Spoilers of the North (1947, Richard Sale)

Spoilers of the North takes a hard look at the seedy underbelly of salmon poaching in Alaska. I just had to write that sentence. Spoilers is a non-studio B-picture from the mid-1940s and, though I may never have seen anything equitable, it’s probably as good as it can be for what it’s got. The direction is technically mediocre, but it’d be hard for it to offend. There’s lots of found footage used in Spoilers, from boat shots, to salmon cannery shots, to American Indian dancing–when there appeared to be a real boat chase, I was shocked it hadn’t been cobbled from newsreels–then realized the editing is so poor, they’d never be able to do it. The editing at the beginning almost makes Spoilers unwatchable. It’s full of wipes and fades, one every six seconds, moving the lame story along. However, once you discover it actually is about a bad guy trying to defraud people over salmon, well, Spoilers gets a lot more amusing.

The film’s public domain now, but the cast is actually somewhat recognizable. Bad guy Paul Kelly is not familiar–he’s an amazingly bad actor. The dialogue in Spoilers is pretty bad, but Kelly gives an exceptionally bad performance. He’s also playing a philanderer. His successful approach to women is to mimic George Raft. James Millican plays his good guy brother. Millican’s been in a bunch of bit roles, so he’s familiar. He’s also almost all right. He’s really busy during the film, always moving his hands and fiddling with things. It gets distracting. But he does have good chemistry with the girl, played by Evelyn Ankers. Ankers is probably the biggest star of the film, at least in retrospect (she was the girl in The Wolf Man). She’s okay, surprisingly good for a few moments, but blah for some others. The best performance is from Adrian Booth, as the “half-breed” who Kelly romances but won’t marry (she’s a “half-breed”).

Spoilers is astoundingly racist–there’s a great scene when Ankers is showing the audience she’s empathetic (not just a twit fooled by Kelly) and she buys a little Native kid a birthday cake. Then the family proceeds to get excited eating the candles. There’s plenty more along those lines, but there’s also a bunch of great sexism in the film too. In rugged (California set-based) Alaska, a successful businesswoman like Ankers can’t possibly understand what’s going on. Spoilers is somehow amusing, offensive, and actually not terrible in places. I just wish I could see a trailer for it, because I spent the whole movie imagining it–”Two brothers battle for fish and women in rugged Alaska,” “See the forbidden love between man and half-breed,” “Prepare for pulse-pounding fishing scenes!” Maybe I just ought to make one myself. I was expecting Spoilers to be low budget of that variety, but it’s not. So, if the filmmakers had actually been impassioned about Alaskan salmon poaching, Spoilers might be a “better” movie, but since they weren’t, Spoilers is certainly a watchable one.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Sale; written by Milton Raison; director of photography, Alfred S. Keller; edited by William P. Thompson; music by Mort Glickman; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Paul Kelly (Matt), Evelyn Ankers (Laura), Adrian Booth (Jane Koster), James Millican (Bill), Roy Barcroft (Moose McGovern), Louis Jean Heydt (Inspector Winters) and Ted Hecht (Joe Taku).


The Lady Vanishes (1938, Alfred Hitchcock)

The Lady Vanishes might be the most fun Hitchcock ever lets an audience have with one of his films. Vanishes maintains a comedic sensibility throughout and for the most part, that sensibility overtakes the mystery element. Even the mystery element gives way to an action element–besides North by Northwest (which only barely qualifies) and Foreign Correspondent, The Lady Vanishes has the most action of any Hitchcock film. It’s also jingoistic in a good way, something Hitchcock couldn’t pull off when he was doing 1940s American propaganda. The British really look good at the end of The Lady Vanishes and he pulls it off beautifully.

The film opens with a miniature of a Central European mountain village. The camera moves slowly in on the village, across the train platform, behind some buildings, to the inn where the film begins. It’s a fantastical shot, impossible to duplicate with a location (the logistics of a helicopter), though CG might “work.” It also establishes Hitchcock’s approach to the filmmaking in Vanishes. Whatever he can use to facilitate storytelling, he uses. It’s a different approach to filmic storytelling and it would be gone from Hitchcock by 1941 and popular film in the late 1940s. Once “realism” became so important–the film being “real” (absurd) as compared to reality, instead of being authentic to itself–films stopped being technically invigorating on the content-level. Skillful camera work is one thing, but getting excited about seeing it is another. While it does happen, it happened a lot in the 1920s and 1930s.

The film also has one of Hitchcock’s best cast ensembles. Besides Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford as the cricket-obsessed comedy relief, there’s also the adulterous couple (Cecil Parker and Linden Travers) who some comedy, but more drama, for the viewer to engage with. The early scenes at the inn are played entirely for laughs, so when the mysterious elements of The Lady Vanishes start, Hitchcock has to change tone quickly. To do so, he switches (just for a moment) perspective–instead of the English commanding the room of Europeans, it’s the British subject at the mercy of the strange, quiet Europeans on the train. Margaret Lockwood’s character starts out in Lady Vanishes as an entitled jerk, but her concerned for the titular disappeared lady, along with her great chemistry with Michael Redgrave, really warm her character. She doesn’t actually have a character arc–nothing changes except the need for her to be different–but she and Redgrave are so good together, suspension of disbelief holds he can be doing it (really, really quickly). Redgrave is a good leading man, funnier than most, but just as stoic when he needs to be. Their relationship is so good, I know I’m slighting it, but I have to get on to Paul Lukas, who plays the best villain in any Hitchcock film. Lukas is particularly fantastic in the film.

I remember the first time I watched The Lady Vanishes, on the Criterion DVD, I had seen some British Hitchcock already and knew it would be technically different. But from the opening shot, to the comedy in the inn, it was clear from the start Vanishes was going to be excellent, an exciting film to experience.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, based on a novel by Ethel Lina White; director of photography, Jack E. Cox; edited by R.E. Dearing; music by Louis Levy and Charles Williams; produced by Edward Black; released by Gainsborough Pictures.

Starring Margaret Lockwood (Iris Henderson), Michael Redgrave (Gilbert), Paul Lukas (Dr. Hartz), Dame May Whitty (Miss Froy), Cecil Parker (Mr. Todhunter), Linden Travers (‘Mrs.’ Todhunter), Naunton Wayne (Caldicott), Basil Radford (Charters), Mary Clare (Baroness Nisatona) and Emile Boreo (Boris the Hotel Manager).


Undead (2003, Peter Spierig and Michael Spierig)

Has copyright lapsed on John Williams’s “Promenade (Tourists on the Menu)” composition from Jaws, because this film uses it all the time. While Undead is a fun little movie, I’m pretty sure Lionsgate would get their butts sued off if it got out they were violating such an obvious copyright, and I have to go with Lionsgate getting sued over the movie keeping the track. Hopefully someone will catch it someday.

Otherwise, Undead is a quirky, pseudo-little zombie movie. It’s pseudo-little because after the first hour mark, there’s a lot of big special effects. One of the few nice things about CG is people can conceivably do it at home, which is what the filmmakers purportedly did with Undead (according to IMDb). Much of the film’s zombie-fighting plays like Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado, only if instead of Antonio Banderas, the action hero was a big fat Australian redneck. This redneck, played by Mungo McKay, is generally Undead‘s greatest fault. Mungo acts about as well as someone named Mungo would be expected to act. The rest of the cast is fine–the lead, Felicity Mason, is good once the film gets going–but Mungo ruins every single line he has. Watching him open his mouth and talk is like a dinging dread-bell.

At first, as the inevitable group of ill-fit comrades on the run from zombies fought for their lives, I thought everyone in the movie shot as bad as the stormtroopers in Star Wars. They kept shooting at the zombies legs and torsos and I thought it was either a joke or just some incredible mistake (like Mungo’s casting and the lame, narratively bankrupt ending). Until the forty-two minute mark when they realize they need to shoot the zombies in the head. Now, I realize Australia is another continent and they still have the Queen of England on their money, but come on–even if these characters hadn’t seen a zombie movie, common-sense would dictate the importance of a head shot. It’s unbelievable. Even more unbelievable than the big fat redneck propelling himself through the air to hang upside down by his spurs.

The film has a really cool resolution, then the stupid horror movie ending. There’s some really nice special effects and some good shots to the resolution, but once it ended and the movie didn’t, I knew I was in for a lame “surprise” ending. The writing and directing Spierig have a lot of low budget inventiveness, but besides the humor, none of it is in their writing.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed, written, produced and edited by Peter Spierig and Michael Spierig; director of photography, Andrew Strahorn; production designer, Matthew Putland; released by Lions Gate Films.

Starring Felicity Mason (Rene), Mungo McKay (Marion), Rob Jenkins (Wayne), Lisa Cunningham (Sallyanne), Dirk Hunter (Harrison) and Emma Randall (Molly).


Das Boot (1981, Wolfgang Petersen), the uncut version

Das Boot probably has–of serious films–the most number of alternate cuts released. Besides the two and a half hour theatrical version, there was a three and a half hour director’s cut (which I saw theatrically, so I suppose I only saw the original version on VHS), and finally, now, there’s the five hour “uncut version,” which is actually just the original German miniseries. Das Boot‘s such an immersive experience, whether two and a half or four and a half, the added footage isn’t particularly perceptible. When the film started, there were a few things I noticed new, but I stopped bothering to look after the first fifteen minutes. For such a long film, it moves really fast. Quite a bit happens and the viewer is expected to keep track of a large number of characters (one of the visible changes in the longest version is the attention paid to the supporting cast).

Starting Das Boot–maybe even from the opening shot–I remembered it was an excellent film, excellent to an almost mythical degree. I’d forgotten, taken it for granted maybe. The first fifteen minutes, establishing the primary characters at an officer’s party, I also realized something tragic happened to Wolfgang Petersen. He went from making Das Boot to some of the most unwatchable–without music video editing–mainstream films of the 1990s and, presumably (since I certainly don’t see them anymore), 2000s. Fortunately, Das Boot‘s so good, I didn’t dwell for long.

Much of the film’s success is Jürgen Prochnow as the captain. There are some other excellent performances, like Otto Sander’s cameo at the beginning, and Klaus Wennemann as the chief engineer and Martin Semmelrogge as the comedy relief. The entire cast is good, but it all revolves around Prochnow and he has to be good, because it’s five hours. Even if it’s two and a half hours, not a lot happens. Das Boot chronicles the minutiae, not just of boring days at sea or of battle scenes, but also of being bored at sea. Not much else is quite as immersive.

I haven’t seen Das Boot in about nine years, since the director’s cut came out on laserdisc. I always waited for DVD, because the SuperBit version of it was supposed to be better than the regular disc (then I guess wasn’t), but finally the miniseries version came out… and I took a couple years to watch it. I’m hoping next time I won’t wait so long again.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen; screenplay by Petersen, based on a novel by Lothar-Gunther Buchheim; director of photography, Jost Vacano; edited by Hannes Nikel; music by Klaus Doldinger; produced by Gunter Rohrbach; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jurgen Prochnow (Captain), Herbert Gronemeyer (Lieutenant Werner-Correspondent), Klaus Wennemann (Chief Engineer), Hubertus Bengsch (First Lieutenant-No. 1), Martin Semmelrogge (Second Lieutenant), Bernd Tauber (Chief Quartermaster), Erwin Leder (Johann), Martin May (Ullmann), Heinz Honig (Hinrich), U.A. Ochsen (Chief Bosun), Claude-Oliver Rudolph (Ario), Jan Fedder (Pilgrim), Ralph Richter (Frenssen), Joachim Bernhard (Preacher), Oliver Stritzel (Schwalle), Konrad Becker (Bockstiegel), Lutz Schnell (Dufte) and Martin Hemme (Bruckenwilli).


The Dream Team (1989, Howard Zieff)

I’d forgotten how loud comedies could get. Maybe I haven’t seen enough eighties comedies lately, because watching The Dream Team, I kept wondering how I’d never noticed the music in the film before. I saw The Dream Team back on video, probably in 1990–Michael Keaton as Batman might not have been box office dollars, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only kid who rented his movies thanks to the role. I probably haven’t seen it in ten plus years, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the film.

It’s hard not to have one, however, since The Dream Team is so nice. Even the dirty, murderous cops are kind of nice (to a point). The Dream Team takes place in a pseudo-reality but isn’t set there, which makes for an odd experience at times. So much of the film is effortless, I don’t think–besides that tone–I ever noticed the direction once, or even the writing, past some issues with the story structure. It’s a benign experience–one with audible laughs, but it’s so mild an exercise, I almost think there should be a genre called the “Imagine Entertainment Comedy.” They could get a trademark for it and everything.

The comedic acting from Michael Keaton, Peter Boyle, Stephen Furst, and even Christopher Lloyd is all great. I was most surprised at Lloyd, only because I’m used to him being so bad. Boyle’s absolutely fantastic and has most of the film’s best lines. Dennis Boutsikaris leaves an impression because he seems like he should have done more–high profile roles–but has not. Lorraine Bracco’s in it too and it was funny I had to think about her original Hollywood film career and how it disappeared so quickly. On the other hand, it reminded me how good at comedy Keaton is….

The Dream Team is actually something of a relic–not just of when comedies used to not be so bad, but when studios still somehow made uninteresting projects interesting, either through casting or production. It’s just worth seeing for the performances.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Howard Zieff; written by Jon Connolly and David Loucka; director of photography, Adam Holender; edited by C. Timothy O’Meara; music by David McHugh; production designer, Todd Hallowell; produced by Christopher W. Knight; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael Keaton (Billy Caulfield), Christopher Lloyd (Henry Sikorsky), Peter Boyle (Jack McDermott), Stephen Furst (Albert Ianuzzi), Dennis Boutsikaris (Dr. Weitzman), Lorraine Bracco (Riley), Milo O’Shea (Dr. Newald), Philip Bosco (O’Malley) and James Remar (Gianelli).


Alien: Resurrection (1997, Jean-Pierre Jeunet), the special edition

Joss Whedon has never met a cheap, cheesy one liner he didn’t like. He also feels the need to revise future technology based on modern developments (androids with wireless modems, which they would have had in the first Alien movies… except the lack of that technological possibility when said films were made). The first problem is an exceptional one (especially since he can’t go two minutes without one of those awful one liners), while the second one is just stupid. Alien: Resurrection is the first fanboy-written film. Its failure means it isn’t responsible for what came next (the utter eradication of quality science fiction or “genre” films from Hollywood), but it’s perfect foreshadowing. Even when it’s really bad, it’s no worse than the crap coming out today. With the exception of the bad CG, it’s probably even better.

The film–I watched the 2003 special edition–is actually all right for a bit at the beginning. Accepting the idea such an extraordinarily useless, artistically-soulless commercial venture can be all right, anyway. Then Winona Ryder and the crew of “Firefly” show up. Whedon essentially turned an Alien sequel into a pilot movie for his characters. Fine, whatever, it’s 115 minutes and there are some occasionally interesting moments… but I don’t like watching movies and pitying the actors. Watching Alien: Resurrection, one just has to pity Sigourney Weaver. It’s just terrible in parts. The other interesting thing about the pre-Ryder moments is Jeunet’s direction. Most of the film just looks dirty and green, but the beginning has some real Jeunet flourishes–which the new opening credits sequence illustrate well, even if the CG is cheap. While Brad Dourif’s got terrible dialogue, he, J.E. Freeman and Dan Hedaya really look like they belong in the film.

Alien: Resurrection being an acceptable waste of a couple hours comes mostly from the cast (there’s some effective scoring too, I suppose). Weaver does have some good moments–though it wasn’t until I watched the film this time, my fourth time in ten years, I realized Weaver and Ryder’s relationship was supposed to mirror the Ripley and Newt relationship from Aliens or something (yes, Joss Whedon is that incompetent). By the end, the good ones even outweigh the bad and embarrassing ones. Dourif’s not good, but Freeman and Hedaya are both excellent. Ron Perlman and Gary Dourdan are both saddled with terrible lines, but they’re fine. Michael Wincott and Kim Flowers are both really good (Flowers’s death scene is fantastic, the only effective death scene in a film with a dozen or more).

Alien³ is a film incapable of supporting a sequel, certainly one with Weaver anyway, but Resurrection isn’t as terrible as it could be, I suppose. It’d be much worse if it were made today. I remember when it bombed–after Fox spent a fortune making it–I realized no one had been really asking for another Alien movie. Fox was just trying to jump-start the franchise, a slur I’d never use against the Alien films. But there were comic books and toys and–really, Whedon seems like he learned how to write off of comic books, with no real understanding of how dialogue plays out off the page.

It’s an interesting film in parts, the way it’s made, some of what Jeunet does, but it’s so idiotically written–and I think that aspect is what makes it most like Hollywood films today, the absurdity of the writing being acceptable to someone who… can read–it doesn’t really matter. Even if it’s interesting, it’s still a stinky pile of crap.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet; written by Joss Whedon, based on characters created by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett; director of photography, Darius Khondji; edited by Herve Schneid; music by John Frizzell; production designer, Nigel Phelps; produced by Bill Badolato, Walter Hill, David Giler and Gordon Carroll; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Sigourney Weaver (Ripley), Winona Ryder (Annalee Call), Dominique Pinon (Vriess), Ron Perlman (Johner), Gary Dourdan (Christie), Michael Wincott (Elgyn), Kim Flowers (Hillard), Dan Hedaya (General Perez), J.E. Freeman (Wren), Brad Dourif (Gediman), Raymond Cruz (Distephano) and Leland Orser (Purvis).


Letters from Iwo Jima (2006, Clint Eastwood)

It’d be absurdly obvious to point out Letters from Iwo Jima is an anomaly in Clint Eastwood’s body of work. Outside, well, some Japanese directors in the 1950s and 1960s, it’d probably be an anomaly in anyone’s oeuvre. It reminds me of a dream movie–some movie I watch in a dream and wake up and it’s not real. Even a day later, thinking about the film, I keep expecting it not to be real. Certainly not to get to see it again.

Though it’s a definite companion to Flags of Our Fathers, it really makes no sense to talk about the two films in relation to each other. Besides the obvious comparison (Das Boot), Iwo Jima reminds most of The Big Red One–there’s a relentless futility essayed in the three films, but Iwo Jima is by far the bleakest portrayal of war I’ve ever seen. It may have something to do with being from the Japanese perspective, but even of the Japanese war films I’ve seen… Iwo Jima is something more. The bleakness somehow never manages to depress though. Letters from Iwo Jima tells its story in a finite arena and, even though it has a slight modern-day frame, never really makes any comment on its subjects. There are a lot of beautiful moments in the film, usually involving the main character, played by Ninomiya Kazunari, and his friends and his experiences. But while the film spends its time with both he and Ken Watanabe’s general, neither are really the main focus of the film. Clint encapsulates the entire experience through these two, which lead me to The Big Red One comparison, but there are also comparison’s to Sam Fuller’s other war films, which were also incredibly bleak (The Big Red One is probably the most cheery, in fact).

In many ways, Letters from Iwo Jima is an indescribable film. Seeing it soon after Flags of Our Fathers makes a technical comparison possible, maybe even interesting, but the two films are completely different. Iwo Jima is a film… well, it’s completely unique, both in the experience of seeing it and its place in big-f Film (which is separately thrilling, that a film could still make a place for itself in the medium). It’s a startling achievement from Clint Eastwood and I pretty much figured he could do anything, but here he manages to top any conceivable expectations.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Clint Eastwood; screenplay by Iris Yamashita, based on a story by Yamashita and Paul Haggis; director of photography, Tom Stern; edited by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach; music by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens; production designers, Henry Bumstead and James J. Murakami; produced by Eastwood, Steven Spielberg and Robert Lorenz; released by Warner Bros. and DreamWorks Pictures.

Starring Ken Watanabe (Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi), Ninomiya Kazunari (Saigo), Ihara Tsuyoshi (Baron Nishi), Kase Ryo (Shimizu), Nakamura Shidou (Lieutenant Ito) and Nae (Hanako).


Flirting with Disaster (1996, David O. Russell)

The first forty-five minutes of Flirting with Disaster play like Woody Allen mixed with a 1990s Miramax indie, which makes sense, since Flirting is a 1990s Miramax indie. That first half is real strong comedy of errors, then Josh Brolin’s bi (but married to fellow ATF agent Richard Jenkins, who’s phenomenal) old friend starts hitting on Patricia Arquette (who’s playing Ben Stiller’s neglected wife, while Stiller lusts for Téa Leoni) and the whole thing becomes very… common. Everything gets wrapped up with a neat little bow and instead of being quirky–David O. Russell combines hand-held with these somewhat epical establishing shots. They might have been shot from a car, hand-held, but they’re still epical. And the sound editing in that first half is fantastic too.

So what happens to Flirting with Disaster? Apparently, Russell decided the whole thing couldn’t be about Leoni’s adoption agent leading Stiller on wild goose chase after wild goose chase for well-cast possible birth parents. When the film gets to Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin, it speeds up. The pace had been a little hurried already, but then it’s all of a sudden over and it’s all a cop-out.

The film’s funny and the acting’s great. Only Brolin is weak. Leoni’s great, Arquette’s great in the first half, Stiller’s great until he has to wrap the film up with one apology… George Segal’s got some great moments with Mary Tyler Moore, but it’s all the script for them. Russell cast the film really well, but his script keeps a sense of artifice about the viewing experience, like he knew the audience wasn’t going to be able to get over Mary Tyler Moore flashing her bra either.

It’s sort of too bad and sort of not. At its best, Flirting with Disaster is a Woody Allen movie with acid (not on acid, with acid), at its worst, it’s an unaware Ganz-Mandel comedy with a quirky cast.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by David O. Russell; director of photography, Eric Edwards; edited by Christopher Tellefsen; music by Stephen Endelman; production designer, Kevin Thompson; produced by Dean Silvers; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Ben Stiller (Mel Coplin), Patricia Arquette (Nancy Coplin), Téa Leoni (Tina Kalb), Mary Tyler Moore (Mrs. Coplin), George Segal (Mr. Coplin), Alan Alda (Richard Schlicting), Lily Tomlin (Mary Schlicting), Richard Jenkins (Paul), Celia Weston (Valerie Swaney) and Josh Brolin (Tony).


The Return of the Vampire (1944, Lew Landers)

The Universal monster movies notably ignored modern events–when World War II came around, the clocks turned back on all their European-set monster movies to some indistinguishable point. The Return of the Vampire, a Columbia cheapie, on the other hand, sets the events directly in contemporary settings, both after the First World War and during the Second. It’s set in London, so there are bombing raids, which change the physical settings the film has to tell its story in. This acknowledgment of reality makes Return of the Vampire interesting. While it’s obviously cheap, it’s a neat idea, so’s the one where there’s a twenty-three year gap, which is only successful because of Frieda Inescort, who gives a good performance in her aging make-up.

I watched Return of the Vampire for a couple reasons. First, I might have owned it years ago on an EP VHS tape–though this viewing didn’t bring about any memory of it–and second, because it’s got a werewolf and a vampire. For some reason, that combination, mixed with the low budget, seemed like it might amuse. Unfortunately, the werewolf–played by Matt Willis–fails to amuse much. Willis is terrible as the werewolf, though sincere as the human alter ego. And I suppose Bela Lugosi is better in this film than he is in Dracula, but he’s still terrible. He’s getting old here and when the girl falls for him, it’s visibly absurd.

The acting makes a lot of Return of the Vampire passable. Inescort’s got good scenes with both Gilbert Emery and Miles Mander and Nina Foch seems like she’s a better actor than her part. The direction’s actually half good, usually going bad after a really good shot, but it’s probably better direction than most of the Universal monster movies of the era. Adding to the acceptability is Lugosi’s relatively short screen time and the film’s seventy-minute running time. However, if it didn’t have a peculiar approach, I doubt it’d be tolerable.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Lew Landers; written by Griffin Jay and Randall Faye; directors of photography, L. William O’Connell and John Stumar; edited by Paul Borofsky; music by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco; produced by Sam White; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Bela Lugosi (Armand Tesla), Frieda Inescort (Lady Jane Ainsley), Nina Foch (Nicki Saunders), Miles Mander (Sir Frederick Fleet), Roland Varno (John Ainsley), Matt Willis (Andreas Obry) and Gilbert Emery (Dr. Walter Saunders).


The Ice Harvest (2005, Harold Ramis)

In the few reviews of The Ice Harvest I looked at before renting the DVD, the reviewers all called John Cusack’s lawyer character dumb. Watching the film, however, I noticed John Cusack was doing what he always does… playing John Cusack. So, I didn’t really see his character as stupid (I was trying to read so much into those reviews, I was actually questioning what the reviewers must have thought he should do scene to scene–but only for a little while, it got distracting). I queued The Ice Harvest this week because I’d forgotten about it. A film written by Robert Benton and Richard Russo, it’s of a particular pedigree. Harold Ramis seems an odd choice for a director, given I expected the Benton and Russo script to be incredibly quiet… and The Ice Harvest is incredibly quiet. More happens in the first fifteen minutes or so than in the rest of the movie, just because Cusack drives to more places in that time. But Ramis handles it quite beautifully. I was halfway through the film before I noticed just how good of a job he does.

Instead of being a heist at Christmas gone wrong (which is actually The Ref, isn’t it?), The Ice Harvest defines itself in the scenes between Cusack and Oliver Platt as a (quiet) rumination on the state of the American male. It’s almost a modern Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Platt’s excellent, of course, so’s Cusack (playing himself) and the rest of the cast is good. Billy Bob Thorton’s good, with the most laughs in the film. Randy Quaid, Ned Bellamy, Mike Starr, all good. The only problem with The Ice Harvest–besides its lack of focus, which is probably more serious than the following–is Connie Nielsen. Nielsen’s awful. She couldn’t sell shampoo, much less play a femme fatale. Her scenes drag The Ice Harvest to a halt–and at a fast-paced ninety minutes, it’s a hard thing to do. When it started and she showed up and was terrible, I really hoped it wasn’t Connie Nielsen. Maybe the character was just a throwaway, certainly not the third-billed. But the third-billed it was… She practically haunts the whole movie.

Overall, I’m really sorry I waited so long to see The Ice Harvest. I intended to see it in the theater, but never made it. Its quietness amid some really smarmy, loud settings makes it peculiar but still a very worthwhile film. It also has a nice lack of predictability thing going.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Harold Ramis; written by Richard Russo and Robert Benton, based on the novel by Scott Phillips; director of photography, Alar Kivilo; edited by Lee Percy; music by David Kitay; production designer, Patrizia von Brandenstein; produced by Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa; released by Focus Features.

Starring John Cusack (Charlie), Billy Bob Thornton (Vic), Connie Nielsen (Renata), Randy Quaid (Bill Guerrard), Oliver Platt (Pete) and Mike Starr (Roy).


Scroll to Top