motion, the things Gerwig’s aware of and navigating, the things she’s not.

Sumner’s okay. She gets a lot better in the third act, but she’s always okay. Adam Driver and Michael Zegen are Gerwig’s next set of roommates. Driver’s showy, but Zegen’s got a heart of gold. The performances are spot on. No one else really has much to do. Charlotte d’Amboise is the leader of Gerwig’s dance troupe, so she’s got scenes, but they’re all expository. Grace Gummer is another roommate and she’s around for a bit, but she doesn’t get anything significant.

And it’s fine. Because it’s Gerwig’s show. Both as actor and writer, she’s pacing out character development in an almost entirely passive character–in an almost entirely passive film. And she does it. And the filmmaking is there to meet her. Some aspects of Gerwig’s performance work apart from the filmmaking, just as some aspects of the filmmaking work apart from the script. Frances Ha perplexes, but in the best ways.

Truly awesome soundtrack too.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Noah Baumbach; written by Baumbach and Greta Gerwig; director of photography, Sam Levy; edited by Jennifer Lame; production designer, Sam Lisenco; produced by Baumbach, Scott Rudin, and Lila Yacoub; released by IFC Films.

Starring Greta Gerwig (Frances), Mickey Sumner (Sophie), Michael Zegen (Benji), Adam Driver (Lev), Grace Gummer (Rachel), Patrick Heusinger (Patch), and Charlotte d’Amboise (Colleen).


In the Bleak Midwinter (1995, Kenneth Branagh)

In the Bleak Midwinter is a sweet movie. It’s kind of a Christmas movie–it takes place at Christmas–and it’s this gentle, thoughtful, sweet but never saccharine or even really acknowledging its sweetness sweet movie. Writer and director Branagh puts a lot of work into the plotting of the film, without ever appearing to be putting a lot of work into it because it’s usually in the background. Because Midwinter is an often uproarious comedy and the comedy gets the foreground. But, in the end, it’s pretty clear Branagh’s made a sweet movie. It’s about a production of Hamlet, but the film itself is more akin to a Shakespeare comedy.

The opening titles has some monologue from lead Michael Maloney, then goes to a scene with Maloney–an out-of-work actor–having lunch with his agent, played by Joan Collins. Collins is great in the scene. She shows up more later, but she’s never as perfect as in that first scene. She helps set the first of Midwinter’s moods. The film has different moods and different narrative distances throughout. Usually they don’t change at the same. Maybe never. But as one changes, the other might react, leading to its change.

All right, I need to explain Midwinter. It’s black and white, it’s about a group of actors trying to put on Hamlet while all living together in this ramshackle church they’re trying to save. Their Hamlet is going to save the church. It’s Maloney’s church from childhood. He’s able to put the show on because of Collins.

There’s a funny casting sequence, setting up the eclectic band of actors. Then they all go to the church to prepare. It’s a big cast–nine principals. Maloney keeps the lead just because he’s directing the play. Hetta Charnley is his sister, who is the one who wants the church saved. She still lives in the unseen town with the church in it. Then there’s Celia Irmie as the production designer (sets and clothes). Richard Briers is the angry old actor. John Sessions is the openly gay actor–Midwinter’s 1995 after all–who’s playing Queen Gertrude. Nicholas Farrell, Mark Hadfield, and Gerard Horan are the male actors. Julia Sawalha is the Ophelia. Everyone’s got distinctive story details. Turns out Branagh doesn’t just want his actors doing comedy–including physical comedy–he’s got some character drama.

Midwinter is really well-written through the first half. It’s really funny, it’s really well-directed. Branagh’s not messing around. He and cinematographer Roger Lanser get some phenomenal shots in the black and white. The filming locations, the production design (from Tim Harvey), all great stuff. But then Branagh gets into the characters and all the actors get this revealed depth to work with. Except Maloney, actually. Maloney’s character arc is something else entirely.

And the movie’s only ninety-nine minutes. Branagh does all sorts of narrative moves in this thing and it’s under 100 minutes. The actors all get these great parts, then they get even better arcs and relationships. And all the relationships are building from scratch because the movie starts before they all meet. So Branagh is building all this stuff quickly and profusely. Nine characters he’s building in ninety-nine minutes. Plus Collins.

Over half the actors give great performances. The others give excellent ones. That latter group gets more material but not as sublime material.

Neil Farrell’s editing is a whole other great thing about Midwinter. The comedy, the character drama, every cut is perfect. Even though Midwinter is a shorter film about a rushed Shakespeare production, the sometimes rapid cutting never seems hurried. Farrell and Branagh always give the actors enough time. Then they cut.

It’s kind of a showcase for its actors, actually. A technically brilliant, marvelously written showcase for the cast. In the Bleak Midwinter is wonderful.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh; director of photography, Roger Lanser; edited by Neil Farrell; music by Jimmy Yuill; production designer, Tim Harvey; produced by David Barron; released by Rank Film Dists Ltd.

Starring Michael Maloney (Joe Harper), Richard Briers (Henry Wakefield), Celia Imrie (Fadge), Julia Sawalha (Nina Raymond), John Sessions (Terry Du Bois), Hetta Charnley (Molly Harper), Nicholas Farrell (Tom Newman), Gerard Horan (Carnforth Greville), Mark Hadfield (Vernon Spatch), and Joan Collins (Margaretta D’Arcy).


Muriel’s Wedding (1994, P.J. Hogan)

There are a lot of things going on in Muriel’s Wedding, so many writer-director Hogan’s script gets to the point he’s constantly raveling and unraveling foreground and background threads. The threads are all wrapped around the film’s center–lead Toni Collette’s complicated desire to change herself. She mostly accomplishes it through various lies, though cheque fraud plays a big part. Her lying becomes, as the film goes on, a compulsion, one the viewer can identify even when it’s unclear how Collette is processing the situation. Despite her various wrongdoings and insensitivites, Collette is a sympathetic protagonist; she’s ill-equipped for the world, which the first act explores in detail.

Collette lives in a useless Australian tourist town. She’s a high school dropout with few career prospects, unemployed, living at home. Her father (Bill Hunter) is a mildly corrupt local politician who verbally demeans Collette, her siblings, and wife Jeanie Drynan at every opportunity. He’s also a little too friendly with local beauty supply maven Gennie Nevinson. All of Collette’s friends are insipid, shallow beauty queens who mock Collette about her physical appearance.

Everything changes when Collette runs into former high school classmate Rachel Griffiths, who could care less what Collette’s faux friends think of her and thinks Collette is doing just fine. Unfortunately, quite a bit of Griffiths’s opinion is based on Collette’s lies. Many of the lies involve Collette’s desire to get married, which would–in Collette’s eyes–undoubtedly result in her becoming a new, improved person. At the same time, Collette and Griffiths build this otherwise sincere friendship, with Griffiths the booster Collette never had.

Hogan’s script has a lot of laughs in the first half, which has Collette and Griffiths meeting on a tropical vacation, as well as during their move to the big city. The present action is rather fast in Muriel’s Wedding; Hogan and editor Jill Bilcock sometimes identifying don’t slow down to identify how much time has passed between scenes. Rarely in the next subsequent scene and usually in the one after. It keeps the film, which almost two hours, sailing.

Despite some rather bleak circumstances, Muriel’s Wedding is never a black comedy. Tragedies and hardships aren’t for laughs. The characters can be funny–or just plain mocked–but not their circumstances. As funny as the film gets, Hogan always relies on the actors to bring grounding, particularly Collette, Griffiths, Drynan, and Hunter. The laughs often come from how uncomfortable moments can get, whether through Collette’s deceptions (or naiveté) or Hunter’s willful mistreatment of his family.

As the characters react to the plot’s various curveballs during the second act, Hogan narrows the film to Collette. It also changes the pace of things. Hogan has more content in summary scene exposition than in his non-summary sequences. It fits in great with the slightly fantastical characters.

Great supporting performances from Hunter and Drynan. Griffiths is wonderful, ably essaying a part bouncing between comedy and drama. But Collette is the whole show. Even when Griffiths is being hilarious, Collette commands the attention. Hogan exquisitely juggles the dynamic of their relationship, with Martin McGrath’s moody but pragmatic photography playing a big part.

The only problem is the rushed third act, where Hogan speeds a tad fast through all the right notes.

Muriel’s Wedding is magnificent.

Oh, and a big part of the film is Collette’s healthiest obsession–ABBA. So lots of great ABBA music, sometimes for comic effect, sometimes for emotional.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by P.J. Hogan; director of photography, Martin McGrath; edited by Jill Bilcock; music by Peter Best; production designer, Paddy Reardon; produced by Lynda House and Jocelyn Moorhouse; released by Roadshow Film Distributors.

Starring Toni Collette (Muriel Heslop), Rachel Griffiths (Rhonda Epinstall), Bill Hunter (Bill Heslop), Jeanie Drynan (Betty Heslop), Gennie Nevinson (Deidre Chambers), Daniel Lapaine (David Van Arkle), and Matt Day (Brice Nobes).


The Bridges of Madison County (1995, Clint Eastwood)

The Bridges of Madison County is many things, but it’s definitely an adaptation of a best-selling novel. Thanks to director Eastwood, it’s not a cheap adaptation of a best-selling novel, but it’s still an adaptation. There’s still a frame. No matter how much Eastwood deglamorizes it, no matter how well Richard LaGravenese writes most of it, there’s a lot of narrative ease ways and didactic padding. Not bad didactic padding, vague feminism in fact, but the padding is questionable.

Because here’s what Bridges of Madison County is about. Meryl Streep is an Italian woman who lives in Iowa in 1965. She’s smarter than her husband, her friends, and her neighbors. She’s intellectually ready to debate the human condition yet she has to make sure her husband’s socks are folded right. Because it’s 1965 and it’s not great. Along comes Clint Eastwood, who’s a careful “National Geographic” photographer and it turns out Streep likes the cut of his jib. And vice versa.

Thanks to Streep, Eastwood, LaGravenese, Joel Cox’s editing, Jack N. Green’s photography, and Jeannine Oppewall’s production design, it’s never sensationalized. Instead, it’s a characters study. Streep and Eastwood get to know one another and the audience gets to know them. It’s beautifully acted, it’s thoughtfully written, it’s exquisitely produced. It’s the kind of thing Fellini could have done in the States in 1965 if he’d sold out.

But it’s not a mainstream accessible thing. Yes, maybe enough flyover audiences are willing to go with adulterers not actually being demonic, but the whole thing is a strange sell. Eastwood’s not Robert Redford, Streep’s not Italian. And then Eastwood goes ahead and drains as much sensationalism out of the frame as he possibly can. Again, LaGravenese helps–he’s really good at writing scenes between two people, but he’s not great at confrontational scenes. Eastwood can compensate for it in the flashback with he and Streep. He can’t do anything about there being a mainstream inspirational denouement. Because, thanks to Streep–and, really, not movie stars Annie Corley and Victor Slezak as Streep’s kids in the frame–he’s able to get the movie done without too much damage. But it’s a rough sequence. Just because it’s not someone stunt-casted into the frame doesn’t mean it’s not narratively jarring.

Luckily, Eastwood’s got one final secret weapon to keep the film on track–the music. He and Lennie Niehaus compose this great theme for the film and Eastwood only barely teases it out through the actual film. The end credits, shots of the film’s locations relevant to the Streep and Eastwood scenes, set to the full theme? They devastate. Because some of Bridges of Madison County is Eastwood asking for a pass. He’s asking for indulgence. Give the film that indulgence, it’s got a phenomenal performance from Streep, a fairly great one from Eastwood, and some excellently paced two person scenes.

Of course, Eastwood could’ve done worse with the framing scenes as far as the filmmaking and the acting. Corley and Slezak are great. But they’re entirely pointless. Eastwood, Oppewall, and Green are entranced with the 1965 setting. There’s just no other way to start the film off and still make Streep immediately sympathetic. Eastwood hangs tough with the flashback sequence and its constraints.

The flashback–Streep and Eastwood–is a love letter. The frame is a journal. The journal’s all right… it’s got Streep, but it doesn’t have Eastwood. The third act just goes on too long, all of it in the present. There needed to be a handoff in emotional intensity but Eastwood’s not interested enough. He’s competent and present in the frame; he’s ambitious and feverish in the flashback. He and Streep’s first kiss scene is crazy good. And he works as an actor. Sometimes foolishly he runs into the part. There’s a pleasing hum to the flashback scenes, which Streep probably generates on her own, and as long as Eastwood’s performance is enough with the current, he’s sailing.

It’s enthralling. And then it has to end. To be fair to LaGravenese (and apparently uncredited executive producer Steven Spielberg), Eastwood doesn’t know how to bring it to the end either. He doesn’t want to say goodbye to this fantastic creation of Streep’s either.

Maybe the strangest thing Eastwood manages to do is so fully control the tearjerker aspect of the film. He, Niehaus, Cox, and Streep manage to turn it into a celebratory ugly cry. Sure, there’s still some sense of tragedy, but it’s in a far greater, human sense.

The Bridges of Madison County is mostly great, a tragic Frankenstein. It’s too good at being a big budget economy intellectual romance novel about human connection in the July-October set to just be an adaptation of a best-selling novel.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Clint Eastwood; screenplay by Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel by Robert James Waller; director of photography, Jack N. Green; edited by Joel Cox; music by Lennie Niehaus; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; produced by Eastwood and Kathleen Kennedy; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Meryl Streep (Francesca Johnson), Clint Eastwood (Robert Kincaid), Jim Haynie (Richard Johnson), Michelle Benes (Lucy Redfield), Annie Corley (Carolyn Johnson), and Victor Slezak (Michael Johnson).


Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970, Don Siegel)

Two Mules for Sister Sara opens playfully. Then it gets serious. Then it gets playful. Then it gets serious. Then it gets playful. Director Siegel never lets it keep one tone for too long, not until the end, when he shows what happens when you take it all too seriously. After a hundred minutes of occasionally violent, occasionally indiscreet situation comedy, Sister Sara all of a sudden turns into this very real battle scene during the second French invasion of Mexico.

And it gets there beautifully. The first two-thirds of the film is a road movie. Mercenary Clint Eastwood runs across nun-in-danger Shirley MacLaine and saves her. She takes advantage of his pious nature, softly conning him into being her escort as she works to help the revolutionaries fight the French. Eastwood complains, but not too much and it’s only set over a couple days. Things move very fast in Sister Sara, it’s one misadventure to the next.

And it’s just MacLaine and Eastwood. There are pretty much no other main speaking roles in that first two-thirds. You can probably count the close-ups on one hand. Maybe not at all if it weren’t for action sequences–which feature Siegel using some kind of terrible zoom-ins, which are about the only thing wrong with Siegel’s direction. His two or three uses of a contemporarily popular visual device. When it counts, during that crazy battle scene finish, Siegel isn’t messing around.

Anyway. It’s just MacLaine and Eastwood. They bicker, they sort of seem to flirt, which creeps everyone out–particularly Eastwood, there’s the adorable Ennio Morricone music. It sort of cradles MacLaine through the idea of a nun in a Spaghetti Western. Because Two Mules for Sister Sara is an American production shot in Mexico starring Clint Eastwood. Siegel doesn’t go for that directing style, but when he does have a similar shot? It’s eerie. So MacLaine doesn’t belong, especially not as a nun. And there’s this playful Morricone music to keep everyone at ease.

It’s a road movie.

Then it turns into a movie about revolutionaries mounting an attack and it gets real serious. That shift in tone works so well because Sister Sara has been setting MacLaine and Eastwood up to do more than banter. Their relationship escalates perfectly for comedy and perfectly for action drama. It’s perfectly plotted up until that transition and then there’s sort of second movie. The first two-thirds is just prologue. Siegel, editor Robert F. Shugrue, and composer Morricone pull off something spectacular with that second-to-third act transition.

Great photography from Gabriel Figueroa. He does really well with the comedy Western, has a few problems with the revolution drama–but it’s hard lighting, cavern lighting, and he’s trying–and then he nails it on the battle scene.

And excellent supporting turn from Manolo Fábregas. He’s the Juarista colonel. He really helps out in the final act hand-off as well. The present action jumps a number of days and the last scene could be stagy–it’s in a cavern, it’s Eastwood, MacLaine, and Fábregas having a heated conversation–but it doesn’t. Siegel’s directing of the actors is good throughout; sometimes it’s amazing. Sister Sara has a handful of difficult expository scenes and Siegel moves them along thanks to his direction of his actors.

It’s even more interesting as MacLaine and Siegel apparently hated working together.

Siegel, Shugrue, and Morricone do such exceptional work–and MacLaine and Eastwood are so game in their performances–Two Mules for Sister Sara is almost too good for what it wants to do. It’s an unintentional overachiever.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Don Siegel; screenplay by Albert Maltz, based on a story by Budd Boetticher; director of photography, Gabriel Figueroa; edited by Robert F. Shugrue; music by Ennio Morricone; produced by Martin Rackin and Carroll Case; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Shirley MacLaine (Sara), Clint Eastwood (Hogan), Manolo Fábregas (Colonel Beltran), and Alberto Morin (General LeClaire).


13th (2016, Ava DuVernay)

The first half of 13th is didactic–well, except when the film makes fun of interviewee Grover Norquist. There are three or four capital C Conservatives interviewees; Norquist and Gingrich are present because they’re such trolls they think they’re convincing. Gingrich is during his Black Lives Matter phase (the documentary is pre–2016 election, but still very 2016, which I need to talk about), but Norquist is just a chump. Everyone knows it and the film embraces it, maybe the only time 13th lets you have the hint of a smile.

Getting it out of the way, the other Conservative interviewees are just unknown chumps. Or worms. The sad part of reality is director DuVernay isn’t hunting down worms or chumps for these interviews (except Norquist and Gingrich, though, again, Gingrich seems to be present with a different, pre-Trump agenda); they’re just the right guys to be interviewed. Evil organizations out to ruin the United States are actually staffed with the Conservative geek out of a late nineties teen movie.

Norquist being more in line with what happens with a John Hughes bro grows up.

Anyway. I think I have that fervor out.

The first half of 13th is extremely didactic. DuVernay is guiding the film through a certain number of interviewees, through a certain bit of history. She’s also making an argument–the 13th amendment to the Constitution has been used through white supremacy to fuck up the lives of people of color, specifically Black people. And, you know, she’s right. She wins that argument the second Angela Davis comes back as an interviewee after being shown in historical footage. DuVernay doesn’t introduce Davis as a former firebrand, she’s a professor. Even if you know Angela Davis, she goes from being this beauteously interviewed academic to someone who outsmarted some significant bad guys of history in this raw historical footage.

DuVernay does a lot with historical footage, whether it’s from the teens, fifties, sixties, eighties, nineties. It’s one of 13th’s few sticking points. The footage isn’t up-converted correctly. Or it is and DuVernay is obscuring history and making memory this permeable thing, but I think it’s just not up-converted well enough.

So that first half is didactic. It’s a history lesson. It’s a thesis statement, it’s a persuasive essay. DuVernay covers 149 years of history, with more and more focus on the last fifty years as the film progresses. It has a natural narrative flow and then it stops in 2012. And DuVernay tells the audience to now apply that history to what’s going on right now. Starting with Trayvon Martin, continuing into Black Lives Matter, finishing with Trump.

Now, 13th is pre-election, another of its sticking points. Certain aspects of it feel a tad ephemeral. That first half is a lot of historical fact. Learning history, even critically thinking about that history as it affects modernity, it’s ephemeral. Film viewing is an ephemeral act. But since DuVernay’s already proved the thesis, before getting to the present day, what’s 13th doing now? It’s no longer a persuasive documentary or a didactic one. It doesn’t have a narrative. Or, is DuVernay’s narrative distance such the narrative is the viewer’s.

13th is an excellent documentary for the first ninety percent. I even enjoyed the camera manipulation in the interview after a certain point. 13th’s very accessible; DuVernay is looking at the impossibly grim, but she keeps it accessible. With profile interview shots for emphasis. It’s fine.

But then in the last ten minutes or so, DuVernay brings 13th into reality. Immediate, clear, HD reality. Everything comes together. Not just all the subjects, but the visual style of the infographics. DuVernay’s the first person I’ve ever seen the use infographics so starkly. It’s almost a rejection of the effect.

Fine photography from Hans Charles and Kira Kelly. Editor, co-producer, and co-writer Spencer Averick is best at the writing and producing. Even if the cuts to profile weren’t his idea, they’re inappropriately jarring. There’s no nuance to the cuts–good guys and bad get the same cutting. It’s off-putting. Editing is very important.

Nicely, DuVernay doesn’t use that device much in the second half so it’s win-win. She does quite a bit with the documentary medium to get the film right. 13th is outstanding.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ava DuVernay; written by DuVernay and Spencer Averick; directors of photography, Hans Charles and Kira Kelly; edited by Averick; music by Jason Moran; produced by DuVernay, Averick, and Howard Barish; released by Netflix.


The Little Foxes (1941, William Wyler)

The most impressive things about The Little Foxes are, in no particular order, Bette Davis’s performance (specifically her micro expressions), Patricia Collinge’s supporting performance, director Wyler’s composition, director Wyler’s staging of the narrative (adapted by Lillian Hellman from her play and set in a constrained area but a living one), Herbert Marshall’s performance, and Gregg Toland’s photography. Actors Teresa Wright and Charles Dingle almost make the top list. They make up the second tier. Then you get into the other great supporting performances and things like Daniel Mandell’s editing or the set decoration and it goes on and on.

Because The Little Foxes is an expertly made film. The script is strong, Wyler’s got Gregg Toland shooting this thing, Wright’s character got hidden range (too hidden), and Davis can do this role. Davis and Wyler didn’t get along but the conflict never comes through because Davis’s character is supposed to be so against the grain. Bickering with the director through your performance is a great way to generate grain to move against.

Even though Wyler does a great job translating a play to the screen, the film skips a little too much. Wyler and Toland have this great foreground and background action thing going so they can get multiple things done at once (occasionally with middle ground action too). But it’s a device to keep Little Foxes lean. The first thirty-six minutes, taking place over a day, sings. Wyler gets done with it and it’s like the film is just starting. He’s introduced the cast, he’s introduced the setting. It’s laying the ground situation in action. It’s awesome.

And for a while it pays off and just keeps getting better. Little Foxes is about the machinations of a nouveau riche Southern family in 1900. Well, not quite riche enough but almost. Davis and brothers Dingle and Carl Benton Reid (in a sturdy but inglorious performance) have a plan, they just need Marshall–as Davis’s convalescing husband–to get on board. Only maybe Marshall thinks the family is awful. Foxes has some peculiar politics, with Marshall and Richard Carlson as progressives (and the only decent white men in the picture).

Collinge’s part in the film, reductively, is to forecast the possibilities for Wright’s future. Collinge does a great job with it and the scenes are beautifully written–her relationship with Wright in the first act is a standout both for acting and cinematic brevity–but she disappears in the third act. She’s got no place in the story, which is kind of a problem because the story was the family and then it just turns into this business deal thing.

It’s too abrupt, but Wyler’s able to make it at least flow a little thanks to Toland and Mandell’s contributions. There’s a throwaway scene in the third act where Carlson gets to slap around porto-bro Dan Duryea. Not to fault Duryea with that description, he’s awesome in the part. Lovably dopey and still somewhat dangerous. So Wyler gives the audience a reward for sticking through the mussed third act.

Even though the grand finale is part of that mussing, Davis and Wright really bring it together and make it work long enough for Wyler and Toland to finish the movie. Dingle and Marshall also go far in making it happen, but it’s Davis and Wright. It’s got to be the mother and daughter showdown, even though the film never exactly promised such a thing. And you get to see Wright develop her character without an inch from Davis. Is it an inch in character or out? Doesn’t matter, makes their scenes beyond tense. Maybe because Davis wasn’t in the second act much. The Little Foxes, with Marshall, Wright, Carlson, Collinge, and Jessica Grayson just sitting around enjoying each other’s company in one scene, becomes almost genial. Wyler doesn’t promise happiness, but he does acknowledge people actually enjoy life.

Davis has to come back with a vengeance to remind the audience there is no happiness, no enjoyment. Because the world’s a bad place. It’s actually a really downbeat ending even though everyone kind of gets a happy ending. Characters win, humanity loses.

Foxes has got some problems–it’s too short as it turns out–but Wyler and company turn in an excellent picture. Confident, beautifully shot, beautifully acted, well-paced. But in that confidence is a lot of safety. Wyler’s most ambitious with his composition, not the film overall.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Arthur Kober, Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, and Lillian Hellman, based on the play by Hellman; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Daniel Mandell; music by Meredith Willson; produced by Samuel Goldwyn; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Bette Davis (Regina Giddens), Teresa Wright (Alexandra Giddens), Herbert Marshall (Horace Giddens), Charles Dingle (Ben Hubbard), Patricia Collinge (Birdie Hubbard), Jessica Grayson (Addie), Carl Benton Reid (Oscar Hubbard), Dan Duryea (Leo Hubbard), Richard Carlson (David Hewitt), John Marriott (Cal), and Russell Hicks (William Marshall).


No Looking Back (1998, Edward Burns)

No Looking Back runs just under a hundred minutes. The first half of the film–roughly the first half–evenly relies on its cast. In fact, top-billed Lauren Holly almost has less than either Jon Bon Jovi and director Burns (acting, second-billed) in the first half. It’s a love triangle and she’s the prize. Burns is coming back to Nowhere, Long Island after running away to California years before. Ex-girlfriend Holly has moved on and in with Bon Jovi, who’s ostensibly a childhood friend of Burns’s but it’s a somewhat reluctant friendship. Burns is a jerk from scene two. He has two honest moments in the film; his first and his last. The rest of the time, he’s basically just a prick.

But he’s a different kind of prick than Bon Jovi, who’s the too perfect man. He wants to be a good dad, can’t wait for Holly to join his mom and sisters in the kitchen for football Sunday (he’s in the living room with his brothers), and so on and so forth. There’s this strange transition with sympathies, which Burns (as a writer and director) doesn’t deal with very well. He tries hard to keep the love triangle restless–the three characters never all interact in a single scene, even if all present–and it strains the film at times. But it also pays off because it means Holly gets more opportunity.

Then around the halfway market, a Bruce Springsteen song comes on the radio and No Looking Back totally changes. The first half soundtrack, with the exception of a Patti Scialfa track or two, is indistinct, bland, late nineties pseudo-alternative songs. Nothing distinct. And then, all of a sudden, Holly assumes the protagonist role decisively. Performance, script, direction. The first half of the movie has been an awkward setup to provide back story to turn the second half into a Bruce Springsteen mix tape set to film. And it’s exceptional. The film’s flow is better, the scenes more poignant–I mean, it’s a soap opera. The thing couldn’t fail the Bechdel test more if it tried. But it’s this exceptional soap opera turned character study. And what ends up saving it is when Burns, as writer and director, stops pretending there’s any depth to he and Bon Jovi’s characters. More, the characters have to stop pretending too. It’s awesome.

Plus, there’s scene payoff for most of the supporting cast. Blythe Danner (as Holly’s mom) gets almost nothing in the first half and ends up being essential in pulling off the big finale upswing. Connie Britton’s great as Holly’s sister, with the first half’s least disjointed arc. Jennifer Esposito and Nick Sandow are both good as various friends, though Sandow’s basically Norm from “Cheers” and Esposito doesn’t get enough to do.

Oh–and Joe Delia’s score is a mess in the first half. There’s this generic hard rock theme running through the score. Maybe Burns could only get the four or five Springsteen songs and had to save them, but it’s not a good theme for Holly as Burns intentionally and maliciously upends her life, albeit through accepted social conventions. Score is much better in the second half.

Great photography from Frank Prinzi. Nice, patient editing from Susan Graef.

Holly doesn’t have a great character here; Burns ignored her too much in the first half to setup the second, but she gives an excellent performance. The stuff she gets to do in the second half, it’s like a reward for having to suffer through the first half’s weaker scenes. Bon Jovi gives a strong performance and once Burns, as an actor, gets to the Springsteen section, he really comes through as well.

No Looking Back has more than its share of problems, all of them (with the exception of the music) director Burns’s fault. It’s also pretty darn great; again, all Burns’s fault.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Edward Burns; director of photography, Frank Prinzi; edited by Susan Graef; music by Joe Delia; production designer, Thérèse DePrez; produced by Ted Hope, Michael Nozik, and Burns; released by Polygram Filmed Entertainment.

Starring Lauren Holly (Claudia), Edward Burns (Charlie), Jon Bon Jovi (Michael), Connie Britton (Kelly), Blythe Danner (Claudia’s Mom), Nick Sandow (Goldie), Jennifer Esposito (Teresa), Welker White (Missy), John Ventimiglia (Tony the Pizza Guy), and Kathleen Doyle (Mrs. Ryan).


Scroll to Top