★★

The Guest (2014, Adam Wingard)

For most of The Guest, the script doesn’t matter. Either the acting or the filmmaking carry the scene. The first act is this fairly standard, fairly obvious—albeit beautifully produced—drama about an all American family in crisis after the death of the oldest son, a soldier, killed in action in the Middle East. Dad Leland Orser is a verbally abusive drunk who also feels inadequate for not making enough money (in rural New Mexico). Mom Sheila Kelley is just sad. And dealing with Orser. High schooler Brendan Meyer is super-smart and mercilessly bullied. Daughter Maika Monroe works at the diner to save for college and has to hide pot-head boyfriend Chase Williamson from the fam. Then Dan Stevens knocks on the door—actually, Dan Stevens knocks on the door first and then the film establishes the family and really quickly, really efficiently. The strangest thing about The Guest having script problems is the plotting flows perfectly; writer Simon Barrett basically just doesn’t have any ending and he doesn’t have enough character development. Otherwise, the script’s good.

Anyway—Stevens. He’s the dead son’s comrade and he promised to tell each family member how much the dead son loved them. Stevens is just a good, nice guy, which is apparently exactly what the family needs. Kelley doesn’t have a son back so much as a pal. Kelley’s a missed opportunity. She’s a narrative prop, moved around for effective, but her performance is great. The film really doesn’t do enough with her. She’s around a lot but she doesn’t get any character development. She’s just sad about dead son and worried about her family. She also doesn’t have a clothes dryer, which is important later on. She and Stevens are really good together. Actually, Stevens is really good with everyone—Orser, Meyer, love interest Tabatha Shaun—except the one person it turns out he needs to be really good with—Monroe.

And it’s both Stevens and Monroe’s fault, but maybe more director Wingard and writer Barrett’s. Because eventually they at least need to have some spark and they never do, which seems almost intentional and a really wrong-headed move on the film’s part. So, eventually weird things start happening—like Stevens helping Meyer with his bully problem and Shaun with a pushy ex-boyfriend—and Monroe overhears Stevens on a mysterious cellphone call and just has to start investigating. Everything about that plot development is bad—anal-retentive Stevens having his super-shady but not super-shady at all phone call in hearing distance, Monroe immediately going Nancy Drew (the character’s written differently in each act), even the direction is forced (in the wrong way). Because first act Monroe is supposed to be crushing on Stevens, whereas second act Monroe is convinced he’s the devil and then third act Monroe is aware he’s the devil but operating indifferently to that belief. It’s not a good part for Monroe, especially not in the third act; the writing is just too thin. Also the film kind of dumps Monroe in the second act as she’s Nancy Drewing to follow everyone else. Well, the guys, not Kelley.

But it’s always an engrossing thriller. Wingard, who also edits, which seems right, knows how to present Stevens for maximum effect and Stevens is the whole point. Again, why Nancy Drew Monroe if she’s not going to take point but whatever; Barrett’s script has a lot of issues. Wingard’s got a tone he’s going for and hits it; making the film around any narrative issues for most of its hundred minutes. Steve Moore’s music and Robby Baumgartner’s photography are both excellent and enable that tone. If Wingard had been able to succeed with The Guest, it would’ve been something. But not failing is something too. Though having Stevens helps. And Monroe and Meyer and Kelley and Orser. The cast is right, the script is just a little wrong.

Also, Lance Reddick as Stevens’s former CO needs to be great and then isn’t. Reddick’s the third act surprise and it’s a flop.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Adam Wingard; written by Simon Barrett; director of photography, Robby Baumgartner; music by Steve Moore; production designer, Tom Hammock; costume designer, Kathleen Detoro; produced by Jessica Calder and Keith Calder; released by Picturehouse.

Starring Dan Stevens (David), Maika Monroe (Anna), Brendan Meyer (Luke), Sheila Kelley (Laura), Leland Orser (Spencer), Tabatha Shaun (Kristen), Chase Williamson (Zeke), Joel David Moore (Craig), and Lance Reddick (Major Carver).


Tea Party (1965, Charles Jarrott)

Tea Party opens with Vivien Merchant getting a job at a toilet bowl company. The second or third shot of Party is a toilet on display. Strikingly weird without the context; director Jarrott and editor Raoul Sobel are enthusiastic about the visual possibilities without really being any good at them. It’s the medium; Tea Party is a mid-sixties television play, shot on video; there’s only so much anyone’s going to be able to do with it, visually. And Jarrott and Sobel try. Jarrott’s better at the… visual montage than at the shot composition, which brings us back to Merchant and the beginning of Party.

She’s going to be secretary to the self-made, king of the British bidet Leo McKern. Best toilets and such in the country. The interview goes well until McKern starts asking about Merchant’s old job and she reluctantly tells him about her handsy old boss. McKern drags it out of her, then condemns such behavior. It’s weird because Jarrott’s male gaze is overt in the scene. Merchant’s legs get distracting because you’re trying to see past them after a while. Jarrott’s got to make it real clear; after this awkward start, Party’s frankness will become one of its assets. The frankness also helps inform the performances. Tea Party, at its best, is a symbiotic success—the writing, the acting, the production (if not the direction itself). But at the beginning it’s weird.

Especially since McKern is getting married the next day to Jennifer Wright, who’s way too young and pretty for portly blowhard McKern. But damn if McKern hasn’t convinced himself he’s Wright’s dream guy; him begging her for validation on their wedding night is rending, alternately making him sympathetic for asking bit her not for lying to him. It means you can’t trust Wright and not just because of her creepy brother (Charles Gray) who only showed up before the wedding and has inserted himself in their lives. McKern seems perturbed by it, so hires Gray, but then Wright just goes to work for Gray. So some possible sympathy for McKern; especially since he’s got these little shit twin sons, Peter Bartlett and Robert Bartlett, who are weird but because McKern’s got to be a weird dad. But also the twin thing.

Only once Wright starts working for Gray, McKern starts getting wild for Merchant. Like… sniffing her office chair level. It’s a gross turn and really informs how the narrative distance should be taken. It’s just the medium… Pinter and Jarrott are keeping you away for a reason.

It takes Merchant a while to realize what’s up, but then she starts playing along. We get no insight into her as a character because… Pinter writes her like a cartoon. She prances around the office, swishing at McKern. Is it intentional or passive? Is it just the sixties secretary or is Merchant doing it with agency? Pinter goes on to raise a few questions, seemingly without any intention of answering them because answering them would give the supporting characters too much depth. It’s all about McKern and his descent into jealous horniness. It makes him see spots. For a moment it seems like fellow old (and optometrist) John Le Mesurier is going to have a real talk with McKern, which seems like it’d be great, but Pinter goes another way and whatever he comes up with isn’t great. It’s fine, but not great.

Like the ending, when they bring it all together for—well, for a Tea Party. It’s a pragmatic conclusion but relies entirely on Jarrott’s direction instead of anyone’s acting. He and editor Sobel try a lot with Tea Party, but very rarely actually succeed. They’re not up for the task at the finish.

Quite strong performances from McKern, Merchant, Gray. Le Mesurier’s good. Wright gets an incomplete but because of the script. You keep expecting the Bartlett brothers to stand at the end of a hall, holding hands, telling McKern to come play with them. They’re Party’s greatest potential. Their perspective on the whole thing would’ve given a lot more possibilities.

Instead, it’s a tad blah. Especially when you consider it copped out on its more interesting implications.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Charles Jarrott; written by Harold Pinter; edited by Raoul Sobel; production designer, Eileen Diss; produced by Sydney Newman; aired by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Starring Leo McKern (Disson), Vivien Merchant (Wendy), Charles Gray (Willy), Jennifer Wright (Diana), Peter Bartlett (Tom), Robert Bartlett (John), and John Le Mesurier (Disley).


The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil (2019, Lee Won-tae)

According to the opening titles, The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil is based on a true story, which is—I assume—why it takes place in 2005. The story, about a cop (Kim Mu-yeol) and his least favorite gangster (Ma Dong-seok) teaming up to take down a serial killer, comes off like a seventies update of M. But not for any good reasons. I mean, Park Se-seung’s cinematography is fine but the piss yellow lighting on the night scenes (and the film’s got a lot of them) would look better if it were set in the seventies. Along with Jo Yeong-wook’s score, which is so generic it sounds like they bought a bunch of royalty-free music tracks. Though maybe if the direction was better it wouldn’t matter. A lot of the time during the film, you wonder what it would be like if the direction were just a little bit better.

As a director, Lee is a low mediocre. There are a few times, especially with car shots for some reason, he dips below mediocre and you can’t tell if the shot’s his fault or if it’s Park’s fault. Doesn’t really matter, because as a writer Lee is a low mediocre too. Devil runs a somewhat lengthy 109 minutes. There are long unpleasant stretches; not when Lee’s establishing a high level of violence in the first act (which he then never matches or even approaches again), but when there’s a lot of exposition with the cops. See, Kim is a super cop but only because he’s not on the take like his boss (Yoo Seung-mok, who does better work than the role deserves). It’s not like he’s smart. He only figure out there’s a serial killer because everyone else is stupid and lazy and besides maybe he wants to impress CSI Kim Gyu-ri, who’s in the movie to give it a single female character. There’s so little chemistry between the two they could be siblings (I came up with that joke before I realized they had the same surname). Actually, outside their credited character names, there’s nothing in the film to disallow that relationship—Lee’s a really, really low mediocre writer. 109 minutes and there’s not an ounce of character development in the script. Bit players with funny lines have more depth than the main cast.

But it doesn’t matter because it’s got a good hook—the killer, played by a really effective Kim Sung-kyu, is scary and dangerous. See, he rear ends cars and then kills the drivers. Cop Kim figures it out because CSI Kim isn’t good enough at her job to notice the scuff marks on the back of the car. It’s okay because neither are any of the male cops. Only Kim is good enough. Because he’s better looking than everyone else and he’s not on the take. And he’s likable. He’s not charming, not with Lee’s writing and direction, but he’s likable. Kim can handle the trifling super cop bravado stuff. He just doesn’t have a character.

Pretty soon after the serial killer gets started and Kim’s ideas get shot down, gangster Ma gets attacked. By the serial killer. Only Ma is a kickass fighter, built like a tank, and able to throw people around. Now, during the attack sequence, it should have been clearer but Devil’s secret power is editors Heo Sun-mi and Han Young-kyu. It isn’t clear because Ma’s such a badass you think you’re just watching this great action scene but then, later on in other action scenes, it becomes clear Heo and Han are doing a beautiful job cutting it. And somehow Lee, who’s got some super bland Panavision composition during the exposition (it shouldn’t have been shot so wide but it’s now the norm since it no longer takes work or talent to shoot so wide), knows what shots to get during the action scenes to allow Heo and Han to make it pretty.

Very strange.

But good, because it pays off in the third act, which goes on way too long. And in the second act, when there’s a great fight scene with Kim and Ma teaming up. Really good fight scene.

The film’s super power—not it’s secret power, but it’s obvious power—is Ma. He’s great. Even with a razor thin part and a questionably competent director, Ma turns in a phenomenal performance. Sometimes you just sit and wonder what it would be like to see Ma directed with ability. He knows what he needs to do in a scene, even if Lee seems to have no idea.

Still, while Ma’s great, it’s not a great part. Devil shortchanges him. Ma’s a super star without a super star part.

So there are some significant caveats, and it goes on forever because Lee’s narrative storytelling chops are rough… but Devil’s fine. It’s engaging thanks to its cast and the plot hooks. And that editing. That gorgeous, gorgeous editing.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Lee Won-tae; director of photography, Park Se-Seung; edited by Heo Sun-mi and Han Young-kyu; music by Jo Yeong-wook; produced by Jang Won-seok and Seo Kang-Ho; released by Acemaker Movieworks.

Starring Ma Dong-seok (Jang Dong-soo), Kim Mu-Yeol (Jung Tae-seok), Kim Sung-kyu (Hong Gil-dong), Choi Min-cheol (Kwon Oh-sung), Yoo Seung-mok (Captain An), and Kim Gyu-ri (Cha Seo-jin).


The Great Gatsby (1949, Elliot Nugent)

The Great Gatsby can get away with a lot thanks to lead Alan Ladd, much of it related to the adaptation. Gatsby, the film, does open with “narrator” Macdonald Carey—set in the present, with Carey reminiscing on the grand old Jazz Age. Of course, the Jazz Age looks a little different in Carey’s memories because the movie’s post-Code and it wasn’t allowed to actually recreate the Jazz Age styles. The lack of style accuracy doesn’t matter much; the parties aren’t important. Ladd’s Gatsby is a quiet, contemplative wallflower; see, the screenplay (by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum) gives Ladd a sympathetic backstory. He only became a bootlegger because some rich widow (an oddly uncredited Carole Mathews) screws him out of his inheritance; her much-older husband (Henry Hull in a really fun performance) saw potential in Ladd and wanted to give him a leg up. Then, of course, there was the War. Ladd’s Gatsby is a war hero.

It’s before the War and after the old man mentorship Ladd meets Kansas City socialite Betty Field. Ladd’s just an enlisted man, bound for Europe and the trenches, but it’s Kansas City and he can get into the parties in his uniform. The flashback to their meeting doesn’t come until the film’s introduced both Ladd and Field in the present. Well, 1928 flashback present anyway. It adds something to both of them. Even though Ladd’s had a bunch of personality in the film so far, this tender side of him—he’s not violent in the present, but he’s got to be capable of violence—but this version of him with Field doesn’t have that capacity yet. And Field has zero personality in the present, so any helps.

At its best, The Great Gatsby is a lousy novel adaptation but a good “gangster goes straight” vehicle for Ladd. He does a vague tough guy routine with everyone until Field comes along and then he’s a sap. What’s so impressive about Ladd’s performance is he’s able to moon over Field even though they haven’t got any chemistry together. You think Field’s just incapable of it, but then she plays really well with estranged husband Barry Sullivan; odd because Field and Ladd are running away that point, when she and Sullivan finally click, performance-wise. Because the film’s not really set up to be the story of the characters from the novel, it’s far more interested in Ladd’s bootlegging days, with Ed Begley as his crotchety older partner and Elisha Cook Jr. as his sidekick (a kid who Ladd saved in the War and went with him from medals of valor to killing rival gangs). It’s more interested in the flashbacks to Ladd with Hull and Mathews. The screenplay feels looser in those scenes, like it’s not trying to hit a particular beat.

The two big problems with the film are the main supporting actors—Field, Carey, Sullivan, Ruth Hussey—and the direction. Nugent’s never quite good enough to do anything with the film. He does an adequate job, but he’s always zigging when he should zag. He’s got these one-shot close-ups he uses in the middle of conversations and they always kill the scene. Maybe some of it’s on Ellsworth Hoagland’s, but most of it’s on Nugent. He’s not interested in what the characters have to say and given how talky things get in the final third… it hurts the film.

Now the cast. So Ladd’s great. He showed up to work and he does. He gives Gatsby two hundred percent, which makes up for a lot, but still isn’t enough. Because the supporting cast is a stinker. Sullivan’s the best, but only because he occasionally is able to roll the thin characterization into a hybrid caricature—angry jock blue-blood unfaithful jilted husband—and find some true connection. But he’s not any good, not really. He’s able to overcome. Meanwhile Hussey tries her damndest and never makes it work but points for trying. Carey and Field are miscast and poorly directed. Field’s got no charisma. It might be some of the Code issues, it might be the script, it’s definitely partially on Nugent. But Field’s demure in the wrong way, especially given she’s got such a big part.

Carey’s pseudo-earnest, but he’s not ambitious in his performance. It needs some ambition. Some energy.

Again, Ladd can carry it through—the film’s only ninety minutes—but it’s a shame, even with all the constraints, the movie doesn’t have better direction, better casting; Ladd deserves more than a compromised production.

Oh, speaking of compromise, nice photography from John F. Seitz. He’s got to work with a lot of composites, some awkward framing, but he establishes a rather solid palette for the film. Just wish Nugent where a little better.

Gatsby’s a missed opportunity.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Elliott Nugent; screenplay by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, based on Owen Davis’s play of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Ellsworth Hoagland; music by Robert Emmett Dolan; produced by Maibaum; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Alan Ladd (Gatsby), Betty Field (Daisy), Macdonald Carey (Nick), Ruth Hussey (Jordan Baker), Barry Sullivan (Tom), Elisha Cook Jr. (Klipspringer), Ed Begley (Lupus), Howard Da Silva (Wilson), Henry Hull (Dan Cody), Carole Mathews (Ella Cody), and Shelley Winters (Myrtle).



Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932, Jean Renoir)

I was really hoping Boudu Saved From Drowning would have a spectacular finish so I wouldn’t have to write an opening paragraph about how it’s a pretty funny misanthropic class comedy until the titular character, played by Michel Simon as a mischievous, mean-spirited pervert variation on Chaplin’s Tramp, amps up the behavior and rapes one of the two women.

But don’t worry, turns out it’s just what she needed to get her interest in sex going again.

Initially she’s just interested in getting with Simon because he’s a love god, but eventually it spills over to decidedly not sexy dirty old man Charles Granval. Granval’s a moveable dirty old man though, not like Simon. Who’s not old.

It’s kind of a lot all at once. And the ending just shrugs it all off, not doing anything with the now blended debris in Granval’s household, which includes wife Marcelle Hainia and maid Sévérine Lerczinska. Really, Boudu could be remade as a slasher movie where the women eventually just kill the dudes and it’s a happy ending. Director Renoir doesn’t want you to like the characters, because then it’s funnier when bad things happen to them. Only Renoir’s way to keep his distance is to get really naturalistic, really flat, which ends up just separately the good part of the movie and the bad part of the movie. The beginning, with Granval, Hainia, and Lerczinska making each other’s lives complicated juxtaposed against Simon’s search for a missing dog… it’s really good. When the action moves into the connected house and shop and gets into Lerczinska’s duties as maid and shop girl and how Simon’s going to make them difficult because he’s trying to get some action with her… it’s immediately exhausting. The Simon “showcase” in the second half, where he gets long scenes to goof off and be a dick, don’t add up for Renoir. He’s making a comedian’s showcase and getting so bored with the comedian he’s doing complex tracking shots to make the film feel less stagy. He succeeds in making Boudu a less stagy stage adaptation, but he does so in a way it’s very obvious it’s a stage adaptation. He’s trying to keep himself entertained.

Everyone’s playing a caricature. Granval, Hainia, Lerczinska, Simon. When Simon’s got his final look for the film, you almost think it’s a comic strip adaptation. A comic strip adaptation would make more sense as a source for Simon’s performance. Hainia and Lerczinska get the worse parts—not just because of lecherous old men and raping tramps—but also because their characters are even slighter than Granval or Simon’s. But everyone’s perfectly good at their caricature. Simon’s disgusting but so’s humanity, he’s just disgusting in a different way. At least food is good and wine is good and women are willing. Okay, maybe it’s more nihilisting while French than general misanthropy.

Excellent photography from Georges Asselin and Marcel Lucien; good editing from Suzanne de Troeye and Marguerite Renoir, who know more about cutting screwball-ish comedy situations than director Renoir appears to know about directing it. Before the happy rape, there’s at least a nice scale to the comedy situations. The film doesn’t cheap out.

The end is a little self-indulgent, with Renoir going hard on appearing very thoughtful about the previous eighty minutes. Boudu isn’t a riff on a morality play because the characters are too thin to be capable of it. But when it doesn’t add up to anything else, Renoir goes for it in the postscript. And botches it pretty bad.

Though prettily. Very prettily, with great photography.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jean Renoir; screenplay by Renoir and Albert Valentin, based on the play by René Fauchois; directors of photography, Georges Asselin and Marcel Lucien; edited by Suzanne de Troeye and Marguerite Renoir; production designers, Jean Castanier and Hugues Laurent; produced by Michel Simon; released by Les Établissements Jacques Haïk.

Starring Michel Simon (Priape Boudu), Charles Granval (Édouard Lestingois), Marcelle Hainia (Emma Lestingois), and Sévérine Lerczinska (Chloë Anne Marie).



A Guy Named Joe (1943, Victor Fleming)

I’m not sure how to talk about A Guy Named Joe without some spoilers. But I’m going to try. Like a test.

A Guy Named Joe is a propaganda picture, but one less about jingoism and more about the American trademarked Freedom. Only it’s a specific kind of Freedom, it’s the kind of Freedom you can only understand if you’re an Army flier. Now, it’s possible—the film attests—the guys in the other branches of the service are just as thrilled about dying in the ways specific to their branches, but Guy Named Joe is about the glory of dying a combat flier. And how dying as a combat flier isn’t just good for the dead flier, who’ll get some real perspective on life, but for the future as well. The little children need dead fliers so the future might live. In Freedom.

It’s a lot.

But also not really, because Dalton Trumbo’s script doesn’t get too far into the weeds with it. Oh, a few people get big monologues about the film’s themes—Lionel Barrymore gets the Freedom one, so even if you’re cocking your head and trying to unravel the philosophy of it, Barrymore’s great delivering it. Because Joe is very well-cast. Spencer Tracy’s perfect in the lead, a daredevil bomber pilot who eventually gets in too much trouble and ends up taking a backseat to the future generation, personified in Van Johnson. Tracy gets some decent scenes with Johnson; best considering the circumstances, but some really good ones with leading lady Irene Dunne. Dunne’s Tracy’s girl—and some kind of military cargo flier (the ladies can fly cargo through war zones solo but they can’t be combat pilots because they’re girls); she, Tracy, and Ward Bond all hang out together. Turns out some of it is because Bond can’t handle misanthropic narcissist Tracy without Dunne to temper him. It’s a great character relationship, something the film doesn’t do enough with, even though it arguably leverages Bond more than anything else in the picture.

The film’s got three sections. The first is in England, where Tracy and Bond are stationed. It runs forty-five minutes; now, Joe is two hours. The first thirty-eight percent of the movie is the England stuff with Tracy, Dunne, Bond, and James Gleason as the guys’ stuck-up CO. You would think, given epical story arcs and Freytag triangles, there’d be a lot of important plot establishing somewhere in that thirty-eight percent. So it’d be important later.

You’d be wrong.

Because in the second part of the film, where Tracy gets stuck back stateside playing guardian angel to rookie ace Johnson, well… nothing from that first part is important. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s just the story of Johnson getting to be a better flier and a more confident guy. He’s just inherited four million bucks, but he’s a solid guy. He’s not even a skirt chaser until Tracy’s influence and even when he’s a skirt chaser, you feel like he’s still a pretty good guy. Johnson’s got the second hardest part in the film. He’s got no one to talk with about his feelings and feelings get talked about a lot in Joe. Similarly, Dunne doesn’t have anyone to talk with about her feelings when it’s important in part three, which is set in New Guinea and the war.

Heavily leveraged Bond is the way the film brings parts one and two together, with Johnson getting assigned to Bond (and Gleason) and Dunne dropping by for a visit. Johnson falls for Dunne immediately; though we don’t get to see him fall for her, because the movie’s busy concentrating on Dunne and Bond and 800-pound gorilla Tracy. Fleming skips the shot of Johnson seeing Dunne, skips his agency in approaching her. Johnson never gets that agency back. Something else lost in part three.

Dunne eventually gets some agency, but kind of too late to matter.

See, she and Johnson get together—rather chastely for a while, which almost seems like the film not wanting to give forty-something Dunne too much chemistry with late twenties Johnson (he can get away with early twenties, her with late); the chaste thing feels forced though. Because for a while the film builds the chemistry between the two—as Dunne is reminded more and more of Tracy, because (unbeknownst to her) Tracy’s been Johnson’s most influential mentor. And then it stops. Eventually there’s a little more of a spark, but it’s in the last fifteen or twenty minutes and it’s a little late.

The film does have a last minute (temporary) rally as Tracy gets a “well, this was worth it” monologue but then the it stays too close with him after just saying the whole point of the damn movie is he’s the 800-pound gorilla. Trumbo pretends he’s been working out the moral of the whole thing for the last two hours and thinks Tracy’s monologue is going to be able to sell it. Tracy’s able to perform the monologue beautifully, he’s just not able to magic it into a good ending or a successful arc for literally anyone in the entire movie.

The performances are key. Tracy and Dunne don’t get great parts, but they get some good scenes. Bond does really well having to carry the energy of the film, even though he’s an glorified sidekick. And the movie is mercenary in how it uses him. Johnson’s potentially got the best part and gets less than anyone else but he’s able to turn it into something. He’s earnest in just the right way, a nice contrast to Tracy and something the film never plays up enough, which is silly. Gleason’s okay. He’s better at the end. At the beginning he’s just a plot foil and exposition dumper.

Technically… well, at least Fleming is consistent in failings. Joe’s got some great special effects with the flying and some really bad composite shots with the background projection. George J. Folsey and Karl Freund do a real bad job matching lighting and it’s distracting at times. It’s worse in the second part, stateside, when the rear screen projection might work as a visual representation of narrative detail.

But of course Fleming’s not going to think of it.

Otherwise, the direction’s fine. Just not good enough to lift the picture out its problems. Good editing from Frank Sullivan. Great sets; not the sets fault no one lights them or shoots them right.

A Guy Named Joe doesn’t try as hard as it should and it shows, getting good (and better) performances out of its cast without really tasking them. Tracy, Dunne, Johnson, Bond, and Barrymore all could have done much more.

And, last thing—nice support from Barry Nelson as Tracy’s stateside sidekick.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Victor Fleming; screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, based on a story by Chandler Sprague and David Boehm, adapted by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan; directors of photography, George J. Folsey and Karl Freund; edited by Frank Sullivan; music by Herbert Stothart; produced by Everett Riskin; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Pete Sandidge), Irene Dunne (Dorinda Durston), Van Johnson (Ted Randall), Ward Bond (Al Yackey), James Gleason (‘Nails’ Kilpatrick), Barry Nelson (Dick Rumney), and Lionel Barrymore (The General).



Ever After (1998, Andy Tennant)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2/4★★

CREDITS

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

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


The Best of Enemies (2019, Robin Bissell)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2/4★★

CREDITS

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

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


Greta (2018, Neil Jordan)

Greta is exceedingly competent. It’s way too unimaginative, predictable, traditional, and restrained in the final third, but it’s always exceedingly competent at those things. Even after it’s clear top-billed Isabelle Huppert isn’t going to create a singular cinema villain and even after it’s clear she’s not even as good as she was in the first hour… she’s always exceedingly competent. Ditto de facto lead Chloë Grace Moretz; she gets thin, melodramatic backstory, an annoying sidekick, a boring job, and a bland dad, but she always makes it work. Greta’s even able to make its utterly predictable last shot work.

Probably because the whole thing is utterly noncommittal and emotionally exploitative until the thriller dangers take over.

The film doesn’t start out noncommittal or emotionally exploitative. The first act at least hints at some sincerity—another of the script’s efficiencies—Moretz is a recent college (Smith, natch) graduate living the dream in New York City. Literally. She works as a waitress, but has no future ambitions and doesn’t need any because she lives with good friend Maika Monroe, whose dad bought her a loft for college graduation. Monroe doesn’t appear to do anything but yoga and party. Again, efficiency after efficiency. Moretz’s dad, Colm Feore, lives back in Boston. Moretz came to New York not because she gets to live rent-free in a bitchin’ loft but because her mom died the year before and she’s grieving. It’s implied Feore grieved his way immediately into another marriage, but it’s never explained. Because efficiency. And also the implied detail makes the film less shallow.

So one day Moretz finds a handbag on the train and—thanks to the lost and found not being open—has to bring it back to the owner herself. The owner is French-ish Isabelle Huppert, who lives all by herself because her husband died the year before and her daughter is off in Paris. Huppert and Moretz immediately bond, much to Monroe’s chagrin—she feels like Moretz is judging her negatively for being a superficial rich girl (which Moretz can’t be because she doesn’t do yoga and also dead mom). Except (and it happens before the second act) it turns out Huppert is seriously creepy creeper and Moretz tries to break off their relationship, only for Huppert to start stalking her. And eventually Monroe, leading to some great thriller sequences from Jordan, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, and editor Nick Emerson.

Huppert’s stalking gets worse, leading to bigger and bigger set pieces, until the last third (or so) of the film when the danger to Moretz starts to become far more literal. No more foreshadowing, no more backstory hints (and the ones the film has revealed add up to nothing because of how the third act plays), just terror.

The conclusion is a mix of predictable, problematic, satisfying, and truncated. Greta runs just less than a hundred minutes and definitely could use a more thorough denouement. Jordan and co-writer Ray Wright go for intensity to get the film to the finish, which is fine in the moment, it just doesn’t add up to anything. Nothing in the film adds up to anything. None of the suspicions, none of the characters’ traumatic histories, none of the characters’ criminal histories (private investigator Stephen Rea discovers more about Huppert from one file folder than the cops do after multiple interactions with both Huppert and Moritz); none of it matters in the end. So no character development, not for Moritz or Huppert. Moritz definitely needed some. Huppert, if the villain role were better, might be able to get away without it. But the role’s not better. It’s lacking. Even if she does power through the third act quite well.

Moritz is good too, though the film’s patronizing towards her, like it resents her for not having enough to do because it doesn’t give her enough to do. Monroe gets better as things go on. She’s good at action, not at exposition. She’s real rough in the first act.

Rea’s great.

Feore’s okay. It’s a perfect role for stunt-casting or a character actor and instead it’s filler with Feore.

Like I said, it’s all exceedingly competent, making Greta a successful viewing experience without being a successful film.

It’s too bad. A better, sincerer, more ambitious script could’ve given Huppert, Moretz, and Monroe some great roles.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Neil Jordan; screenplay by Ray Wright and Jordan, based on a story by Wright; director of photography, Seamus McGarvey; edited by Nick Emerson; music by Javier Navarrete; production designer, Anna Rackard; produced by Lawrence Bender, James Flynn, Sidney Kimmel, John Penotti, and Karen Richards; released by Focus Features.

Starring Isabelle Huppert (Greta Hideg), Chloë Grace Moretz (Frances McCullen), Maika Monroe (Erica Penn), Zawe Ashton (Alexa Hammond), Stephen Rea (Brian Cody), and Colm Feore (Chris McCullen).


Hail Satan? (2019, Penny Lane)

Hail Satan? starts with a joke and ends with Satanic Temple spokesperson Lucien Greaves having to wear a kevlar vest to a rally because so many Pro-Life, Born Again Christians are making legitimate assassination threats. The opening joke is one of the first Satanic Temple rallies, when they’re goofing on Rick Scott. In the span of five years, the Temple (TST) went from being a prank to getting a theatrically released documentary. TST has gone on to become a tax exempt religion (so head to their website if you want to join and get your kid out of corporal punishment, because Satanists aren’t about any of that shit).

The documentary does a mediocre job tracking the organization’s growth. In the first “act,” as the founders recount its early history, all the interviewees are obscured because death threats from Christians. By the end, when the film’s interviewing regional chapter leaders and so on, those folks are on screen unobscured. Hopefully they’re not getting death threats from Christians.

But the film doesn’t get into the death threats. Someone mentions it before they suit up Greaves with the kevlar for what turns out to be the perfunctory finish of the film. Director Lane directs the documentary’s sporadic narrative without any structure, so it’s not like a “let’s talk about death threats” aside would fit but not talking about them also stays in line with how Lane avoids talking about opposition to the Satanic Temple.

Given the TST members define Satan as the “adversary” not the horned beast or whatnot… Hail Satan? not mentioning how the opponents to the Temple are 1) Christian, 2) dedicated to the destruction of the U.S. Constitution, 3) hypocrites, 4) bad people, 5) whatever else. There’s one montage sequence where Lane shows Christians complaining to a city council about the TST giving the daily prayer but not much else. Sure, the film shows Arkansas senator Jason Rapert as an evil fuckwit, but the guy’s objectively an evil fuckwit. Those citizens ignorantly ranting against Satanism? Lane and editors Amy Foote and Aaron Wickenden made the choice of how to present them. Including using a woman who’s apparently an ESL speaker as a joke.

Lane is more than comfortable to present the Satanic Temple as a necessary good but doesn’t get into why it’s necessary; the documentary does at least silver medal gymnastics to avoid talking about how awful American Christians treat everyone who doesn’t think like them. Lane frequently just uses a one-liner from Greaves to comment on something, which “works” because Greaves has got a great onscreen presence as an interviewee (the film relies on following him so much it ought to just follow him), but it’s a major dodge. Lane’s more than comfortable to use Megyn Kelly as a sight gag but not to actually address why Kelly is able to be used as a sight gag. Because she’s an evil white American Christian.

Of course, Lane avoids a lot of other things too. Frequent interviewee Jex Blackmore ends up excommunicated from TST (for promoting the idea of assassinating the forty-fifth president) and Lane covers it, but then seems to use pre-excommunicated interview material from Blackmore again, which doesn’t seem… right. It’s “fine” in a documentary-sense, like Blackmore signed the releases or whatever, but has her perspective changed since the excommunicating. If it hasn’t, it at least ought to be addressed. Pretty much everything Lane avoids ought to be addressed.

Because Hail Satan? only runs ninety-some minutes but the lack of structure makes it feel like two and a half hours. The middle section is just waiting for something to happen. It rarely does. When TST wins one case then loses another, Lane barely addresses the loss. She doesn’t ask her interviewees about it, she just has some quick newsreel footage.

The use of footage is another thing. It’s where Lane’s most comfortable taking jabs at American Christians, usually letting someone else do it, not the film. And Lane doesn’t have to be making a pro-TST documentary—it doesn’t start out as one (when it covers the Temple’s early shenanigans)—but it definitely ends up making one. Some of that positive light is going to be inevitable with the Satanic Temple. Their seven pillars, after all, are just about being good to one’s fellow humans. They aren’t the hateful shit stains. The hateful shit stains are the Christians, who Lane isn’t willing to address, which is the missing half of Hail Satan?

Because the movie just makes the Satanists out to be regular folk (and now a literal oppressed minority), maybe twenty-first century punk slash retro grunge is a little overrepresented but they’re basically just anti-ignorant humanists. Their opposition? Their adversary? The pro-ignorance Christians.

Who Lane takes a swipe at in the editing room with someone else’s footage, someone else’s words.

As is, Hail Satan? is two or three short documentaries lumped into a feature but about half of what it needs to be. It tries to have the Satanic Temple without its adversary and you always need to show the evil. Rapert’s a loathsome, dangerous buffoon, sure, but he’s a poor stand-in for Christianity. Hail Satan? doesn’t flesh out its villains enough; so Christian privilege even permeates a movie about how Satanists are actually the good guys.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Penny Lane; cinematography by Naiti Gámez; edited by Amy Foote and Aaron Wickenden; music by Brian McOmber; produced by Gabriel Sedgwick; released by Magnolia Pictures.


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