1999

The Boondock Saints (1999, Troy Duffy)

What’s so incredible about Boondock Saints is how David Della Rocco’s atrocious performance distracts from lots of other terrible things going on in the film. At least when Della Rocco is onscreen. When he’s off… well, then the omnipresent deficiencies proudly scream their presences.

Della Rocco gets all of the film’s racist jokes and I think all of the misogynistic ones, unless there’s some sexist jokes during the Willem Dafoe sequences. Dafoe’s an apparently self-loathing gay FBI agent—you can just hear writer and director Duffy telling someone it’s not homophobic because the character’s gay so it can’t be—and the performance is weird combination of horrifying and exhilarating. Dafoe plays it to the nth degree; sadly because Duffy’s a terrible writer and terrible director, none of it’s successful but the scene where Dafoe acts out an action movie scene is the closest to “good” Boondock ever gets. If only it weren’t so stupid.

Identifying when, how, and why Dafoe’s scenes are offensive is fodder for a doctoral thesis. Not even getting to the transphobia.

Boondock Saints tells the story of brothers Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus. They don’t have the most successful Irish accents but aren’t actually particularly bad… because the roles are absolute nothing parts. They discover they’re really good at killing gangsters and go Frank Castle, only with godawful banter and lousy action scenes. Dafoe’s ostensibly on their trail but he’s having a crisis of conscience because he deep down thinks they’re right.

Della Rocco is their low level gangster friend who ends up joining their crusade but without any of the moral imperative. He just wants to kill people. And hit women.

Though given the film introduces Flanery and Reedus beating up a female coworker because, hey, they’re Irish guys and why can’t she take a joke, it’s Saint Paddy’s Day. Or something.

I understand Boondock Saints is low budget, but they really didn’t think to get any actual news footage of Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations in Boston? Like, the scene of it in the movie is seven or eight guys at the bar in an otherwise empty establishment.

Anyway. Most of Della Rocco’s most offensive stuff is in his solo scenes or at least solo shots, like Flanery and Reedus’s agents were like, maybe don’t be in the room with him and Ron Jeremy deciding how to be the most racist or the shot where he assaults a woman. There’s also this thing, which has less to do with Della Rocco and more to do with Duffy, about how Della Rocco’s girlfriend is a druggie… who’d do anything for a “dime bag” (of weed). Because… those pot addict women really are… something.

Like everything in Boondocks any thinking about it is overthinking.

Technically, the least incompetent feature is probably… the editing. It’s not well-edited and the action sequence editing is silly, but Bill DeRonde’s cutting isn’t noticeably bad. Duffy’s composition is lousy but Adam Kane’s photography still manages to make it worse. The lighting is bad. Jeff Danna’s music is bad. Robert de Vico’s production design and Mary E. McLeod’s costumes, they’re bad. But the cutting’s okay. It doesn’t make an impression, which is the best you can hope for with this one.

Performances… I mean, Dafoe’s doing a tour de force no doubt, but it’s not one worth seeing. Even if it weren’t problematic, it’s still not worth suffering the bad direction and script. Flanery and Reedus seem to get better as the film progress, which is more Della Rocco being in it more and being so amateurish. Billy Connolly’s cameo is… the nearest the film gets to actually funny. David Ferry and Brian Mahoney might actually give the most solid performances as a couple local detectives. Otherwise the cops are all bad.

The gangsters are all bad.

Everything’s bad. And never in interesting ways. Because interesting would be too much for Duffy and Boondock Saints.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Troy Duffy; director of photography, Adam Kane; edited by Bill DeRonde; music by Jeff Danna; production designer, Robert de Vico; costume designer, Mary E. McLeod; produced by Chris Brinker, Robert N. Fried, Elie Samaha, and Lloyd Segan; released by Indican Pictures.

Starring Willem Dafoe (Paul Smecker), Sean Patrick Flanery (Connor MacManus), Norman Reedus (Murphy MacManus), David Della Rocco (Rocco), David Ferry (Detective Dolly), Brian Mahoney (Detective Duffy), Bob Marley (Detective Greenly), Carlo Rota (Yakavetta), and Billy Connolly (Il Duce).


The 13th Warrior (1999, John McTiernan)

No one in The 13th Warrior seems particularly thrilled to be participating in The 13th Warrior. Some people carry it better than others—Omar Sharif’s cameo is the only “good” acting in the film, as he translates and interprets events for lead Antonio Banderas, who can’t speak the common language with the Vikings they’ve come across. Vladimir Kulich, as Beowulf (13th Warrior is an adaptation of co-producer and shadow director Michael Crichton’s novel, Eaters of the Dead, which is a riff on Beowulf), is kind of fine. His presence is indicative of the problem with Warrior, which is no one wants to take it seriously and actually ask anyone to act, so they just get a handful of personable actors and a handful of romance novel cover models and put the band together. Kulich at least takes it seriously. Taking it seriously requires effort, which is on short supply.

And, really, on short demand. No one cares. William Wisher and Warren Lewis’s screenplay is not some poorly realized masterpiece. It’s a Viking movie with an Arabian guest star. With Antonio Banderas as a tenth century Muslim traveler—based on a real person, but the film… avoids treating Banderas as a real person. The script avoids Banderas as a person so much it isn’t until the last battle, which is a very noncommittal Seven Samurai homage because neither credited director McTiernan or uncredited Crichton are any good at the action. It’s particularly stunning from McTiernan considering he made Predator and the “monsters” in Warrior decapitate and camouflage too. Warrior’s almost willfully bad.

Anyway—the movie doesn’t show Muslim Banderas pray until the last battle scene. How Banderas is going to pray five times a day—at set times—while traveling with a bunch of Vikings on a mission to kill a monster and save a village? Exploring that culture clash would probably be interesting. But they can’t do it because it’s an action movie with what ought to be a pulpy premise but instead wants to get executed like a nerdy one and it’s not. Warrior either needs a compelling lead, compelling adversaries, or compelling cannon fodder (the Vikings slash samurai). It’s got none of those things. And it’s not even Banderas’s fault. He’s not good, but it’s very clearly not his fault. His biggest scene—outside that one prayer—is when he figures out how to speak Old Norse just from sitting around and listening to the Vikings talk for a couple hours. Now, if it’d been set over weeks and the journey had narrative weight, Warrior might have something going but of course it doesn’t because it’s terrible. And the whole translating thing really shouldn’t have been raised because initially it just makes you think Sharif’s going to be sticking around longer and he’s really just there to give the movie some actual Hollywood Middle Eastern star cred before turning it all over to not Middle Eastern Hollywood star Banderas.

Again, it’s a big shame as Sharif’s a lot of fun and he’s able to make Banderas likable in a way the film never repeats. Particularly not for Banderas’s romance with Viking woman Maria Bonnevie, which is one of those “in crisis” situation romances and lacks not just romance but any sense of humanity. Bonnevie’s not bad but you’re never happy to see her because the scenes are just bad and are somehow worse than the bad A plot.

The A plot never delivers. How two directors, cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr., and editor John Wright managed to so completely fumble the action sequences—the Vikings hunting the monsters, the monsters hunting the Vikings—is inexplicable when you consider the professional pedigree and production budget. No one wanted to spend any time figuring out how to make this movie and instead they rely on slow motion a bunch of times. Including slowing down Kulich’s battle cries at one point, which is just cringe-inducing.

If they’d done in serious, it’d have had a chance. Not with this cast, obviously, but with a serious take and a better script. Or if they’d just done it exploitation-y, maybe they couldn’t gotten some energy. The movie’s not even boring as much as it’s exhausting. It’s exhausted, it’s exhausting.

No one looks as miserable to be participating as Diane Venora, who’s got the thankless role of being a recognizable female name for the opening titles and maybe even the poster but nothing else.

The 13th Warrior is a stunning waste of time for everyone involved, viewer included.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John McTiernan; screenplay by William Wisher and Warren Lewis, based on a novel by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Peter Menzies Jr.; edited by John Wright; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Wolf Kroeger; costume designer, Kate Harrington; produced by Crichton, McTiernan, and Ned Dowd; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Antonio Banderas (Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan), Dennis Storhøi (Herger), Vladimir Kulich (Buliwyf), Maria Bonnevie (Olga), Richard Bremmer (Skeld), Tony Curran (Weath), Sven Wollter (King Hrothgar), Diane Venora (Queen Weilew), Anders T. Andersen (Prince Wigliff), and Omar Sharif (Melchisidek).


Deep Blue Sea (1999, Renny Harlin)

Deep Blue Sea is ten years too late. I knew the movie was about genetically modified sharks gone wild but the people are also stranded at the bottom of the ocean in a habitat thing. Deep Blue Sea isn’t just an amped-up Jaws movie with terrible CGI and a lousy cast, it’s a postscript in the great Leviathan, The Abyss, DeepStar Six sea monster cohort—wait, I just read there are actually even more 1989 sea monster movies. Three more. Wow.

I wonder if any of them are better than Deep Blue Sea, which lacks distinction and is rather predictably bad. The lousy shark attacks necking Abercrombie models opener sets the stage. It even establishes there are going to be composition issues throughout, as director Harlin and cinematographer Stephen F. Windon went Super 35 (which just means the shots are cropped from 4:3 to 2.35:1); I’m not sure if every single close-up in the movie is a bad shot but at least–on the conservative side… ninety-two percent of them are bad shots. Harlin doesn’t do a lot of close-ups, just like when it seems like Jaws would use a close-up. Deep Blue Sea is very much a poorly written, low budgeted Jaws and Jurassic Park mash-up not directed by Steven Spielberg but a very Spielberg-influenced Harlin. To give Harlin some benefit of the doubt. Because besides the sound design, which is awesome and significantly better than the lousy CGI explosions it accompanies, and maybe how impressively Trevor Rabin mimics John Williams and Danny Elfman, there’s nothing good about Deep Blue Sea. There are more worse things and less worse things. There are also sad things. Lots and lots of sad, bad things. And like one good practical shark model. Deep Blue Sea is a failing postscript to that 1989 sea monster club too; it doesn’t even try with its sharks. It’s always CGI. Deep Blue Sea is from that era of CGI where everyone thought it’d be cool to have a crappy CGI helicopter flying around. Usually the same CGI helicopter model too.

All the CGI-assisted shark attacks and structural disasters aside, the movie’s a fail simply because it’s not camp. First act lead, Saffron Burrows approaches the part like an audition for a daytime soap bitchy British lady part, which has some camp potential but no one goes for it. Burrows can’t because she’s godawful, but Harlin either doesn’t see it or wants to avoid it. The script avoids camp too, it wouldn’t work well with the Crichton-sized self-delusion. Burrows eventually just becomes a prop—there’s a really creepy Ripley underwear homage, which kind of sums up the film perfectly—as she’s revealed to have violated the “Harvard Compact,” which doesn’t even sound real in the movie, to genetically modify the sharks, something none of her colleagues know about but is utterly obvious because anytime Burrows talks about her father dying from Alzheimer’s and shark brains being the only solution, she’s really intense and really, really bad. Harlin tends to go to close-up, which is too bad because it’s kind of funny seeing the actors standing around perplexed as they shift from side to side during someone else’s exposition dump. Samuel L. Jackson does it best. Him or Stellan Skarsgård. Jackson’s not good because he’s like two caricatures put together; one’s the intrusive rich investor guy, the other’s the mountaineer who killed people who didn’t follow his orders. But he’s the most likable character in the movie because he’s not giving a peculiarly terrible performance. Jackson’s just not good because the part’s terrible, ditto Skarsgård. Burrows, Thomas Jane, Michael Rapaport, Jacqueline McKenzie, on the other hand… they’re not good because of their parts, sure, but they’re also each bad in some specific ways, as I mentioned above and will not repeat with Burrows.

Jane.

Thomas Jane is the Harrison Ford-type shark wrangler. He’s got a literal swimming with the sharks scene; you can tell some of the casting is because other actors said no to being in the water so much. Jane’s in the water a lot; underwater a lot. His performance is unformed clay. With very blond hair. He’s bad but you don’t get exasperated with him like some of the other cast. Well, actually everyone else except Jackson, Skarsgård, and Aida Turturro (as the sassy radio operator topside). Michael Rapaport gets tiring fast not because he’s so bad but because he’s trying so hard; he’s really enthusiastic about playing a smart engineer guy here. It’s awkward to watch. Harlin’s really bad at directing the actors. He wants to focus on the explosions—not even the sharks—and the script wants to focus on the characters in dramatic situations, which Harlin’s got no interest in or apparent ability to direct.

And then Jacqueline McKenzie; the whole reason I’ve wanted to see the movie. She’s got such a bland Americanized accent (she’s Australian) it has lost all affect.

Oh, and LL Cool J. He’s not bad. He’s not good, it’s not a good showcase of his acting, even though he’s got all these actorly moments in his part, an ex-preacher turned undersea chef. His solo adventure through the crisis pads the movie, which doesn’t have anywhere near enough story for a hundred and five minutes.

But then the end credits are like eight blissful minutes you get back.

Returned to life.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Renny Harlin; written by Duncan Kennedy, Donna Powers, and Wayne Powers; director of photography, Stephen F. Windon; edited by Derek Brechin, Dallas Puett, and Frank J. Urioste; music by Trevor Rabin; production designers, Joseph Bennett and William Sandell; costume designer, Mark Bridges; produced by Akiva Goldsman, Tony Ludwig, Don MacBain, and Alan Riche; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Thomas Jane (Carter Blake), Saffron Burrows (Dr. Susan McAlester), Samuel L. Jackson (Russell Franklin), Jacqueline McKenzie (Janice Higgins), Michael Rapaport (Tom Scoggins), Stellan Skarsgård (Jim Whitlock), LL Cool J (Preacher), Aida Turturro (Brenda Kerns), and Ronny Cox (The Old Man).


The Straight Story (1999, David Lynch)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Especially since it’s called The Straight Story.

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

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

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

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

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

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


Tumbleweeds (1999, Gavin O’Connor)

Despite excellent lead performances, Tumbleweeds is almost entirely inert–dramatically speaking. Janet McTeer is a thirtysomething single mom with bad taste in men who drags tween daughter Kimberly J. Brown all around the country after her latest romance goes bad. The romances never go too bad because McTeer has a preternatural ability to stay away from physically abusive partners. For example, the film starts with McTeer and (uncredited) beau Noah Emmerich getting into–oh, yeah, McTeer moves in with every guy and marries many of them–but they’re getting into a big fight where it seems like Emmerich is about to hit her, but never does. He’s just an angry, break everything drunk. Meanwhile Brown is preparing her wordly possessions for she and McTeer’s imminent departure.

They’re apparently always in lousy situations, but never dangerous ones, which ends up contributing to the eventual lack of dramatic impact. If director O’Connor were capable of a lyrical type narrative, it’d be fine. He’s not. But more on that deficiency in a bit.

So after McTeer and Brown leave Emmerich punching his kitchen appliances and watching TV, Tumbleweeds becomes a road movie. McTeer wants to go to Arizona (they’re from the South, all over); Brown doesn’t. Eventually they agree on San Diego. Well, McTeer eventually agrees with Brown. It’s Brown’s idea. They have some misadventures–but nothing too dangerous or dire–before getting there. They don’t get to San Diego until about halfway through the film. The first half is a meandering road movie, the second half has none of the same stylistic choices. By stylistic choices I guess I mean O’Connor’s proclivity for occasional shaky camerawork to show… well, to show nothing, really. Except to diss Dan Stoloff’s otherwise perfectly competent photography.

Once they arrive in San Diego–actually a smaller city near San Diego, but on the water–Brown gets enrolled in school (at just the right moment because it seems like McTeer could care less about it until that point) and makes friends and McTeer gets a new job. In comes the supporting cast. There’s Ashley Buccille as Brown’s friend from drama class (and Cody McMains as the annoying boy who likes her) while McTeer starts working for weird (but not too weird) creep (but harmlessly) Michael J. Pollard and makes friends with coworker Laurel Holloman. Pretty soon McTeer has a kismet moment with a new dude–director O’Connor, whose blasé performance basically relegates Tumbleweeds to that dramatic inertia–much to Brown’s disapproval.

McTeer moves them in with O’Connor, with Brown knowingly anticipating the relationship’s eventual failure. Meanwhile she’s trying out for Romeo and Juliet at school, much to soon-to-be-ex-bestie Buccille’s chagrin (there can be only one Juliet, after all), especially since McTeer’s afore unmentioned coworker Jay O. Sanders coaches Brown on her performance. Because he’s just the type of great guy McTeer would never go for.

Drama does not ensue.

The script, by O’Connor and Angela Shelton, is anti-melodramatic but also entirely unrealistic in its cockeyed reality. McTeer, despite working menial jobs, is never wanting for money. Both she and O’Connor go through too short unemployment arcs; apparently everyone’s got a lot of rainy day savings in Tumbleweeds. They have to have them, because otherwise things might actually get a little intense or dangerous and there’s no intensity or danger in Tumbleweeds. It’s gritty… ish, because low budget, and never because of narrative. There’s some “gritty” dialogue–Holloman’s lengthy description of coffee enemas is exceptionally pointless–but the film avoids all its confrontational moments. Besides the opening one where Baumbach decides he’ll be a verbally abusive drunken bastard but he’s got his limits. Tumbleweeds is a poser when it comes to the dark realities of humanity.

Luckily, the performances are mostly phenomenal. McTeer, Brown, and Sanders are all amazing. Though Sanders’s material is mostly pat. And outside the character relationship stuff with McTeer and Brown they don’t get much either. All the important narrative developments happen off-screen (once it becomes clear O’Connor, as actor, is never going to be too abusive or too dangerous; it kind of works since his performance is just as shallow as his character). Pollard’s fine in an extended cameo. Holloman is good with a nothing role. Lois Smith shows up for a bit. She gets even less of a role than Pollard. Kids Buccille and McMains are fine. Again, since important narrative developments are discussed in exposition, they don’t need to be any better.

If it weren’t for McTeer and Brown and their performances, Tumbleweeds would fizzle (Sanders is gravy). But they’re great, so it doesn’t. The script’s just not there, O’Connor (both as actor and director) isn’t there. Sure, the movie’s low budget, but… if O’Connor were a better director (and writer) it wouldn’t matter. The film’s got zero ambitions. Thank goodness the cast has some.

The six to nine endings don’t help things either.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Gavin O’Connor; screenplay by O’Connor and Angela Shelton, based on a story by Shelton; director of photography, Dan Stoloff; edited by John Gilroy; music by David Mansfield; production designer, Bryce Holtshousen; produced by Greg O’Connor; released by Fine Line Features.

Starring Janet McTeer (Mary Jo Walker), Kimberly J. Brown (Ava Walker), Gavin O’Connor (Jack Ranson), Jay O. Sanders (Dan Miller), Laurel Holloman (Laurie Pendleton), Michael J. Pollard (Mr. Cummings), Ashley Buccille (Zoe Broussard), Cody McMains (Adam Riley), and Lois Smith (Ginger).


The Winslow Boy (1999, David Mamet)

The Winslow Boy utilizes all the trappings of a stage adaptation without ever being stagy. Director Mamet opens the film with a family entering their home–there’s some muted conversation before they get completely inside, then the introductions begin. So it’s a very play structure too, at least as far as the first and third acts go, but Mamet perfectly matches that structure. The way Mamet paces the film is exquisite. He anticipates story beats with stylistic choices, often infusing Winslow with indeterminate foreboding.

The first act sets up the cast. Nigel Hawthorne is the stern but loving and proud father, Gemma Jones is mother, Rebecca Pidgeon is the oldest, a pre-WWI feminist and suffragette, Matthew Pidgeon is the disappointing middle child, and Guy Edwards is the (much younger) pride of the family. Mamet and his actors deliberately establish their characters, with Mamet moving the narrative focus among them for best result. As the actor establishes their character–the beginning Winslow Boy is sort of a rapid, pre-Christmas ground situation exposition dump; Mamet keeps it moving through dialogue speed, repetition, Barbara Tulliver’s editing, and especially Benoît Delhomme’s photography. Winslow Boy only has the one main location–the family’s house–and Mamet is inventively pragmatic composing shots in it. Again, he emphasizes the actors’ performances, even when it’s an off screen actor.

After the setup, the film jumps ahead four months. There has been some hint of the main plot–young Edwards is expelled from the royal naval academy for thievery, a crime he maintains he didn’t commit–but not how it will play out. Hawthorne fights the expulsion, at great expense to the family and to great publicity. It’s Edwardian England, between wars, and it all causes quite a stir. Enough of one to eventually threaten Rebecca Pigdeon’s love life.

Mamet and the cast have a great deal of fun with Edwardian propriety, with Pidgeon getting the best lines. There’s a thoughtfulness and gentleness in the propriety and how the actors essay it, something the film technically emphases. The music’s different, the photography and composition are more intimate–even when it’s set during a bright day, Mamet and Delhomme find a way to focus just on their subjects. The rest of the world is far away.

About halfway through the film, Winslow Boy introduces Jeremy Northam’s barrister. Winslow is never about the process in getting the expulsion reconsidered, it’s about the effects of that process, both immediate and collateral. Northam’s character lets Mamet take the film into the House of Commons, to hear the debate–otherwise, news of the case is usually shown through expository shots–supportive buttons, political cartoons, branded umbrellas.

Thanks to Mamet’s established repetition device, he’s able to not just get the information across of what’s happening offscreen, but he’s able to give it the necessary context for viewers not well-versed early 20th century British law. Pidgeon and Hawthorne are learning about it too. It’s a great way to make the characters more sympathetic too; it puts characters and viewers at the same point on the learning curve.

The performances are all excellent. Rebecca Pidgeon and Jeremy Northam have a lovely, gentle romantic subplot. They’re both great, though never as good with anyone but each other. Their timing, how Mamet handles their peculiar flirtation, anchors the third act of the film.

First act lead Hawthorne spends the second act in obscured transition. In addition to straining his family to defend Edwards’s honor, he’s got his own aging character arc, which he never gets to play on front burner, and then he’s got to deal with the publicity fallout. So he has these relationship arcs with almost every character. Sometimes just for a quiet joke.

Jones is the film’s unsung glue for the first half. She’s mom, she’s always sympathetic, she’s great with all her costars. Her comic timing is phenomenal. Matthew Pidgeon’s good, Edwards’s good, everyone’s always good and often better. Mamet directs for his actors.

The Winslow Boy is a quiet, gentle, rousing success.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by David Mamet; screenplay by Mamet, based on the play by Terence Rattigan; director of photography, Benoît Delhomme; edited by Barbara Tulliver; music by Alaric Jans; production designer, Gemma Jackson; produced by Sarah Green; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Nigel Hawthorne (Arthur Winslow), Rebecca Pidgeon (Catherine Winslow), Gemma Jones (Grace Winslow), Jeremy Northam (Sir Robert Morton), Guy Edwards (Ronnie Winslow), Matthew Pidgeon (Dickie Winslow), Aden Gillett (John Waterstone), Colin Stinton (Desmond Curry), Sarah Flind (Violet), and Neil North (First Lord).


But I’m a Cheerleader (1999, Jamie Babbit)

But I’m a Cheerleader is too short. It runs eighty-five minutes, which would be fine if the narrative fit into director Babbit’s affected, aspirationally camp style. But Brian Peterson’s script is front heavy. And Jules Labarthe’s cinematography is too flat. Rachel Kamerman’s production design is loud, but Labarthe shoots it too shallow. He’s also not great at lighting actors between shots. Even if he were, Cecily Rhett wouldn’t be good at cutting those shots.

Cheerleader is utterly sincere, which is great, but Babbit and Peterson don’t take the film through that sincerity as it develops. After a deliberately paced two-thirds, all of a sudden Cheerleader is in a rush to finish. The script has taken a traditional romantic comedy direction–down to a deus ex conclusion so spared down it utterly lacks the needed spectacle. Peterson’s script doesn’t lay the groundwork for it until the second half, which is a whole other problem. The film doesn’t flow well.

It wouldn’t help if Cheerleader accomplished affected camp. It doesn’t need to be camp. It accomplishes something else entirely, this amazing relationship between Natasha Lyonne and Clea DuVall, which turns out to be the point of the script. Only it doesn’t seem like it was always the point of the script, because the original point of the script was Lyonne’s character development; her personal growth arc gives way to traditional rom-com stuff.

Lyonne’s a high school cheerleader who finds herself whisked away to a “brainwash the gay away” camp. Parents Bud Cort and Mink Stole are upset previously prim, proper, and Protestant Lyonne now wants to eat tofu. And then there’s her Melissa Etheridge poster. So they call RuPaul (out of drag and quite funny) to consult. He’s an “ex-gay” who works at the camp (run by Cathy Moriarty).

But Lyonne doesn’t think she’s gay. So there’s character development on that plotline. And there’s development on her plotline with her parents. And there’s development on her plotline with DuVall, the semi-goth rich girl who isn’t trying to get rid of her gay, just learn how to hide it. The last plotline doesn’t just tie into Lyonne’s own sexuality plotline, but also her parents plotline and her life and values in general. In the midst of the affected camp, with Lyonne looking like a sixties cheerleader doll, she and DuVall have these terribly lighted, terribly edited, wonderful moments.

Lyonne’s fine in the lead. She gets better as her character becomes more proactive, but DuVall’s spellbinding. She’s (maybe) the object of Lyonne’s affection and Babbit does a great job presenting her and developing her from Lyonne’s perspective. While it’s not camp or affected and often feels like a different movie, their chemistry makes Cheerleader quite special for a while.

Then comes Peterson’s disastrous third act. It happens gradually too, almost forecasting itself. There’s just no way for Babbit and Peterson to get the film across the finish line in the eighty-five minutes so they grab what they can and wrap it up quick. Peterson throws out distractions in almost every scene–which can be cute, like ex-ex-gays Wesley Mann and Richard Moll bickering–but don’t end up doing anything. It’s filler, because the film’s lost Lyonne’s character development. She’s a protagonist with a stalled arc.

Moriarty’s all right. The script stops giving her anything extra after the first act setup and, given the outrageously pink (and overtly homoerotic) mansion interiors, Moriarty should have a lot extra. Instead, she just has son Eddie Cibrian, who’s a buff temptation for all the gay boys at the camp. There’s a big supporting cast of “campers” and they’re all fine. Melanie Lynskey gets more to do than most, she’s good.

Babbit wants to have the freedoms of affectation while retaining sincerity. Only Cheerleader doesn’t get to sincerity through affectation, it’s something Babbit and Peterson just drop into the affectation and try to make room. It doesn’t work, which is a shame, because DuVall and Lyonne deserve a better film. Babbit seems like she wants to deliver one too.

But I’m a Cheerleader is cute and fun. And sweet. But it could’ve been something much better.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jamie Babbit; screenplay by Brian Peterson, based on a story by Babbit; director of photography, Jules Labarthe; edited by Cecily Rhett; music by Pat Irwin; production designer, Rachel Kamerman; produced by Andrea Sperling and Leanna Creel; released by Lions Gate Entertainment.

Starring Natasha Lyonne (Megan), Clea DuVall (Graham), Cathy Moriarty (Mary Brown), Melanie Lynskey (Hilary), RuPaul (Mike), Bud Cort (Peter), Mink Stole (Nancy), Dante Basco (Dolph), and Eddie Cibrian (Rock).


The Thirteenth Floor (1999, Josef Rusnak)

It’d be hard to call The Thirteenth Floor a missed opportunity because that statement suggests there was some promise to it. There’s no promise anywhere near Thirteenth Floor. But it does have some gorgeous set decoration and, presumably, production design from Kirk M. Petruccelli. The presumably qualifier because even though Petruccelli does excellent work on the 1930s and 1990s (the present day has some of the same art deco themes), there’s terrible second unit stuff of modern day L.A. and it just breaks the tone. If that decision was Petruccelli’s and not director Rusnak’s, it’s on him. It’s terrible and breaks the visual tone of the film every time there’s an establishing shot of the city. There’s nothing to enjoy in the film, save the occasionally interesting bit of design. Even if Rusnak and cinematographer Wedigo von Schultzendorff usually screw it up.

The film’s got a lousy script–real, real lousy–by director Rusnak and Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez. Rusnak can’t direct the actors either. They’re all bad, though Vincent D’Onofrio does betray having some ability at one point or another. No one else does. Not even poor Dennis Haysbert, who I was hoping would be a surprisingly great performance. He’s not; he’s really bad, just like most everyone else. Craig Bierko’s the lead. He’s awful. Gretchen Mol’s his love interest. She’s just bad, not awful. Armin Mueller-Stahl is a little better than Mol, only because the plotting. It’s bad plotting, but it still sames Mueller-Stahl some face. No one else gets anywhere near as lucky.

It’s a dumb movie with dumb ideas in a bad script. It’s a poorly acted, poorly directed dumb movie. Any competency is rare–basically just the score’s not bad. If it were a different movie, Harald Kloser would be doing a perfectly acceptable score. It just can’t do what Floor needs its score to do, which is cover plot holes or performance holes. Worse, Kloser seems to get it–only he can improve the film’s quality; it’s impossible. Rusnak is just too bad at his job of directing this film. The Thirteenth Floor is terrible.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Josef Rusnak; screenplay by Rusnak and Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez, based on a novel by Daniel F. Galouye; director of photography, Wedigo von Schultzendorff; edited by Henry Richardson; music by Harald Kloser; production designer, Kirk M. Petruccelli; produced by Roland Emmerich, Ute Emmerich and Marco Weber; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Craig Bierko (Douglas Hall), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Hannon Fuller), Gretchen Mol (Jane Fuller), Vincent D’Onofrio (Jason Whitney), Dennis Haysbert (Detective Larry McBain), Steven Schub (Detective Zev Bernstein) and Jeremy Roberts (Tom Jones).


Three Kings (1999, David O. Russell)

Three Kings ought to appeal to every one of my liberal affections–director Russell very seriously wants to look at the Gulf War and how it failed the people it should have been protecting. Over and over, Russell goes out of his way to make the American soldiers take responsibility. Not for the war itself, but for their personal involvement with it and the Iraqis. Not just Iraqi civilians, but the army too. It’s very deliberate and precisely executed. It’s just not enough to drive the entire film; nothing in Three Kings is compelling enough overall.

Political statement aside, there’s a lot of other distinct elements to the film. There’s the writing–Russell’s script is quite funny–lots of inane and mundane details. But it’s also rather responsible, at least while Russell’s establishing the ground situation. Russell sets up an excellent tone and structure to the characters and their relationships. Even though some of the film takes place on an army base, it always feels very small. Maybe because Russell has title overlays identifying the main characters. With amusing commentary, of course.

Then there’s the style. Three Kings is very stylized; high contrast Newton Thomas Sigel photography, very quick cuts, some very slow cuts, some slow motion. Russell directs his actors for this exaggerated style, but with only marginal success. Ice Cube and George Clooney, for instance, have nothing parts. Russell gives all the character material to Mark Wahlberg and Spike Jonze. Neither of them is bad, though Jonze can’t handle the transition between being an uneducated racist redneck to a soulful world traveller. He doesn’t really need to do much after that change because Russell’s moved on to focusing on Wahlberg. Wahlberg’s all right for the first act, but has this big subplot to himself and he can’t hack it. So Jonze and Wahlberg getting the most outlandish direction makes sense. They need the most cover.

By the third act, however, Russell has given in to the comedy a little much. He has Nora Dunn and Jamie Kennedy for the comic relief but he takes it even further. It starts to get absurd, which–were Three Kings more successful–should raise some issues about Russell’s political statements.

Great supporting performances. Cliff Curtis, Dunn, Saïd Taghmaoui, Mykelti Williamson, Holt McCallany. Kennedy’s annoying and probably should signal Russell’s eventual tone problems, but he’s good with Dunn. Williamson is awesome opposite Clooney. Then ppor Taghmaoui has to carry Wahlberg in their important (and informative) showdowns.

Decent music from Carter Burwell. Robert K. Lambert’s editing is probably exactly what Russell wanted, though some of the cuts aren’t graceful enough. Three Kings takes place in all of us, Russell demands the audience engage. Three Kings needs more script busywork and far less technical busywork. It also needs a director more concerned about his actors.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by David O. Russell; screenplay by Russell, based on a story by John Ridley; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by Robert K. Lambert; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Catherine Hardwicke; produced by Charles Roven, Paul Junger Witt and Edward McDonnell; released by Warner Bros.

Starring George Clooney (Archie Gates), Mark Wahlberg (Troy Barlow), Ice Cube (Chief Elgin), Spike Jonze (Conrad Vig), Cliff Curtis (Amir Abdulah), Nora Dunn (Adriana Cruz), Jamie Kennedy (Walter Wogaman), Saïd Taghmaoui (Captain Said), Mykelti Williamson (Colonel Horn), Holt McCallany (Captain Van Meter) and Judy Greer (Cathy Daitch).


Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999, George Lucas)

Hi. My name is Andrew. And, from 1999 to sometime in 2000, I was a Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace apologist. When writing out the title, I forced myself to type it Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Because having two colons in a title is too lame.

It was a dark time. But, every day, as the ramifications of Phantom Menace (and its critical and cultural reaction) played out and destined mainstream American cinema into a bottomless pit of cynical opportunism masked as fan service, things got brighter. For my film appreciation, anyway. All the rest of the world got was a couple more Star Wars prequels, which I avoided like the plague at the time.

I refused to return to Phantom Menace, after it had become clear there was no way to justify any of it. Jar Jar Binks, the moron who saves a planet, becomes the scapegoat for a film with a gentle, kindly, oftentimes humorous look at slavery. In his screenplay, director Lucas talks about adorable little Jake Lloyd, who’s so Aryan and sweet, we can’t imagine him growing up into Sebastian Shaw, much less James Earl Jones, being a slave almost as much as he talks about those stupid midi-chlorian. He thinks they’re really cool. Just like slavery. And Jar Jar Binks.

Lucas loves Jar Jar Binks. He doesn’t love a lot in Phantom Menace. He could care less about almost all of it, until he gets to the end and thinks he’s directing a sixties MGM war movie. Because there’s nothing original in Phantom Menace. Lucas is just cribbing from other movies–so much Spielberg, so much Cameron–and trying to put something together. It’s like a demo reel, which–if I was being nice–could be used as a rationalization for Lucas, Ben Burtt and Paul Martin Smith’s godawful editing, which goes out of its way to distance the viewer from the characters. Because if the viewer has to get close to the character, to the actor, it’d all be over. Lucas can’t be taken seriously, because he’s so disinterested. He’s copping out.

It’s easy to tell the effects sequences Lucas cares about–with the exception of the visuals of the city planet (yeah, I know what it’s called, but can we just pretend for a second I don’t–I’d have to look up the spelling and I don’t want to)–has flying birds in the shots. Just like Spielberg would have. Because Lucas is jealous. He’s seen ILM do amazing work, both practically and then digitally, and none of it really had anything to do with him. But Lucas hadn’t been making movies, he hadn’t been doing anything, with the Star Wars brand for a decade until the twentieth anniversary edition. And what did all those new special effects, which gave Lucas a chance to have ILM aggrandize him instead of someone else, do? They got a reaction. That reaction emboldened Lucas. It probably emboldened him from the first tests they would have had to do. I’d love to know how that project happened.

All of the effects shots in Phantom Menace attempt to top one another. None of them inform the story. Not even the good ones. Those shots just happen not to be some of the awful ones, which usually involve compositions or first person point of view. But for the effects shots to build in expectation, well, you need a plot to back that approach up. Because Ray Park’s idiotically terse villain doesn’t pay off with that build-up. Neither does Lloyd’s space adventure, which is just a bad Top Gun knock-off for kids. Lucas either doesn’t know what to rip off from somewhere else or he does know what to rip off, but can’t rip it off successfully. The direction is awful.

So what’s good about Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace?

Not Liam Neeson. He’s terrible. Not Ewan McGregor. He’s even more terrible. Not Natalie Portman. She’s better than those two guys. Pernilla August is comically bad. Jake Lloyd’s crappy but it’s hard to blame the kid, Lucas didn’t know how to do this movie. He paces the thing like a bad Saturday morning cartoon.

It’s hard to dislike Ian McDiarmid. He’s almost fun. If Lucas had any ambition for the film, he would have made so much questionable at the end of it. He was bluffing. Phantom Menace is a conceptual bluff, which most entertainment ends up being. Only Lucas got called on it because he’s so bad. It’s so bad.

Though it’s hard to dislike Anthony Daniels. His idiotic cameo at least has sincere acting, which isn’t present anywhere else. Not even from McDiarmid. He’s just too bemused.

Then there’s Terence Stamp looking like he’s working for quaaludes. Or Hugh Quarshie, who’s desperate to make an impression even though Lucas refuses to let anyone make an impression except maybe Sam Jackson just because Lucas is a political animal.

Low mediocre score from John Williams. Awful photography from David Tattersall. He’s overconfident, trying to cover for his inability with the effects work.

Is there anything good about it?

No, don’t be silly. It’s awful. Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace or even if you were crazy and really thought The Phantom Menace was more important than the Episode I part… it’s awful.

And, just like the original, it’s changed Hollywood. Lucas disrupted the system once again. Only this time, he did it too well. He figured out a way to make movies for everyone, whether they knew it or not. I mean, there’s not a single real conversation in this film. There’s not a single time the viewer has to ask a question or have a thought. Lucas pats your hand and takes your money, one stupid scene after another.

I used to defend this movie. I used to say it was okay. I got people to see it.

You know what, I like Andy Secombe’s Watto. I’m just going to say it. I always have. Even now, when it’s obvious Lucas is painting him as a benevolent slave owner. He’s an endearing rip-off of Quark. I wonder who came up with that characterization for the film. It wasn’t Lucas.

I’ve rationalized this film to people. I shouldn’t have. It was wrong. It’s so lame it’s awful, but it’s so lame it can’t actually be awful, because it can’t be taken seriously. Not as a film. Not as a toy commercial. Not even as an expression of Lucas’s ego. Phantom Menace can’t even be that.

Because The Phantom Menace is in vain.

And to those people out there who tried to tell me I was wrong back in 1999 and 2000 during those dark, apologist days and I didn’t listen to you… well, I was a dirty bird. You weren’t grungy, you were bitchin’.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by George Lucas; director of photography, David Tattersall; edited by Ben Burtt and Paul Martin Smith; music by John Williams; production designer, Gavin Bocquet; produced by Rick McCallum; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn), Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Natalie Portman (Padmé Amidala), Jake Lloyd (Anakin Skywalker), Pernilla August (Shmi Skywalker), Ian McDiarmid (Senator Palpatine), Oliver Ford Davies (Sio Bibble), Hugh Quarshie (Captain Panaka), Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Kenny Baker (R2-D2) with Terence Stamp (Chancellor Valorum) and Frank Oz (Yoda).


Scroll to Top