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).


Supergirl (2015) s05e07 – Tremors

In an incredible turn of events Mitch Pileggi as the big bad—Leviathan—is actually kind of fun. Pileggi’s a millions of years old alien (he was around to see the dinosaurs get it) who for some reason has hung out on Earth and run a secret society. It’s not clear why. It’s also not clear why his army of regular people followers include humans who can’t outsmart Lena Luthor (Katie McGrath). Lena’s smart and all, but shouldn’t a millions of years old secret society have better tech than her?

So, Leviathan. Doesn’t exactly pay off and Pileggi doesn’t look quite Rock-like in his Black Adam-esque outfit (and he reminds a lot of Vandal Savage on “Legends”), but it’s actually all right.

Shame the rest of the episode digs deeper into the established pit.

Lena’s also on Team Supergirl for a scene; just enough to remind how good McGrath is with the rest of the cast. She and Jesse Rath’s two or three line banter is more personality than the show’s had in ages. But then her arc is all about her telling Supergirl (Melissa Benoist) they’re now sworn enemies. It’s an awful scene, hinging entirely on Lena having iced Lex for her friends and then it turns out the friends all lied to her. How the show has ruined Lena is one of its many significant faults (ditto not just having McGrath and Benoist get together romantically instead of queer-baiting for, what, three seasons now). It’s not like McGrath is good in the villain reveal (because she’s not exactly a villain, just a pissed off gal pal). Benoist’s a little better but not very concerned why Lena wants a weapon capable of killing everyone on the planet.

If the writing were better, who knows, it might be a good scene.

Speaking of bad scenes, Alex (Chyler Leigh) blathering on to girlfriend Azie Tesfai in an unending declaration of devotion ought to, really, get someone a pink slip. It’s so bad. So bad. Leigh’s not strong enough to carry the scenes and Tesfai isn’t ready for such a big role. Though, again, might just be the terrible writing.

Meanwhile J’onn (David Harewood) has a ludicrous scene with Ghost Dad Carl Lumbly, who I’m glad is getting a check and all, but the Martian family trouble subplot is, well, the pits. It’s perplexing why anyone thinks the scenes are a) a good idea or b) effective. It’s terrible stuff.

Though I guess Phil LaMarr is a little better as Harewood’s brother this episode, though it’s not a high bar.

I figured this episode would be bad but it’s even worse than imagined. The Lena payoff is a complete fail for the show, the characters, and McGrath.

All Rise (2019) s01e08 – Maricela and the Desert

There’s a road trip to Vegas this episode, which feels like a trope. It’s not a particularly engaging Vegas road trip, possibly because Wilson Bethel and J. Alex Brinson don’t have any chemistry together, possibly because the whole thing hinges on Brinson having to talk to a sheriff’s deputy Black man to Black man after Bethel’s just too white for it. Brinson and the deputy’s talk then gets into this whole Black men in law enforcement arena where “All Rise” revs up its performative centrism. It’s particularly eh because it’s the only thing Brinson does on the road trip. He’s just there to be a Black guy. Oh, and to talk about Brinson’s brewing romance with public defender Jessica Camacho.

Meanwhile Camacho is defending a murder suspect in Simone Missick’s courtroom and “All Rise” just doesn’t seem very serious with the murder trial. It’s unbelievable defendant Sebastian Sozzi is going to turn out guilty because his kid, Eva Ariel Binder, loves him so much. And he loves the kid too. How could he have possibly murdered the mom. Is it going to turn out White ADA Kelly Frye and Black detective Eugene Byrd maybe railroaded the Hispanic guy? Through… cultural ignorance no less.

It’s a weird episode with the murder trial. Missick’s all about protecting Binder from the system, which is cute and all but the mom’s dead or missing (Camacho’s already been busted bragging about how it’ll be a slam dunk because there’s no body in front of the kid), and it just doesn’t seem like “All Rise” is serious enough to be taken seriously when it asks to be. It’s not even clear it wants to be taken seriously, kind of like defendant Sozzi, who’s uncontrollable when Binder’s around. I don’t think Missick ever puts him in contempt because of course he’s going to be uncontrollably emotional given his pleas of innocence.

The episode ends with Bethel and Missick hanging out, which used to be one of the things the show got right. Now they seem like strangers, which might just be the writing, but… the show’s bland in all the wrong places. Camacho’s nearing annoying, the guest stars aren’t of the pilot’s caliber, and the writing is just way too flat. Instead of improving, “All Rise” is floundering, wasting both Missick and Bethel’s time. Especially Bethel’s this episode.

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).


Evil (2019) s01e08 – 2 Fathers

So this episode has—you guessed it—two dads in it. Well, it’s probably got more than two dads in it, but only two where it’s important they’re dads.

The first dad is Vondie Curtis-Hall as Mike Colter’s dad. They estranged because it’s TV and there’s no way a guy’s not estranged with his dad if he’s on TV. The show doesn’t really get into the big stuff of the estrangement, but it appears to be over Colter’s religiosity. Not about Curtis-Hall running a hippie commune with his two wives (I was going to name the actors but there’s no point, they’re immaterial to the episode—the actors’ performances, not the characters… though sort of the characters).

Curtis-Hall is… sort of a guest star. Sort of. I mean, I like Vondie Curtis-Hall but it’s a nothing part; he looks great for seventy too, like they had to make him up to appear older. Colter and Katja Herbers head to the farm to see him because Colter sees Curtis-Hall is using the “Evil” demon sigils in his art. They drop acid, it’s a whole thing. Colter and Curtis-Hall bond over being Black men (sort of); what’s most interesting about that part is it’s more important they bond over being Black men in America than actual demons overrunning the planet.

Herbers just gets messed up and horny for Colter, which is particularly bad because her husband—the other dad in the title—is back.

Patrick Brammall plays the dad. It’s good the show found someone who sucks as bad as the kids to play the father. They really choked on the casting. Also Christine Lahti is tripled down on being the devil’s willing concubine. Kind of hoping she just goes all in on the bad by the end of the season, maybe kill one of the grandkids, who knows. It’d be something.

No Michael Emerson, which is fine. Aasif Mandvi has a romance subplot with returning guest star Nicole Shalhoub, where she reveals she has a really silly woo secret. Kind of hope she’s never back again because “Evil” will just waste her.

“Evil” wastes everyone.

The Mandalorian (2019) s02e03 – The Sin

All of Star Wars, all the movies, all the cartoons, books, comics, games, toys, socks, The Holiday Special, underwear, blankets—all of it—has been building to this episode of “The Mandalorian,” where they’re finally able to make Boba Fett adorable. Yes, Baby Yoda is adorable but of course he’s very adorable—and I was wrong, the scientist guy identifies Baby Yoda’s gender as male, which is a bummer, but also it’s probably not worth the headache. But Boba Fett and Baby Yoda being adorable together… who knew it was possible. Jon Favreau, Kathleen Kennedy, other folks but definitely Favreau and Kennedy. They knew they could make Star Wars heartwarming.

And damn if they don’t get away with it too. Because Baby Yoda is preternaturally adorable.

It’d be nice if there was something more to the show, of course. If Werner Herzog weren’t just useless stunt-casting and what if Carl Weathers were actually any good instead of being shockingly bad, actually. This episode also has a bunch of other Mandalorians coming into play and there’s a big serious action set piece with it, with some cool jetpack stuff. The episode’s got a lot more visual payoff than the last one. But not as much as the first episode. All of these visual realizings of the Star Wars Universe—like Jawas do have space ships to get from planet to planet and wouldn’t they be amazing—so it’s cool to watch. The production design is impressive.

Some of Deborah Chow’s direction is annoying, some of it isn’t. She gets away with the heartwarming but she also has this thing where they do focus blurs. I’m assuming they’re digital effects because it’s 2019 and why wouldn’t they be; given we’re already having to put up with the patented Star Wars transition wipes, the focus stuff just feels like a little much. They’re also weird because they’re the only things off in Chow’s direction. Otherwise it’s got the best direction in the show so far. And not just for the Rocketeer homage, which is way too much but still awesome.

And Pedro Pascal. Sure, he’s fine. But he’s better talking about Baby Yoda than talking about anything else. He’s always got this pause where it seems like he’s thinking of what to say and then it’s never anything impressive. He seems dumb, actually. Like too dumb to be out on his own. Favreau’s not the best writer. You don’t have to be when you’ve got Baby Yoda.

Oh, and the midichlorians might be back. Wokka wokka.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, Francis Ford Coppola)

On one hand, with the Wojciech Kilar score, Bram Stoker’s Dracula can get away with just about anything. On the other, with Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves playing leads… well, it needs something to help it get away with anything.

It helps neither Ryder or Reeves are the actual star of the film. Neither is top-billed Gary Oldman (as the Count). The star is director Coppola and his crew—cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, production designer Thomas E. Sanders, costume designer Eiko Ishioka (for better and worse), editors Anne Goursaud, Glen Scantlebury, and Nicholas C. Smith. And Kilar, of course. And whoever did all the amazing practical special effects; Bram Stoker’s is a very audiovisual experience. As the story itself belies reality, why should the film itself be any different an experience. Lots of inventive transitions, lots of creative composite shots to show Oldman’s faraway yet so close impact on the world of his victims. Shame James V. Hart’s screenplay isn’t anywhere near as experimental or imaginative. The script’s big deviation from the novel—in addition to Anthony Hopkins’s Van Helsing being crude—is Ryder falling in love with Oldman because she’s his reincarnated fifteenth century wife, who killed herself thinking he’d died in battle, which caused him to renounce God and become… a vampire.

The most interesting thing about Bram Stoker’s is how any of it would make sense. Like, Oldman’s castle is full of paintings done after Ryder’s death—Ryder the queen, not the young British woman with the questionable accent. Did he pay the painters or eat them? Because even though the film “humanizes” Oldman a little, it never makes him particularly reasonable as a character. Why, for instance, does he regrow a mustache when he de-ages himself and then shed it when he gets old again. Also, why does he get old again so often. Why did he get old in the first place? Wasn’t he eating enough villager? Seems like he was eating plenty of them.

Anyway.

None of those details matter because Bram Stoker’s looks great and has that Kilar score. Ryder can be bombing a questionably written scene—though, to be fair, it’s not like there are any strong performances in the film. Oldman’s got a few strong moments, a lot of okay ones, and some piddly ones too. But Kilar’s score can save the heck out of a scene. Given the lack of chemistry from Oldman towards Ryder and the lack of chemistry, accent, and acting from Ryder towards… everyone (save, maybe, best friend Sadie Frost), the melodramatic nineteenth century romance but kind of saucy scenes where Oldman has to remind himself to keep the fangs in are all mesmerizing thanks to how the music compliments the image. Bram Stoker’s is masterfully made. It’s far from a cinematic masterpiece, but Coppola does provide a solid facsimile of one. As long as you ignore the acting and the writing.

Whether Ryder would be better if the character were better—she falls in love with Oldman while fiancé Reeves is being held captive in faraway Oldman’s castle (it’s kind of hilarious how easily Reeves slips her mind—the film utilizes the novel’s epistolary format, turning the diary entries into narration from cast so we know she’s not thinking about Reeves); the falling in love while the dude’s away is literally her only thing. Ryder’s not even worried about Frost, who Oldman’s attacking every night because she’s slutty and Ryder’s virginal. Or something. It’s unclear why Oldman targets Frost in the first place, though maybe there was a scene explaining it… along with his London base being right next door to Richard E. Grant’s sanitarium, which is important but not really thanks to Hart’s script. It’s like Coppola came up with all the visual machinations to distract from Hart not having the best narrative.

Of course, it’d be disingenuous to the source material if Bram Stoker’s had a solid narrative.

And at least Ryder and Reeves are failing with questionable (at best) accents. Actual Brits Grant, Frost, and Cary Elwes all have extremely bad moments where you wish they’d just be screwing up accents. Grant can’t seem to take the thing seriously, Frost is out of her depth, and Elwes always seems like he’s just coming into the film for the first time, scene after scene. He makes no impression. Neither does Billy Campbell (as a very Texan Texan). In an extremely odd case of stunt-casting, Tom Waits disappoints as Oldman’s first solicitor, who’s gone mad and been committed and now eats bugs. Waits’s eccentric take seems more appropriate for a TV commercial than drama.

As for Hopkins… he could be worse. He’s not good, he doesn’t take the part seriously (how could he), but he could be worse.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a gorgeous exercise in technical filmmaking. And not much else.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola; screenplay by James V. Hart, based on the novel by Bram Stoker; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Anne Goursaud, Glen Scantlebury, and Nicholas C. Smith; music by Wojciech Kilar; production designer, Thomas E. Sanders; produced by Coppola, Fred Fuchs, and Charles Mulvehill; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Gary Oldman (Dracula), Winona Ryder (Mina), Anthony Hopkins (Van Helsing), Keanu Reeves (Harker), Richard E. Grant (Seward), Cary Elwes (Holmwood), Billy Campbell (Morris), Sadie Frost (Lucy), and Tom Waits (Renfield).


Incomplete thoughts

The Internet has fatally wounded big c criticism. Big c criticism got its first major wounding in the mid-nineties with Independence Day. Then it got hit again with Armageddon. So it was down and bleeding and couldn’t defend itself—if it’d known how—for the death blow of social networking. Also, also, there was all the critic shake-up after Siskel died and so on and the New York Times changing then becoming irrelevant, which I’ve always blamed on them going with the three critic route instead of just platforming Elvis Mitchell.

It was the late 1990s or early 2000s, film had time to be better for that move.

Instead, we’ve got what we’ve got.

When I started writing, blogging was blogging and writing was writing. They were very, very separate.

I proofread writing, for goodness sake; I didn’t proofread blogging when I started and I don’t now… I’ve gotten better at spelling—or just found an accurately spelled vocabulary; some of those old posts are raggedy. I still find typos when I’m going through to update them. I’m doing Martin capsules. It’s a lengthy project but still fun blog tinkering, The most important aspects for being fun blog tinkering, in Capsules case, is getting to play with image manipulation. It also doesn’t require much new writing. I’m writing so much. It’s so much—four blogs, plus the Capsules micro-blog. If I had half a brain I’d start working towards consolidating the writing on The Stop Button and whatever else—video, podcast—on Visual Reflux. See, I had wanting to make my writing my blogging—meaning edit posts, meaning do drafts, meaning… proofread. But one of the great things about how and why social networking ended big c criticism is criticism’s never been better and there’s never been more of it. When Ebert brought in Richard Roeper, he broke the gate—seemingly unintentionally—and the gatekeepers have slowly lost power until now. Popular film got better faster than critics got about talking about better popular films. Even now there are some fundamental misunderstandings, with the old folks not listening when the young folks are right. Because the young folks know better. Right now some thirteen year-old out there has a better handle on my take on film than I do at 41. They’ve already got the algorithm. And they’ll have a better one next year while I’m catching up with the now twelve-year old who’s got it. It’s a different world and a better one for those differences.

Savage (2018, Cui Siwei)

Savage is not savage. It’s got some violence, some of it rough, and it’s got some mean bad guys, but it’s never savage. I mean, unless it’s supposed to be referring to hero—more than protagonist or lead—Chang Chen. He beats up some suspects pretty bad at the beginning because he’s mad about partner Li Guangjie getting killed in the third or fourth scene, after its established Li and Chang both want the same girl, doctor Ni Ni. Li dies in what should be a routine traffic stop and Chang can’t forgive himself, leading to a bad year between him and Ni (see, she actually wanted him anyway), which catches us up to the present action. Some of the year before stuff is important, most of it not. In fact, they could easily get away with none of it because the dead partner bit plays more to the melodrama, less to the tight, tough action noir. Savage takes too long getting started and ends badly but between the two is a well-executed, continuous (though not real time), very simple, and very physical action movie.

One year after robbing a gold shipment—which opens the movie, it seems somewhat savage but still not enough—robbers Liao Fan, Huang Jue, and Zhang Yicong return to the scene of the crime, where they also killed Li. Savage gives Chang every opportunity to avenge himself upon his foes but he never gives in, much to the film’s detriment as well as the lives of people around Chang. He hasn’t learned much since Li got killed apparently, other than beat up people and get away with it because you’re a cop. Though the guys in the restaurant harassing Ni had it comes and it’s nice to see her not getting smacked around when threatened, which happens a lot in the second half of the movie.

So Chang’s never Savage with the main villains. It’s weird.

The big boss is Liao Fan. He doesn’t talk much, just watches, thinks, acts. Liao’s great. Probably the film’s best performance. He’s fairly savage, but also not. For instance, he’s not as ruthless as Huang Jue, who’s gold-crazed. And excellent. Huang’s also great. Last guy is Zhang Yicong, playing Liao’s dipshit punk little brother. Liao makes Huang babysit Zhang. Zhang’s fine. He doesn’t any heavy lifting but also doesn’t seem to be capable of handling it if he did. Liao and Huang, who both mainly stay reflective versus proactive, seem like they’re in a different and better film in their scenes with Zhang. He doesn’t get it, which is meta, since his character doesn’t get it either.

The problem might just be director Cui and his interest in the actors. Cui and cinematographer Du Jie do a phenomenal job with the snow-pocalypse mountain where Chang chases the bad guys, but Cui couldn’t give a toss about the performances. The melodrama’s better at interior dialogue sequences (i.e. when the characters aren’t worried about getting buried in an avalanche but instead wondering why they can’t find any Swiss Miss in the lodge. The action’s either outside or in the lodge. Once it becomes clear everyone’s going to end up at the lodge, the strong action’s timer starts ticking down. It’s just obvious from early on Cui isn’t going to do as well inside a snowed-in lodge as he does in a snow-drowned wilderness. Cui likes taking time with the action; he needs lots of space.

Ni’s good even if she’s got a crap part and then is a punching bag to emphasis how the bad men are bad. Liu Hua’s good as the partial comic relief, the lodge manager who’s also infamous for poaching.

Even without dialogue, just being present, Liao kind of becomes the lead. Not the protagonist; Ni’s kind of the protagonist. So cop Chang’s the hero, damsel Ni’s the protagonist, and villain Liao’s the lead. It’s a very confused narrative. Cui’s script isn’t quite there.

Awesome music. I’ll be damned if I can find the name of the composer anywhere.

Savage is pretty good for most of its too long runtime. The melodrama doesn’t work, doesn’t inform the plot or the characters… the film’s lean, just not in the right way. And the parts could be a lot better. Cui really fails his actors, in script and direction. Worse, it’s just through indifference. Cui’s not even passionate about not being passionate about them.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Cui Siwei; director of photography, Du Jie; edited by Du Yuan; produced by Terence Chang; released by Huaxia Film Distribution.

Starring Chang Chen (Wang Kangho), Ni Ni (Sun Yan), Liao Fan (Lao Da), Huang Jue (Lao Er), Zhang Yicong (Lao San), Liu Hua (Guo San), and Li Guangjie (Han Xiaosong).


Ghost Ship (2002, Steve Beck)

I am going to set a goal for myself with this post about Ghost Ship; I’m going to try to make it entertaining, which is going to be a challenge because there’s nothing entertaining about Ghost Ship. It’s badly directed and badly written. The actors are bad. They’re good actors and okay actors and mediocre actors but none of them are good, okay, or mediocre in the movie. They’re all varying degrees of bad. Some are embarrassed (Gabriel Byrne), some should be embarrassed and aren’t (Desmond Harrington), some aren’t embarrassed but also aren’t any better for it (Ron Eldard and Karl Urban), some are completely flat (Julianna Margulies), and some literally have to embarrass themselves as part of the movie, in character (Isaiah Washington and Alex Dimitriades, though Dimitriades is bad and Washington is… not always bad).

Now, at the time Ghost Ship came out before many of the cast had their greatest career successes. 2002… Byrne had peaked and maybe Eldard had too, but everyone else (not Dimitriades) had some high profile TV and film work in their near futures. Margulies had “Good Wife,” Urban had Star Trek, Washington had “Grey’s Anatomy,” Harrington had… getting another job after being so godawful in this movie. And “Dexter” and whatever. You know Ghost Ship is going to be bad in some strange way because no one’s ever talking about it, despite it having eventually successful stars. No one talks about it because it’s unspectacularly crappy. The opening’s almost good, but then quickly goes to pot because after implying the movie’s going to have a sense of humor it turns out it won’t. But real quick. Like, before we get to the present day from the Italian ocean liner in the opening sequence.

Present day is the above-mentioned cast members. Besides some ghosts, they’re it for the cast. Ghost Ship tries to be economical but it’s bad at it. Because it’s not just bad dialogue in the film, it’s the structure of the conversations. The writers don’t have an ear for dialogue in general, much less what the actors bring to it. Though the latter is more director Beck’s fault, but it’s hard to blame him because he’s so obviously incompetent it’s not his fault. No one should’ve let him drive this… car; it was irresponsible of producers Robert Zemeckis, Joel Silver, and Gilbert Adler and the studio to allow this movie to happen with Beck. Whatever happened, they had it coming.

Because nothing in Ghost Ship works even though nothing’s exceptionally incompetent. Not even the CGI is incompetent. It’s not good, but it’d be a lot better if the shot composition didn’t suck. There’s no aspect of direction Beck’s good at or passing at or not offensive at; he does a real bad job. The whole movie I was waiting for one decent close-up shot of a character, any character, anyone—Beck can’t do it. He just can’t figure it out; he’s not responsible for his actions. His numerous failings as a director are often unrelated to the movie’s problems at any given time. Beck’s incompetencies don’t interact with the script’s incompetencies. There are these two tracks of bad without crossover. Ghost Ship’s greatest success is in showing how various types of badness—writing, directing, casting—don’t necessarily need to interact with one another outside coexisting.

Some of Ghost Ship is see-it-to-believe-it mundane bad. The soundtrack is quite bad, though John Frizzell’s score is one of the least unsuccessful things in the film. The songs they play are bad and poorly cut into the film. Crew-wise Gale Tattersall is a perfectly competent cinematographer, but Roger Barton’s editing is pretty janky stuff. Ghost Ship ought to move better, visually. Beck’s the big problem, Barton’s one of the smaller ones.

The end seems like it was meant to be a little more pompous in its grandiosity—grandiosity with not good CGI—but no matter how the effect would play, it’d still be on the end of Beck’s visually disinteresting movie. Would Beck being good at integrating visual effects improve the movie? No. Nothing would.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Steve Beck; screenplay by Mark Hanlon and John Pogue, based on a story by Hanlon; director of photography, Gale Tattersall; edited by Roger Barton; music by John Frizzell; production designer, Graham ‘Grace’ Walker; produced by Gilbert Adler, Joel Silver, and Robert Zemeckis; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Gabriel Byrne (Murphy), Julianna Margulies (Epps), Ron Eldard (Dodge), Desmond Harrington (Ferriman), Isaiah Washington (Greer), Alex Dimitriades (Santos), Karl Urban (Munder), and Emily Browning (Katie Harwood).


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