2014

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).


What We Do in the Shadows (2014, Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi)

What We Do in the Shadows is strong from the first scene. An alarm clock goes off at six. A hand reaches over to hit snooze. Only it’s six at night and the hand is reaching from a coffin. Shadows’s a mockumentary (though I sort of want to start calling them docucomedies after this one); the unseen documentary crew’s subjects are four Wellington, New Zealand vampire flatmates—directors Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, Jonny Brugh, and Ben Fransham. The vampires have promised not to eat their documenters.

But there’s a lot of eating. Shadows is straight comedy. It’s funny when Waititi can’t figure out how to properly eat a victim, even though he’s almost four hundred years old. See, Waititi (as Clement tells the camera during the first act setup) was a dandy. Waititi is Interview with the Vampire, Clement is London After Midnight in terms of look while Vlad the Impaler (actually poker) in backstory. Brugh’s just a vampire. Fransham is Nosferatu, in some great makeup.

Waititi is the Felix, Brugh’s the Oscar, Clement’s in between. He does his chores, but he thinks Waititi is too much. Fransham is in a cement crypt in the basement and basically just eats people. He never cleans up either; his hallway is strewn with spinal cords and bones. It’d probably bother Waititi more if Brugh weren’t causing such problems upstairs. Plus, neither Brugh or Clement want to take the time to cover furniture before killing their victims. The blood’s getting on the nice furniture.

The first act sets up the life of modern Wellington vampires. How they get their victims—either seduction or Brugh having his familiar, Jackie van Beek, procure them—and how they socialize (they can’t get into many night spots because they need to be invited in). van Beek ends up introducing Cori Gonzalez-Macuer to the fellows, giving the film its main narrative. Gonzalez-Macuer becomes a vampire and, for about three minutes, it seems like the film might move to his perspective but no. Young know-it-all vampires are dopes; Gonzalez-Macuer is a dope and the film’s more about how the flatmates deal with having him around.

It’s not too bad, however, because he’s got a really cool friend (Stu Rutherford) who comes along. Rutherford’s human, but he’s so cool nobody’s going to eat him. Especially not after he shows the vampires how to use the Internet.

The film’s got a built-in structure—the documentary is about this annual undead ball and they’re going with the vampires. The ball shows up late in the film and, while it functions as the climax (or immediate precursor to it), it never feels that heavy. The “documentary” doesn’t change in tone. There’s no added emphases. Action just plays out like action plays out the rest of the time. The film’s meticulously edited, with this occasional asides to subplots. The asides are so successful you want the documentary filmmakers to show up just because they’ve got such an interesting take on their subjects. They’d be interesting characters. And not just because they’re so dispassionate about all the killing.

The killing is incidental.

All of the performances are great. Directors (and writers) Clement and Waititi are the best. Clement’s got something of a less showy role (though a more showy wardrobe) but gets to have some subtext while Waititi plays for more obvious laughs. He’s got his own subplot, but it doesn’t do anything until the end, when it’s just for a great laugh or two. Lots of great laughs in Shadows. Meanwhile, Clement’s subplot turns out to be tied to the main narrative. It’s complicated for the narrative but not so much for Clement, who instead has to imply a bunch in his performance. It all works out just right, of course, because Clement and Waititi do a fantastic job with Shadows. They’ve always got the right tone, the right joke, the right plot development.

Brugh, Gonzalez-Macuer, and van Beek all give strong performances. Brugh’s Oscar Madison so he’s mostly for a certain kind of laughs, but he’s also got great quirks. Gonzalez-Macuer is a sincere doofus. van Beek quietly suffers (she wants to be a vampire but Brugh keeps putting it off because vampires are shitty to their familiars).

There are a lot of vampire movie references in the film, including ones you might miss even if you’ve seen the movie. It’s more important to get the reference being a reference than to actually get the reference. The film leverages obvious genre tropes for humor, not specific references. Shadows is exceptionally well-executed.

And the special effects are perfect too.

Also—superb supporting performances all around, particularly Karen O’Leary as one of the cops who gets called out to check on the vampire house; superb supporting performances are no surprise because everything in What We Do in the Shadows succeeds.

Clement and Waititi, their costars, their crew—everyone does spectacular work.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi; directors of photography, Richard Bluck and D.J. Stipsen; edited by Tom Eagles, Yana Gorskaya, and Jonathan Woodford-Robinson; music by Plan 9; production designer, Ra Vincent; produced by Emanuel Michael, Waititi, and Chelsea Winstanley; released by Madman Entertainment.

Starring Jemaine Clement (Vladislav), Taika Waititi (Viago), Jonny Brugh (Deacon), Cori Gonzalez-Macuer (Nick), Stu Rutherford (Stu), Ben Fransham (Petyr), Jackie van Beek (Jackie), and Elena Stejko (The Beast).


The Babadook (2014, Jennifer Kent)

So much of The Babadook is so good, it almost doesn’t matter the film’s third act is a series of little disasters. Director (and writer) Kent does such an exquisite job with the film until then, she can basically coast to the end credits. The Babadook is a spectacularly made film; Kent’s direction, Simon Njoo’s editing, Radek Ladczuk’s photography, Jed Kurzel’s music, and Alex Holmes’s production design are all phenomenal. Most of the leads Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman’s performances are great. For most of the film, Kent finds a perfect balance between being creepy and defining that creepiness. In the end, the creepiness is symbolic, which is it’s own problem, somewhat separate from the other third act issues. Except intricately tied to them because Kent’s finish for the film means there’s only so much she can do in the third act. Given the wobbly ending, it’s even more impressive how much of Babadook is good. Kent really does delay having to give into the finale building until the last possible moment.

Davis and Wiseman are almost always onscreen. Davis is a single mom, Wiseman is her somewhat strange six year-old (he’s about to turn seven, cue plot point); his father (Davis’s husband, Benjamin Winspear in flashbacks) died driving Davis to the hospital to give birth. She’s haunted by it. Wiseman’s haunted by it. It’s all very heavy. And kind of shocking it wasn’t a problem for Davis until Wiseman’s seventh birthday. She really delayed her breakdown.

The inciting action for the film is Davis reading Wiseman a story about The Babadook from a mysterious pop-up book Wiseman finds on the shelf. It’s a majorly disturbing book, even for a regular child and Wiseman’s extra sensitive. As the film starts, pre-Babadook read, Davis (and Wiseman) haven’t been getting good sleep. He’s scared of monsters and makes sure Davis knows it. Wiseman’s even building monster-fighting weapons; Rube Goldberg style. They’re important for the plot–and the character development (the friction between Wiseman and Davis). It’s a great detail. Babadook is full of great details. Kent’s writing of the first seventy minutes (the film runs just around ninety total) is fabulous.

For most of the film–even when it’s not–the film’s from Davis’s perspective. She’s trying to deal with the social awkwardness of Wiseman (he’s obsessed with monsters, which is kind of underdeveloped as it turns out; monsters under the bed or in the closets, monsters). Once they read the story, his awkwardness and behaviors escalate. He gets kicked out of school, he gets into it with his cousin and loses his aunt as a babysitter (the relationship between Davis and sister Hayley McElhinney is strangely more for comedic stress relief than character development). So by the second half of The Babadook, it’s just Davis and Wiseman alone together in their scary house where scary things are starting to happen.

Of course, there’s also the chronic lack of sleep thing, which is also an underdeveloped part of the ground situation. Kent avoids excessive exposition… but she also excessively avoids exposition. That approach lets her get symbolic with things, sure, but it leaves the film without much else, at least symbolically.

One of the most nightmarishly successful things Kent does in the film comes in that problematic third act, as Davis starts to entirely breakdown, becoming verbally abusive towards Wiseman (and threatening physical abuse, though only the audience knows its because she’s read more of the Babadook book). Most of the action takes place over one night. Kent doesn’t track time, instead following Davis’s extremely sleep deprived perception of the night. Kent keeps the same style devices the film’s had until this point, making The Babadook all of a sudden feel like this endless, horrible, threatening night. It’s fantastic filmmaking.

It just doesn’t add up narratively.

The acting is good. It’s all on Davis and Wiseman. She’s fantastic until the denouement; it’s not Davis’s fault. Kent just doesn’t figure out a way to bring the character back from the brink. From over the brink. Davis is fine in those scenes. Effective. She’s just no longer building this complex character, she’s doing muted pantomime. Even when the film’s outlandish, it’s never outlandish. Kent keeps it in check.

Wiseman goes from having incredibly loud, with concerning behaviors (again, one of Babadook’s stumbling blocks is how he and Davis never had to serious address them before the film’s present action) to being quietly terrified. It’s a strange character shift, like he forgets how to express himself. Some of it is a plot point–sedatives–but some of the shift is just so Davis’s own concerning behaviors can take centerstage.

The film’s a technical marvel. Kent, editor Njoo, and cinematographer Ladczuk do true wonders with the digital video. They make Babadook expressionistic while never breaking with the reality constraints of the setting. Sometimes it’s how the scene’s lighted, sometimes it’s how it’s cut. Kent directs the hell out of this picture. The script has nowhere near as much ambition, which doesn’t matter for most of the film. Between the acting and the filmmaking, the script not having the same intensity or energy doesn’t hamper The Babadook. The rest makes up for it.

Until the finale. And then there’s only so much the acting can do before the script trips it up. And then the script takes down the filmmaking too. Not entirely, of course, but sadly, just enough.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jennifer Kent; director of photography, Radek Ladczuk; edited by Simon Njoo; music by Jed Kurzel; production designer, Alex Holmes; produced by Kristina Ceyton and Kristian Moliere; released by Umbrella Entertainment.

Starring Essie Davis (Amelia), Noah Wiseman (Samuel), Barbara West (Mrs. Roach), Hayley McElhinney (Claire), Daniel Henshall (Robbie), Chloe Hurn (Ruby), and Benjamin Winspear (Oskar).


Lizzie Borden Took an Ax (2014, Nick Gomez)

A horrific crime. An infamous suspect. An unrelenting prospector and his search for the truth. Or not. I mean, technically most of the above statements could be used to describe Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, but none of them accurately captures the ninety-one minute TV movie.

There is some time spent on the crime. But Stephen Kay’s insipid teleplay already assumes Lizzie Borden’s guilt. It’s not about how or why Borden (Christina Ricci in a vacant performance) might have done the deed, but it’s also not much about how Ricci “got away with it.” There’s a trial sequence. It’s the worst part of the movie, which is saying a lot. Maybe because you finally get to see unrelenting prospector Gregg Henry come up against Kay’s bad writing. The writing lays waste to Henry, who ought to have some phenomenal part and instead doesn’t. According to the film, he doesn’t have much interest in truth. He’s justice-minded, sure, but without any convincing reasons for his passion. Once it’s clear Henry’s not getting any more character or any better scenes, he fades into the background.

Or it’s Steve Cosens’s lousy interior photography at the trial. Henry fades into that drab. But he could’ve had a good part. If the writing were better, if the direction weren’t weak. Director Gomez actually shows some interest at the beginning, when they’re recounting the murders. It’s not effect interest–the way he’ll frame a static shot to bring out the period details–but it’s an interest. It’s better than when he flubs a jump scare. Once he flubs the jump scare, it’s even more all over for Lizzie Borden. There’s just nothing to take seriously about it.

Ricci doesn’t have a character to play. Kay and Gomez have so little interest in Borden as a protagonist, they’re unwilling to commit to any characterization. At least Clea DuVall, as Ricci’s sister, gets to have emotional breakdowns. Ricci isn’t even allowed affect. No personality, no affect. Gomez’s direction is really bad. It’s goofy TV movie stuff a lot of the time, but it’s a goofy TV movie script so what else is he going to do with it, but Gomez doesn’t even help the actors. It’s so bad.

Also contributing to the endless depths of bad is the soundtrack. Lizzie Borden, set in 1892 New Jersey, has a hip, modern, country-twinged white man blues rock soundtrack. No women, however. The trappings of Ricci’s nineteenth century female are best exemplified through crappy songs. That anachronism is the only one in the movie. Unless you count Kay’s unbelievable court proceedings as anachronistic.

The guys have better parts. Shawn Doyle and Billy Campbell get through Lizzie Borden unscathed. They don’t try to hard, they phone it in, but they phone it in professionally. The parts are also better because they’re infinitely thin. Campbell’s the family lawyer who’s now defending Ricci. You’d think he might have some reaction to it. But no.

Oh. Right. The trial. The trial is terrible. The writing’s terrible, the direction is terrible. Gomez can’t get any intensity out of the proceedings, partially because Kay’s a bad writer, but also because there’s nothing to be intense about. The case hasn’t been made interesting. The characters haven’t been made interesting. It’s just awful stuff.

Stephen McHattie is the father. Historically, he seems like he was a bastard. Kay and Gomez make McHattie a bit of a grumbler, but he’s no bastard. Ricci might be a succubus though. It’s discomforting to what degree Gomez and Kay refuse to empathize with or even consider Ricci’s reality.

There are some terrible small supporting performances but it’s hard to blame the cast. It’s all Gomez and Kay.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Nick Gomez; written by Stephen Kay; director of photography, Steve Cosens; edited by Henk Van Eeghen; music by Tree Adams; production designer, James McAteer; produced by Michael Mahoney; aired by Lifetime.

Starring Christina Ricci (Lizzie Borden), Clea DuVall (Emma Borden), Gregg Henry (Hosea Knowlton), Stephen McHattie (Andrew Borden), Shawn Doyle (Marshall Hilliard), Sara Botsford (Abby Morse Borden), Hannah Emily Anderson (Bridget Sullivan), Andrea Runge (Alice Russell), and Billy Campbell (Andrew Jennings).


The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014, Marc Webb)

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is bereft of good ideas. It’s also bereft of good music–Hans Zimmmer’s bland “superhero” score rattles the brain, bowdlerizing what might be better scenes and effect sequences. It’s impossible to know, because there’s never a single moment of music without ludicrous bombast. Who knows how it’d have played if the superhero action attempted emotional impact.

The film opens in flashback. Campbell Scott, playing Spider-Man’s dad, has an action sequence. It sets up lead Andrew Garfield’s arc for the movie. It’s about him trying to find out what happened to his parents. Except when it’s not. Second-billed Emma Stone has this arc about being broken up with Garfield. But, while it does make Garfield a little mopier than usual, it doesn’t really play into any of his arc.

Only it turns out there is no arc for Garfield because nothing interesting happened to his parents. Screenwriters Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner–wow, it took three writers to produce such an awful turd of a script–anyway, they build up a big reveal and it’s nothing. They write this exaggerated scene between Garfield and aunt Sally Field where she’s hiding the truth from him and it’s going to devastate him and then it’s nothing. The screenwriters have no idea how to do narrative distance.

Neither does director Webb. Worse, Webb treats Stone like an annoyance. She already doesn’t have a part except to make out with Garfield, smile, and meet supporting cast members for a moment. And when she does have a scene, Webb ignores her performance. You spend the movie trying to remember if or why you like the character and why Garfield likes her and get nothing from the film itself. Who cares if they’re broken up? Not even the characters care.

I suppose Stone’s not bad. She just has a crap part. Garfield’s not bad either. He’s just got a crap part. But Dale DeHaan and Jamie Foxx both have crap parts and manage to be bad. With Foxx, it’s not his fault. They had no idea what to do with him, practically muting him by the end. And they’d already given him the inglorious origin of being bitten by mutant electric eels. He becomes an electric eel man. Just one who can’t be electric underwater, even though the eels got him underwater.

DeHaan’s terrible. Webb’s direction of him is terrible. The writing is terrible. For a while it seems like they’re actually going to generate rapport between Garfield and DeHaan as childhood friends reunited but no. The movie’s too busy jumping between terrible subplots. DeHaan and Foxx are tied together because of evil biomedical capitalist Colm Feore. It’s stupid how much time Feore gets. Even stupider is how much time his sidekick Louis Cancelmi gets. Anything to keep Spider-Man away from Stone.

Because nothing in Garfield’s family plot has to do with Stone. They’re completely separate. He compartmentalizes, even though he apparently follows her once a day as Spider-Man, combination protection and adoration.

Once the movie gets around to the idea of teaming up Stone and Garfield to solve problems, which seems like a good idea, it’s time for the movie to end and for everyone to fall into their parts. Except then the ending takes forever. It’s exhausting. And the music is terrible. And nothing good ever happens. Not in the story, but in the narrative decisions. Amazing Spider-Man 2 is amazing because its best is unfulfilled mediocre. Nothing’s going right with this movie.

And the composite effects–Spider-Man swinging around New York City–usually look awful, like the CG lighting on the Spider-Man model is wrong. The Spider-Man scenes, when he’s not in a weak fight scene, are grating. Bad music, bad CG composite, charmless direction. Webb manages one actual great shot in the movie and cuts away too soon. Pietro Scalia and Webb like to cut a lot. Enough there are times when it’s clear Webb didn’t have coverage.

That one good shot is of Stone, naturally. It’s this brief moment where Amazing Spider-Man 2 connects the emotion of the story with the emotion of the filmmaking. Webb, Scalia, and cinematographer Dan Mindel manage this one sincere thing. I don’t even think Zimmer’s music screws it up.

Then it’s over. And Stone gets nothing, Garfield gets busy to get nothing, DeHaan gets green, and Foxx gets blue. Oh, and Sally Field gets an arc about having to go back to work to pay for Garfield’s college, even though Garfield is apparently not going to college during the movie.

Amazing Spider-Man 2 is bad. Kurtzman, Orci, and Pinker’s script is the worst thing about it. Shame Webb didn’t do anything to alleviate its defects. The returning principals–Garfield, Stone, and Field–deserved better.

Oh, and Chris Cooper is awful in his uncredited cameo. Just dreadful.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Marc Webb; screenplay by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner, based on a story by Kurtzman, Orci, Pinkner, and James Vanderbilt and the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; director of photography, Dan Mindel; edited by Pietro Scalia; music by Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, Johnny Marr, Michael Einziger, and Junkie XL; production designer, Mark Friedberg; produced by Avi Arad and Matt Tolmach; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Andrew Garfield (Spider-Man / Peter Parker), Emma Stone (Gwen Stacy), Jamie Foxx (Electro / Max Dillon), Dane DeHaan (Green Goblin / Harry Osborn), Colm Feore (Donald Menken), Felicity Jones (Felicia), Paul Giamatti (Aleksei Sytsevich), Sally Field (Aunt May), and Campbell Scott (Richard Parker).


The Cosmopolitans (2014, Whit Stillman)

The Cosmopolitans opens with some visual sarcasm, but it quickly moves to verbal. Writer-director Stillman is somewhat merciless, introducing characters just to comment on the absurd pretentiousness of the principals. Of course, Stillman doesn’t let the observers off easy either. It just takes longer for them to become clear; maybe the American leads are just too obvious.

Cosmopolitans is a series pilot (which, tragically, did not get picked up) and Stillman does spend time establishing his characters. But he doesn’t have much of an epical structure–they meet, they talk, they go to a party–and Stillman’s got no urgency with divulging. More information doesn’t necessarily make the characters more entertaining or more affecting.

The three leads–presumably–are Adam Brody, Jordan Rountree, and Carrie MacLemore. They’re Americans in Paris. Brody and Rountree have claimed Parisian status and probably need to be treated for intense Francophilia. Rountree’s lovesick, Brody’s affably brooding. Meanwhile, MacLemore is in Paris for a guy who abandons her for his writing. Because Frenchman.

Brody and Rountree take themselves way too seriously, while MacLemore has a somewhat better sense of her situation.

Adriano Giannini plays Brody and Rountree’s older, Italian friend who spends most of his time making fun of the Americans. He’s gentle about it, as opposed to Chloë Sevigny, who’s brutal about it. Luckily, Brody and Rountree are so pretentious, they can’t identify the digs as digs. Lots of funny barbs. Lots.

Freddy Åsblom has the showy part of Brody and Rountree’s rich, native friend. He pokes fun at them without Sevigny’s loathing or Giannini’s bewilderment. He ends up with some of the funniest moments.

Of course, eventually it’s Giannini and Sevigny who get revealed–either to another character or just to the viewer (but only because Brody and Rountree are oblivious). Stillman spares no one. He maintains a light tone, affable characters, and an adoration of Paris throughout. The Cosmopolitans might mock its leads’ Francophilia, but the pilot is delightfully drenched in it.

Beautiful photography from Antoine Monod, subtle, sharp editing from Sophie Corra, a great soundtrack–it’s a technical marvel. Stillman’s composition and direction are fantastic.

MacLemore gives the best performance of the leads. Brody and Rountree are a tad shallow, MacLemore has actual backstory and some sense. It’s a better part. Giannini and Sevigny are great; Sevigny’s deliveries are awesome. And Åsblom is quite good. His role is a little more difficult than it seems at first blush.

Again, it’s tragic The Cosmopolitans didn’t go to series; what Stillman and cast and crew did get done is wonderful stuff.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Whit Stillman; director of photography, Antoine Monod; edited by Sophie Corra; produced by Alex Corven Caronia; released by Amazon Studios.

Starring Carrie MacLemore (Aubrey), Adam Brody (Jimmy), Jordan Rountree (Hal), Adriano Giannini (Sandro), Freddy Åsblom (Fritz), and Chloë Sevigny (Vicky).


RoboCop (2014, José Padilha)

RoboCop is terrible. It’s long, it’s poorly directed, it’s badly acted. One almost doesn’t want to acknowledge it because then it has to be discussed. At least in how it does contain some subjects ripe for discussion. Like how a badly doctored script can create frustration at missed potential. Missed potential, however, being a euphemism for “a little better than excruciatingly bad.”

Because RoboCop manages to outdo itself. It’s worse in its whole than in its parts, which is quite an accomplishment given the fractured script styles. The film is so disjointed, so cobbled together, it’s like no one bothered writing bridging scenes. Because it can’t be a stylistic choice of director Padilha; he’s got zero personality (unless he’s the unlikely reason for the film’s multiple Tron and Tron 2 nods). The action scenes in the film are exceptionally unimaginative. It’s like Padilha is directing video game cut scenes; he’s entirely divested in the film’s sets. Though a lot of it appears to be green screens, which doesn’t help any of the actors.

The film has a lot of actors I like. Michael Keaton, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jackie Earle Haley, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Jennifer Ehle, Zach Grenier, Jay Baruchel. Yes, Jay Baruchel. With the exception of Ehle, all of them are terrible. The film’s script, as far as dialogue goes (because it does have better plotted sequences), is awful. All of it. There’s not a single good moment. It’s Keaton as Steve Jobs and they fumble it because the script with the political stuff doesn’t get to overshadow the script with the “man wakes up a robot cop” script. It’s like watching multiple television pilots, all shot with the same cast and the same bored director, cut together.

It’d be hilarious if there really was a tortured history to the RoboCop remake, full of reshoots and weird test screenings, but there isn’t (at least not according to IMDb). Someone intentionally made a movie this crappy. Here we go. Let’s do a synopsis.

Joel Kinnaman plays a Detroit cop, he talks like he thinks he’s Vin Diesel and struts like he thinks he’s Paul Walker. Yes, I just made that statement. I just referenced The Fast and the Furious and my unlikely familiarity with the franchise. Does Orson Welles get a lot of callouts? No. I just called out Fast and Furious. RoboCop: The New Movie has brought me to that low point. But RoboCop rides a lightcycle from Tron in this movie. How can anyone possibly take it seriously? It’s a guy in a rubber suit. The RoboCop suit is inept. It doesn’t just look like rubber, when Abbie Cornish hugs RoboCop (she’s his wife), her head leaves an impression on the rubber. It’s all so incredibly lazy.

Though if Luc Besson had made it with Bruce Willis as RoboCop, Gary Oldman playing his role with some enthusiasm and camp (it couldn’t be worse than his Robin Williams impression here), Milla Jovovich as Jackie Early Haley, Chris Tucker as Samuel L. Jackson (he’s awful), maybe Ian Holm as Williams (I’m starting to stretch) and Luke Perry as Keaton’s tech visionary… well, it’d be awesome. If Besson had turned a RoboCop remake into a Fifth Element rehash, it’d be awesome.

But RoboCop isn’t sort of a success where you can see the potential for more success. It’s a zero. Paul W.S. Anderson would’ve turned this thing down. It’s not even competent enough to be a Lifetime movie (and a Lifetime movie about a woman who signs away her husband’s rights so he can become a man-cop robot, but who the film treats like he’s not just a few chunks on the coroner’s table, except one hand so he can touch his family and really feel again, would be amazing).

Kinnaman and Cornish are terrible. Padilha’s direction of them is terrible, but their performances are terrible too. Kinnaman’s entirely miscast, entirely out of his depth. Cornish doesn’t have a good part, can’t even do the scenes she does get.

RoboCop is that wonderful, rare animal. It’s so commercial, it won’t try anything. It thinks doing Samuel L. Jackson as Bill O’Reilly as Samuel L. Jackson will be seen as edgy. It’s not even committed enough to try to be edgy.

I can’t even say I “hate watched” it; it’s immediately not worth any investment whatsoever.

Oh, and one more thing. Guns, guns, guns. Action movies with questionable philosophies about fascist police states can’t be action movies with questionable philosophies about fascist police states without loving guns. It’s true. You can do a war movie without loving guns and many have, but you can’t do a movie about “super cops” shooting up the bad guys without gun fetishization.

It’s a no brainer and Padilha drops the ball on it, just like everything else in the film.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by José Padilha; screenplay by Joshua Zetumer, Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, based on the film written by Neumeier and Miner; director of photography, Lula Carvalho; edited by Peter McNulty and Daniel Rezende; music by Pedro Bromfman; production designer, Martin Whist; produced by Marc Abraham and Eric Newman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Joel Kinnaman (Alex Murphy), Gary Oldman (Dr. Dennett Norton), Michael Keaton (Raymond Sellars), Abbie Cornish (Clara Murphy), Jackie Earle Haley (Rick Mattox), Michael Kenneth Williams (Jack Lewis), Jennifer Ehle (Liz Kline), Jay Baruchel (Tom Pope), Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Chief Karen Dean), Zach Grenier (Senator Hubert Dreyfus), Aimee Garcia (Jae Kim), Douglas Urbanski (Mayor Durant) and Samuel L. Jackson (Pat Novak).


Chaos on the Bridge (2014, William Shatner)

According to William Shatner, in his capacity of host–in addition to hosting Chaos on the Bridge, he also conducts interviews, wrote and directed the documentary–he wants to know about the first few years of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” because he’d always heard they were crazy.

And they were. He brings out a bunch of great interviewees and gives them the opportunity to confront one another’s allegations. Well, Patrick Stewart at least gets to respond to someone else. There’s one guy who’s got a totally different recollection and Shatner mostly uses him for sensationalism. The Chaos in the title refers, basically, to the situation of having Gene Roddenberry run the show.

For a while, Shatner cares about his thesis. He wants to show all these problems are about power as it relates to show business, television power. He shows himself asking leading questions but confirming. Whether Shatner actually cares or not, he sure looked like he did in the first half of Chaos. But then all the stories dry up. Shatner gets some great moments with interviewees Gates McFadden and Diana Muldaur regarding getting fired and hired, but it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s amusing. Answers to questions don’t lead to more questions, which is a shame.

Chaos on the Bridge is okay for a cursory examination, especially one hosted by a dynamic personality like Shatner–plus the strangeness of Captain Kirk doing a Next Generation documentary–but he mostly just proves there’s more to the story than he can tell. And he doesn’t acknowledge that inability. Instead, he pretends he never had a thesis and closes it down.

Likably, of course.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by William Shatner; photographed and edited by Decebal Dascau; music by Catalin Marin; produced by J. Craig Thompson; aired by The Movie Network.

The Road Within (2014, Gren Wells)

The Road Within is a story about finding yourself. Every guy in the movie finds himself. The women don’t find themselves but they help the guys find themselves. How do you find yourself? By rebelling.

Except Road is about people with mental disorders. Lead Robert Sheehan has Tourettes, his romantic interest (Zoë Kravitz) has anorexia and his roommate (Dev Patel) has really bad OCD. Kyra Sedgwick is their chain smoking doctor, Robert Patrick is Sheehan’s dad (who has anger management issues). The movie gets off to a strange start in Sedgwick’s clinic because no one else is anywhere near as sick as Sheehan, Kravitz and Patel. It’s only natural they’d steal Sedgwick’s car and head west through beautiful country as they each confront their demons.

As a director, Wells knows how to compose a pretty shot. Everything in Road is pretty, even when they’re supposed to be in a crappy town. The beauty of the world around us is curative. Unless you’ve got anorexia, in which case the love of a good man just isn’t enough to fix you.

Road is always trite–Wells’s script hits every trite trope she can find–but it isn’t until the last act it actually gets offensive. It works its way through a checklist of resolutions then has a happy-ish ending on a lovely beach boardwalk.

The characters are poorly written but all the actors do well, especially Kravitz and Patrick (who have the worst characters).

It’s not their fault Road’s baloney.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Gren Wells; screenplay by Wells, based on a film written by Florian David Fitz; director of photography, Christopher Baffa; edited by Gordon Antell and Terel Gibson; music by Josh Debney and The Newton Brothers; production designer, Nanci Roberts; produced by Brent Emery, Bradley Gallo, Michael A. Helfant, Guy J. Louthan and Robert Stein; released by Well Go USA Entertainment.

Starring Robert Sheehan (Vincent), Dev Patel (Alex), Zoë Kravitz (Marie), Robert Patrick (Robert) and Kyra Sedgwick (Dr. Rose).


For the Emperor (2014, Park Sang-jun)

For the Emperor is a combination of bloody and pointless. Director Park is sort of impersonal about the violence–even though it’s usually very personal (knife fights)–as though giving it some distance will make the characters seem less reprehensible. Lee Yong-soo’s screenplay barely shows any of the victims of the gangsters; it’s all just tough bad men versus other though bad men.

They’re just boring tough bad men.

Lee Min-ki’s the lead. He’s a disgraced, betting baseball player who ends up collecting for loan sharks. Because in addition to being a not so great relief pitcher, he’s unbeatable in a fight (until the plot requires him to lose one) and really good at gambling. Park Sung-woong, as an established mid-level gangster, takes him in and cultivates him into… well, into a focused psychopath.

Park Sung-woong’s really, really good in the film. He just doesn’t have anything to do. Lee’s not really good, but he’s decent enough for the script. There’s very little ambition to Emperor, though director Park tries to do a lot of flashy montages (often well edited and occasionally with good music) to hide the weak plot twists.

There’s some good direction, but then Park will do one of the terrible sex scenes between Lee and his madame girlfriend (Lee Tae-im); they’re terrible and go on forever. Occasionally nicely scored though.

Emperor isn’t tough enough or ambitious enough to be offensive. It’s competent and occasionally interesting and mostly decently acted. Mostly.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Park Sang-jun; screenplay by Lee Yong-soo, based on a comic book by Kim Seong-dong; director of photography, Cha Taek-gyun; edited by Kim Chang-ju and Park Kyong-sook; music by Dalparan; production designer, Park Je-hyeon; produced by Lee Tae-hun; released by Next Entertainment World.

Starring Lee Min-ki (Lee Hwan), Park Sung-woong (Jeong Sang-ha), Lee Tae-im (Cha Yeon-soo), Kim Jong-gu (Han-deuk), Jeong Heung-chae (Straw Cutter) and Lee Jae-won (Kyeong-soo).


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