The Usual Suspects (1995, Bryan Singer)

Seeing as how The Usual Suspects popularized the major twist ending–that contrivance having now plagued American cinema for the last dozen years–it’s interesting to see it again. I haven’t seen the film in years (probably ten, at least nine), but I remember the last time I watched it, I thought about what was true and what probably wasn’t. Most twist ending (or late revelation and eureka moment endings)–it’s stunning how Shyamalan stole his standard part and parcel from Singer’s approach here–have clues, easter eggs, whatever. The Usual Suspects has a couple, but given the narrative’s layering, it’s impossible to know what’s true and what isn’t. So The Usual Suspects becomes the crash test dummy for whether a twist ending narrative can survive after countless viewings (well, not countless… I’m almost positive this viewing was my fourth).

And it can. At least, The Usual Suspects can.

There’s that beautiful combination of script and direction here, there’s Kevin Pollak’s jokes and Giancarlo Esposito’s hat. There’s the film’s roaming protagonist (Gabriel Bryne, Chazz Palminteri and Kevin Spacey all wear the hat). Singer’s composition is precise, each shot–in no small part due to cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel–has a unpretentious gravitas. The Usual Suspects‘s greatest achievement is Singer’s direction. He makes the film interesting to watch no matter what the content may be, which is where the script becomes so important.

There are “clues” throughout the film as to the twist ending, but the clues are only for to spin the viewer’s wheels (there’s no truth in any of them), making the relationship between the film and the viewer analogous to the relationship between Spacey and Palminteri. Storyteller and listener. Taken on its own, The Usual Suspects would suggest the possibilities for films with twist endings, the freedoms they can have, their advantages over traditional narratives. Unfortunately, even with good films with twist endings, no one’s really had the same success (Singer certainly did not with his subsequent feature, Apt Pupil).

Christopher McQuarrie’s script, which is so lauded for putting in the clues, is far more successful in its successful use of narration on a modern film and dialogue. McQuarrie’s dialogue is at times both stylized and not, with the title softening the informed viewer to it. Actually, the thing about the title in relation to the film is Humphrey Bogart could have, at different points in his career, played every one of the five main characters.

The long-term effect of The Usual Suspects, besides kicking off the big twist ending (and the handling of the revelation) phenomenon, is the actors. While Stephen Baldwin never did anything good again (his fine performance here is nothing but a–willful–imitation of brother Alec) and Suspects is one of Gabriel Byrne’s finest hours in his hit and miss career, it did introduce popular audiences to Kevin Spacey and everyone to Benicio Del Toro. Spacey immediately took off while Del Toro had to make it through a some bad pictures. Spacey’s excellent, not yet even aware he’d someday have a best actor rote; his delivery of McQuarrie’s narration is what makes it work. He has the hardest job, because he has to sell the twist ending’s revelation throughout. He has to make it seem possible. Kevin Pollak turns in the second strongest performance (after Spacey).

The Usual Suspects is about to turn thirteen (a few days before I turn thirty) and, while I can lament how Singer went nowhere artistically (the possessive use of his credit in the titles is strangely spectacular), it’s not a film to be discounted or dismissed as fanboy fodder. There’s just too much cinematic substance.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bryan Singer; written by Christopher McQuarrie; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by John Ottman; music by Ottman; production designer, Howard Cummings; produced by Michael McDonnell and Singer; released by Gramercy Pictures.

Starring Stephen Baldwin (McManus), Gabriel Byrne (Dean Keaton), Benicio Del Toro (Fenster), Kevin Pollak (Todd Hockney), Kevin Spacey (Verbal Kint), Chazz Palminteri (Dave Kujan, US Customs), Pete Postlethwaite (Kobayashi), Giancarlo Esposito (Jack Baer, FBI), Suzy Amis (Edie Finneran), Dan Hedaya (Sgt. Jeffrey Rabin), Paul Bartel (the smuggler) and Peter Greene (Redfoot).


Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982, Tommy Lee Wallace)

Halloween III: Season of the Witch is a–well, it’s kind of a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and not discrete about it at all. The setting has changed and the details, but the movie’s obviously going for the same feel. Occasionally, it even pulls something off. Tommy Lee Wallace is only an adequate director–and one who apparently doesn’t shoot enough coverage–but it’s Dean Cundey shooting Panavision. Dean Cundey shooting Panavision is never going to be a worthless experience.

Witch has one of the meanest spirited–maybe the meanest spirited–plots I’ve ever seen. A nasty Irishman is going to kill every kid on Halloween. Presumably, only in the continental United States and maybe Canada, but still. The movie even has a scene with a kid dying as part of the evil plot, something I really wasn’t expecting to see in a major studio release.

But all that mean spiritedness is revealed at the end and there’s about an hour to get through before then. The hour’s got some okay stuff and some bad stuff–Wallace’s dialogue is awful a lot of the time, so bad even Tom Atkins can’t get it out. Leading lady Stacey Nelkin is bad. Dan O’Herlihy has a great time as the mad Irishman, though. The rest of the supporting cast is immaterial.

What’s strange about the movie is it ought to be better. Producers Debra Hill and John Carpenter seem to have been the laziest producers ever, not giving the script an obviously needed polish. Carpenter did contribute the score, which is occasionally effective but the occasional references to his original Halloween score just show his mediocre effort on this one.

Wallace’s direction is strangely inept. He frequently shoots through a wall (imagine a room with four walls, the camera–in order not to make the scene look wrong–should appear to be shooting from inside those walls; Wallace often shoots through the walls), but then manages to create a fantastic tone in his exterior shots. The little town–and big reference to Body Snatchers–comes alive during Atkins’s arrival (and Witch‘s potential booms).

The film’s gotten a lot of more recent notice for its commentary about capitalism and consumerism (and, definitely vertical integration). These elements are rather clear and obviously presented in the movie–and the New York Times review at the time mentioned them–so I’m not sure why they’re a surprise. The commentary is much quieter than Carpenter had in some of his 1980s pictures; I’m not sure why this one stands out.

It’s definitely watchable for the Cundey photography and so on. Actually, it’s only really boring during the mediocre first act. As Wallace’s dialogue gets more and more absurd, the movie’s more compelling.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Tommy Lee Wallace; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Millie Moore; music by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth; production designer, Peter Jamison; produced by Carpenter and Debra Hill; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Tom Atkins (Dr. Dan Challis), Stacey Nelkin (Ellie Grimbridge), Dan O’Herlihy (Conal Cochran), Michael Currie (Rafferty), Ralph Strait (Buddy Kupfer), Jadeen Barbor (Betty Kupfer), Brad Schacter (‘Little’ Buddy Kupfer), Garn Stephens (Marge Guttman), Nancy Kyes (Linda Challis), Jonathan Terry (Starker), Al Berry (Harry Grimbridge), Wendy Wessberg (Teddy) and Essex Smith (Walter Jones).


Tremors (1990, Ron Underwood)

Tremors is a unique film. Even with the derivative setting–the isolated desert town reminds of 1950s Universal sci-fi pictures–and whole “Jaws with giant worms” aspect, it’s a monster slash thriller slash comedy. It starts a comedy and ends one, with S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock’s script full of comedic dialogue, in addition to all the thriller elements. The attention to character is important, but the entire production is high on itself. From casting Michael Gross, who–at this point in his career–was singularly familiar as the “Family Ties” dad, as a survivalist to the ornate effects (the use of miniatures is incredibly well done), it’s certainly under appreciated (and I make this statement about a film popular enough on video to spawn a television series thirteen years after first release).

Wilson and Maddock’s script is economical–if it weren’t for director Underwood’s use of crane shots and the special effects, one would think Tremors was an independent production. The film runs a little over ninety minutes and I’d guess the monsters are hinted at, then revealed, then encountered in the first twenty. Maybe twenty-three. But in the same amount of time, the script introduces all of the film’s characters and establishes the rather important rapport between Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward. Bacon’s probably the lead (since he’s the one incompetently romancing Finn Carter to humorous effect), but Ward’s just as important. Their back and forth makes Tremors enjoyable.

The characters–not just Gross and Reba McEntire’s survivalists, but also Victor Wong’s store owner and Bobby Jacoby’s incredibly obnoxious teenager (the film never really addresses how Jacoby’s living on his own or where his parents are, which gets a little distracting on repeat viewings)–are all perfect. They’re fun to spend time with (Tremors is one of those Tarantino “hang out” movies).

Underwood keeps his camera moving a lot of the time, creating a frantic tone. The viewer and the characters discover things at the same pace and Underwood facilitates it well. In the quieter, static scenes, Underwood’s comedic touches come out. But he can also get in the grandiose landscape–Tremors occasionally feels like a Western, or at least like it’s supposed to feel a little like a Western. Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski and composer Ernest Troost really help Underwood in making Tremors feel bigger than a lower budgeted, ninety minute monster movie. The film really draws the viewer in and holds him or her for the running time.

Tremors is a modern classic. It occurs to me the “modern classic” might not be based so much on box office gross or artistic import, but on rental returns. Tremors was a video hit. Strangely, DVD hits don’t produce “modern classics,” as Netflix has stamped out the communal video store atmosphere where film discovery could still occur.

But Tremors is a good film and it’s more important for its quality than its footnote in film history (even if it’s got one of the last PG-13 uses of the f-word).

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Underwood; screenplay by S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, based on a story by Wilson, Maddock and Underwood; director of photography, Alexander Gruszynski; edited by O. Nicholas Brown; music by Ernest Troost; production designer, Ivo Cristante; produced by Maddock and Wilson; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Kevin Bacon (Valentine McKee), Fred Ward (Earl Bassett), Finn Carter (Rhonda LeBeck), Michael Gross (Burt Gummer), Reba McEntire (Heather Gummer), Bobby Jacoby (Melvin Plug), Charlotte Stewart (Nancy Sterngood), Tony Genaro (Miguel), Ariana Richards (Mindy Sterngood), Richard Marcus (Nestor), Victor Wong (Walter Chang), Sunshine Parker (Edgar), Michael Dan Wagner (Old Fred), Conrad Bachmann (Dr. Jim) and Bibi Besch (Megan).


Dead of Winter (1987, Arthur Penn)

Loathe as I am to be glib about a director like Arthur Penn, Dead of Winter comes off like a TNT Original Movie. Penn proves himself–with the exception of maybe one scene and even then it’s awkward because it’s Arthur Penn using Steadicam–almost completely inept at directing a thriller. The script’s hardly anything special and maybe a good deal of the problems come from it, but Penn fails to instill any foreboding into the film. There’s some goofy stuff in the last act (another reason it reminds me of a TV movie is how every single development in the climax is utterly predictable–like a stage play with spotlights on important objects or ideas), but the goofy stuff only hurts it a little; insignificant damage.

The opening scene is bad, poorly handled because of details the viewer isn’t supposed to know yet, but Dead of Winter recovers immediately following. Mary Steenburgen and William Russ make a good couple–though their marital status comes as a bit of a surprise later on–and they help the film find its feet. The scenes with Steenburgen as the working actress (soaps and commercials) are good. So good, I didn’t even notice Canada was standing in for New York (which might be Penn’s greatest achievement with this one). Even Roddy McDowell is good at the beginning. Later–everything with Dead of Winter is later, because of how poorly the script handles the big reveal–the script cuts McDowell’s character loose and he gets progressively hammier.

As the plot developed, I got the feeling Penn was going for a modified haunted house thriller. He doesn’t. He plays the entire thing straight and that approach is why it’s a TV movie. It’s not even a glorified TV movie, given the cast. As good as Jan Rubes is in the film as the villain, his best moments are probably off-screen; the script hints at his deviousness, but never shows it.

I really do want to give away the film’s final plunge into risibility, but it is a surprise and Dead of Winter is–kind of–worth seeing. Watching Penn fail is painful, but it’s an interesting flop.

But the biggest problem with the film is the script and its handling of Steenburgen’s character. The viewer is supposed to believe Mary Steenburgen is a complete fool. Not just a complete fool, but a complete fool of a New Yorker who somehow managed not to end up dead in a trash can during her time there. Steenburgen’s character’s so stupid, she’d have trouble opening doors. But, only when it comes to her dupability. The rest of the time it’s Mary Steenburgen and she’s with it.

The character’s guilelessness throughout the film makes the third act impossible to believe, when Dead of Winter gets around to having that third act all thrillers need to have.

It was clear from the start there was something off with the film, but it maintained a decent mediocrity–combined with Penn’s bewildering direction–until the last twenty-five minutes or so. Then it just got worse and worse.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Arthur Penn; written by Marc Shmuger and Mark Malone; director of photography, Jan Weincke; edited by Rick Shaine; music by Richard Einhorn; production designer, Bill Brodie; produced by John Bloomgarden and Shmuger; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Mary Steenburgen (Katie McGovern), Roddy McDowall (Mr. Murray), Jan Rubes (Dr. Joseph Lewis), William Russ (Rob Sweeney), Ken Pogue (Officer Mullavy), Wayne Robson (Officer Huntley) and Mark Malone (Roland McGovern).


Howard the Duck (1986, Willard Huyck)

It’d be interesting to know how much of the relationship between Howard and Lea Thompson got toned down, like if Huyck and Katz originally had them more visibly romantically involved. It wouldn’t be interesting to see cut scenes or even to read old drafts of the script, it’d just be interesting to know. Seeing cut scenes or reading the script would require one to endure more of this intolerable production.

Howard the Duck has absolutely nothing to recommend it. Casting Richard Kiley as the Voice of the Cosmos aside, it’s worthless. All I could think, as the terribly acted Duck got to Earth and met Thompson was–these people wrote American Graffiti. The duck planet scenes at the beginning, which should have been amusing and inventive is more instead tired. There’s no exuberance to the scenes, they’re mundane. As a director, Huyck is never willing to acknowledge Howard the Duck‘s idiocy. It’s about a talking duck who gets it on with a human girl. It ought to be dumb, fun and outlandish–and aware of it. Instead, it’s all about not selling out the music for the man. It’s embarrassing to watch it, much less to imagine having participated in its making in any capacity.

I’m not real familiar with the comic books, but the movie Howard is a unfunny whiner who’s mad he had to get a job. I can only figure the comic book Howard is probably a funny whiner. The occasional promises of a smoking and drinking duck are never realized (he gets whisked to Earth before he lights his cigar and his beer later magically disappears into PG-land). Sadly, Howard the Duck probably isn’t even the worst of the atrocious teen-minded sci-fi movies on the mid-1980s, just the most famous.

The acting is unspeakable. Lea Thompson has never been really good so her inability to act opposite a guy in a costume who talks (the cast of “Alf” did far better) is no surprise. But Tim Robbins? Robbins is awful. Jeffrey Jones is awful. Some of the blame has to fall on the script and direction, but good acting might have made it a little less unbearable.

As for the costumed Howard the Duck… the costume’s not detailed enough to be convincing in regular shots. It looks like a television commercial. And Chip Zien’s vocal performance as Howard might be the worst thing in the movie, which is a hard thing to be.

The only other thing worth commenting on is John Barry’s score. When I saw his name in the opening titles, I figured at least the music would be good. It isn’t. It’s John Barry trying to be zany. It’s a metaphor for the whole movie–a bunch of squares pretending to be zany and not even managing to make an unconventional failure.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Willard Huyck; screenplay by Huyck and Gloria Katz, based on the Marvel Comics character created by Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik; director of photography, Richard H. Kline; edited by Michael Chandler and Sidney Wolinsky; music by John Barry; production designer, Peter Jamison; produced by Katz; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Lea Thompson (Beverly Switzler), Jeffrey Jones (Dr. Walter Jenning), Tim Robbins (Phil Blumburtt), Paul Guilfoyle (Lieutenant Welker) and Ed Gale & Chip Zien (Howard T. Duck).


Mongol (2007, Sergei Bodrov)

Mongol starts real strong. The Mongolian steppe lends itself quite well to Panavision composition and director Bodrov utilizes it fully. Bodrov’s approach to the material is interesting, if far from unique. For the Mongols riding on horses, he mimics Dances With Wolves. For battle scenes, especially at the end, he mimics Gladiator (which was just applying Saving Private Ryan to different material). For the dialogue-heavy scenes–Mongol‘s attention to the characters makes it somewhat peculiar–Bodrov seems to be channeling Michael Mann.

But Mongol‘s content makes it seem new, even if its approach to the title character is a cinematic standard. The first third of Mongol is the adventures of Genghis Khan as a boy and it’s excellent, because it’s leading up to something. I was aware, going in, the film was the first chapter in a planned trilogy… and only two hours long. But the stuff with the boy is so good–it’s epic in the traditional Hollywood way–it didn’t occur to me there wasn’t going to be a lot of time afterwards.

The boy loses his father, his mother has to protect him but eventually cannot. So he strikes out on his own, taken in by a newfound friend who subsequently helps him escape capture. It’s all very Hollywood–Yul Brynner would have played him in the American version fifty years ago. It gets even more standard when he becomes an adult. It’s not just his adopting his wife’s children (she’s kidnapped a couple times) as his own or, after being caged for six years, being in perfect physical condition. There’s even more to it. He always keeps his word, even after people doubt he’ll do it. He’s a movie hero.

What gets lost is the reality of the setting. Mongol never explains where the final battle armor–after the Mongols had never worn it in previous scenes–comes from. It never explains customs. It’s kind of neat, passively sticking in details, but once it becomes clear it’s not going to be a full narrative exercise and it’s not going to be Horse Thief, it’s hard to figure out what Mongol is actually doing.

It’s a rip-rousing action movie set in the twelfth century, fully utilizing modern filmmaking tools. But nothing else.

Some of the problem comes with the approach to the characters. Asano Tadanobu is good in the lead, but the character’s an enigma. The viewer only finds out what he’s thinking because another character tells him what he’s thinking and the viewer overhears. There’s also lots of missing time–I think the present action is twenty years, but it could be twenty-five or so–and Asano has to relate unseen changes in the character. Or he should… but Mongol‘s approach makes it a lot easier on him. What’s the difference between young Genghis Khan and adult Genghis Khan? He was shorter as a child.

It doesn’t help Sun Honglei runs off with the movie either, playing Asano’s eccentric and bombastic blood brother slash adversary. Sun’s great, but it doesn’t hurt his character gets some motivation throughout. Just like Khulan Chulunn as the wife… she’s got a real character. Her performance isn’t great, but it’s affecting.

Mongol tries real hard, but it’s predictable and needs to be sublime. Bodrov does a good job, throughout, of arresting the numerous quality declines, particularly for the ending. He just ends it upbeat and it works, because it’s such a traditional story.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sergei Bodrov; written by Arif Aliyev and Bodrov; directors of photography, Sergey Trofimov and Rogier Stoffers; edited by Zach Staenberg and Valdis Oskarsdottir; music by Tuomas Kantelinen; production designer, Dashi Namdakov; produced by Sergey Selyanov, Bodrov and Anton Melnik; released by Nashe Kino.

Starring Asano Tadanobu (Temudgin), Sun Honglei (Jamukha), Khulan Chuluun (Borte), Odnyam Odsuren (Young Temudgin), Aliya (Oelun), Ba Sen (Esugei), Amadu Mamadakov (Targutai) and Ba Yin (Merchant With Golden Ring).


August (2008, Austin Chick)

August clocks in, with end credits, at eighty-four minutes. I didn’t know the running time going in, so I wasn’t thinking about it. I would have guessed, just based on the perceptive passage, around two hours. My wife, not being a fan, probably would say three and a half. Doing a good movie in ninety minutes has gotten, for whatever reason, to be near impossible in the last forty-odd years. Doing a great one in under ninety, in New York, with a limited cast, has actually gotten a little easier in the last few. I’m thinking of Looking for Kitty.

August does a couple things, a couple important things. First, it fulfills Josh Hartnett, whose career has been in a mainstream paralysis the last six years. He’s the whole show in August, playing an unlikable, unsympathetic alpha male selling a useless internet product before the technology for it even exists. His character thinks he’s Prince. I’d seen some previews and they don’t properly represent his performance (August is, as the next point will clarify, difficult to sell). He’s fantastic.

The second thing it does is more and less important. August is a character study. I kept waiting for it not to be a character study, I kept waiting for it to go bad once it started getting great, but then the last scene came around and it became clear how Chick was ending the film.

August is set in August 2001. The World Trade Center only appears in one establishing shot. What Chick and writer Rodman do with that setting is rather unexpected. The film also has a lot of financial hyperbole–most of the conversations in the film are about Hartnett and brother Adam Scott’s company’s financial condition, not the most riveting to audiences. But it’s a character study.

As a director, Chick was one of my initial problems with August. His composition kept bothering me. It was like he was wasting a quarter of the screen (August is Panavision aspect, a quarter off would make it fit for HD). Then, after the first time shot using the entire screen, it became clear he was using that empty space. He was using it all along, but I guess I was just too suspect to give him the credit. I thought it was getting lucky.

The rest of the cast is good (even David Bowie). Since it’s all about their relationships with Hartnett, Adam Scott and Naomie Harris have the best parts. Scott and Hartnett only mildly resemble each other around the eyes (and it’s only at the end Chick uses close-ups), but August has one of those good, difficult brother relationships. Harris is the ex-girlfriend; she and Hartnett only have three scenes, but they’re all excellent. The other supporting cast members–Andre Royo, Robin Tunney, Rip Torn, Caroline Lagerfelt–all good.

August is definitely the sum of its parts–Nathan Larson’s music, awkward in the trailer and, I’m sure, on its own, is an essential element–as is Andrij Parekh’s cinematography. Chick makes an eighty-four (sorry, eighty-nine… with end credits) film, shot on limited locations (I figure the driving sequence was either the most expense or illegally done), about three weeks, expansive.

At some point, I guess somewhere after the twenty minute mark, I thought how nice it would be if August were great, then dismissed it. I’m not sure if I’m happier with the unexpected surprise or if I’m mad I’m so defeatist about film. But considering August, there’s no reason to be quite so cynical.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Austin Chick; written by Howard A. Rodman; director of photography, Andrij Parekh; edited by Pete Beaudreau; music by Nathan Larson; production designer, Roshelle Berliner; produced by Elisa Pugliese, Clara Markowicz, Josh Hartnett, Charlie Corwin and David Guy Levy; released by First Look Studios.

Starring Josh Hartnett (Tom), Naomie Harris (Sarrah), Adam Scott (Joshua), Robin Tunney (Melanie), Andre Royo (Dylan), Emmanuelle Chriqui (Mo), Laila Robins (Pivo), Caroline Langerfelt (Nancy), Alan Cox (Barton), David Bowie (Ogilvie) and Rip Torn (David).


The Morning After (1986, Sidney Lumet)

The Morning After is an awkward combination of thriller and adult drama. As a thriller, with Paul Chihara’s enthusiastic and bombastic score, it’s frequently annoying. Jane Fonda can scrub a crime scene of every thread of evidence, but the simple things–like dropping a succeeding lie or leaving all her personal belongings for the police to find–escape her. Lumet’s direction, which makes full use of the frame in a somewhat unique three dimensional manner (Fonda hides on the right, out of sight from the pursuer on the left or hiding behind truck on the lower right, unseen by the pursuers above her), is competent while unsuccessful. It can’t surmount the script’s absurdities or that awful music.

There’s also the matter of the frequent extreme long shots, featuring Fonda walking from one side of the frame to the other, usually in front of a building. Those I can’t even begin to understand.

The adult drama angle of the film, alcoholic failed starlet Fonda finds the hint of a human connection with friendly bigot (he’s friendly in his bigotry) Jeff Bridges, works considerably better. Lumet’s direction of those scenes, when they aren’t doubling for suspense, is quite good and rather effective. I spent a lot of The Morning After marveling at Fonda’s ability to overcome the material. She and Bridges have a decent chemistry, but her drunk scenes are bleak and wonderful. One of the few things the script gets right is its detail to her (drinking-related) behaviors and the logic she operates under.

The script’s major conceptual problem (besides the wrong-headed–it’s got that L.A. corruption angle too–cobbling of two incompatible ideas) has to do with the script’s ambitions. The Morning After is practically a concept film–the opening titles only credit three actors, Fonda, Bridges and Raul Julia, and they aren’t kidding. It’s practically a stage play. It might even work better as a stage play, as the constraints would make it more interesting. But as a thriller, the constraints just make it weird. While the cops are after Fonda and she’s worried she’s a killer or there’s a killer after her, she takes the time to put on make-up and flirt with Bridges. The movie wastes about eleven minutes on this scene, which is only there for developing that adult drama aspect.

Another big problem is understanding what Fonda’s doing. The viewer can’t understand what she’s thinking because he or she is supposed to be considering the possibility Fonda killed someone, but it frequently gets to the point where her actions are baffling. Fonda’s character is a clumsy drunk; it’s always clear when she’s been drinking. So her relatively sober actions tend to make less sense than her drunk ones. A strange dichotomy.

But it’s worth watching for Fonda’s performance, even if Bridges is just along for the ride and Julia can’t make his poorly written character work. Fonda gets through all the absurdity, making it all palatable, and comes out great at the–similarly goofy–ending.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Sidney Lumet; written by James Cresson; director of photography, Andrzej Bartkowiak; edited by Joel Goodman; music by Paul Chihara; production designer, Albert Brenner; produced by Bruce Gilbert; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Jane Fonda (Alex Sternbergen), Jeff Bridges (Turner Kendall), Raul Julia (Joaquin Manero), Diane Salinger (Isabel Harding), Richard Foronjy (Sergeant Greenbaum), Geoffrey Scott (Bobby Korshack), James ‘Gypsy’ Haake (Frankie), Kathleen Wilhoite (Red) and Don Hood (Hurley).


Butterfly on a Wheel (2007, Mike Barker)

Besides opening with that long, awkward and confusing title, Butterfly on a Wheel opens a lot like a 1980s thriller would. Robert Duncan’s score is quite effective throughout the film, but during the opening titles–knowing very little about the movie–I think I got a little more hopeful than I should have. Butterfly takes place over a long night (except the first act, which summarizes the day before) and running the present action limits the movie’s potential. With a couple exceptions, the movie doesn’t do anything wrong, it just doesn’t set its ambitions high. As a ninety minute diversion, it’s pretty good, but only because it’s got a couple nice surprises at the end. I’m not a fan of trick endings… but for a ninety minute, second and third acts over one night narrative, I could care less.

Except it’s Pierce Brosnan in the heavy role. Brosnan doesn’t have to quell his accent–though I have no idea, having never seen him interviewed, if he still has a strong Irish accent–but since his character’s deceiving the other characters and the viewer, it’s not like there’s much potential for acting. Brosnan’s good when he does get to act, but it’s only a couple times. It’s a waste of time for Brosnan, the kind of silly role one would take in a vanity project… oh, did I forget to mention he produced Butterfly too? His participation makes a lot of sense with that detail taken into account.

Maria Bello is good, even though the specifics for her character are real sketchy. The first act, the brief establishing of her backstory and the ground situation… it’s too abridged. But she does have some really excellent small moments. They don’t really contribute to the movie, just showcase Bello’s acting.

As for Gerard Butler–and it’s the first time I’ve ever see him in anything–he’s awful. His performance, if it deserves that term, is a disaster. He can’t emote, he can’t sit still. He can’t even walk convincingly. He does bring Butterfly down. Due to his performance, the end is less significant. He’s terrible. There aren’t words for how terrible.

The direction’s competent, bordering on good. It’s a thriller without many set pieces, which is odd, so Barker doesn’t have much chance for flash. There is one terrible scene–the camera is spinning around Bello and Butler, but instead of doing it practical, it’s an effects shot. Except the backgrounds keep changing and it all looks bad. And the effects shots at the end are bad too. But the direction’s inoffensive.

Butterfly‘s engaging in the worst way–it’s actually all about watching to find out what happens. There’d be nothing to see on a second viewing. But for one of those movies, it’s not bad.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Mike Barker; written by William Morrissey; director of photography, Ashley Rowe; edited by Guy Bensley; music by Robert Duncan; production designer, Rob Gray; produced by Pierce Brosnan, Morrissey and William Vince; released by Lionsgate Films.

Starring Pierce Brosnan (Tom Ryan), Maria Bello (Abby Randall), Gerard Butler (Neil Randall), Emma Karwandy (Sophie Randall), Claudette Mink (Judy Ryan), Desiree Zurowski (Helen Schriver), Nicholas Lea (Jerry Crane), Peter Keleghan (Karl Granger), Samantha Ferris (Diane), Malcolm Stewart (Dave Carver), Callum Keith Rennie (Det. McGill) and Dustin Milligan (Matt Ryan).


Miami Vice (2006, Michael Mann), the director’s cut

Michael Mann’s director’s cuts are sometimes large and sometimes small. They usually include music changes. In the case of Miami Vice, he adds an opening, changes some music and does a few little things. It’s too bad, because even though it having an opening works out nice, neither of these major choices seem to be good ones. The opening introduces the cops’ speedboat racing team. They later use the same boat while undercover. It’s got their team name on the side. The change of music at the end starts out all right, but leaves the big shootout with some terrible scoring after the song runs out.

Watching Miami Vice on HD-DVD, it almost looks worse than it did in the theater. The DV makes it look like a sitcom. This viewing made it crystal clear what the big deal is about Mann using the DV. The actors have to work two or three times harder–only Colin Farrell manages it with any dignity–while Mann gets to cop out and do whatever he wants with the DV. There are some cool sequences in Miami Vice, but they never look good in high-def. They look like CG or the new “Grand Theft Auto.” The only time it ever looks good is the night shooting, when the sky is visible and the DV actually can photograph the differing colors well. I’ve seen DV well-lighted–from art school students no less–and it is not well-lighted in Miami Vice. Dion Beebe is an exceptionally unimpressive cinematographer.

The real problem is Mann’s script. He makes everyone in the movie, when he’s not borrowing his Manhunter lines, talk like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro do in Heat. Farrell can manage, so can Jamie Foxx to some degree (it’s sort of amazing how little Mann gives Jamie Foxx to do in the film), but when Naomie Harris starts doing it? It’s silly. There’s lots of bad acting in Miami Vice too. Barry Shabaka Henley stumbles through Mann’s dialogue, while Li Gong tries but just doesn’t work. It’s not believable her character wouldn’t speak English better.

John Ortiz’s evil villain starts out okay, but Mann reduces him to comic book status later on and it’s just bad.

I don’t know if I was expecting the director’s cut to help much–there’s still absolutely no partnership between Foxx and Farrell in the film–but I was expecting hi-def to make it look better.

I also don’t know how I feel about Mann always screwing up the music in his revisions. He kills the momentum at the end of Miami Vice and doesn’t even bother saving it from a jarring cut between the final shot and the credits.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Mann; screenplay by Mann, based on the television series created by Anthony Yerkovich; director of photography, Dion Beebe; edited by William Goldenberg and Paul Rubell; music by John Murphy; production designer, Victor Kempster; produced by Mann and Pieter Jan Brugge; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Colin Farrell (Sonny Crockett), Jamie Foxx (Ricardo Tubbs), Li Gong (Isabella), Naomie Harris (Trudy Joplin), Ciaran Hinds (Agent Fujima), Justin Theroux (Zito), Barry Shabaka Henley (Lt. Castillo), Luis Tosar (Montoya), John Ortiz (José Yero) and Elizabeth Rodriguez (Gina).


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