Alec Baldwin

Pearl Harbor (2001, Michael Bay)

Pearl Harbor is a couple things. It’s a breathtaking historical visualization of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And it’s a patronizing, cynical, disinterested war melodrama. The big problem with the melodrama is Randall Wallace’s script, which is vapid at best. It also barely factors in to the attack sequence. The attack sequence is all director Bay, for better and for worse, along with some unfortunate digital blurring to keep the rating down.

The Pearl Harbor sequence comes about halfway through. The movie runs three hours, the attack is at eighty minutes. Before the attack, there are some scenes with the Japanese (led by Mako and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who are both great) planning the attack and the Americans worrying about an attack. The Americans are mostly Jon Voight as FDR, Dan Aykroyd as the Naval Intelligence guy who can’t convince anyone to be worried, and Colm Feore as the Pearl Harbor base commander. But even if Aykroyd did get boss Graham Beckel to listen, the Japanese plan was too good. The Americans are just unprepared, which actually brings in the closest thing to a political statement the film makes. It makes various implications regarding the American military brass, as opposed to guys on the ground like Feore or Alec Baldwin’s Doolittle; Voight’s FDR isn’t with the brass either. It’s… interesting.

It’s probably what happens when history fails the politics of the filmmakers.

In other words, the film does a terrible job essaying how 1941 felt to the average person. Because Wallace does a crappy job in general and Bay’s really not interested in doing anything with regular people, not when he gets to do a special effects heavy war movie. As for the melodrama… the only person more disconnected from the melodrama than Bay is leading lady Kate Beckinsale, who doesn’t even get a caricature to play. Wallace’s script is, actually, quite interesting when you realize Beckinsale doesn’t just have less character than practically every other nurse (who are all man-starved caricatures, the slutty one, the sweet one, the fat one, the nerd), but her lack of character is what obliterates the film’s potential. Not just Beckinsale’s performance, which is… fine, given the circumstances. It’s vaguely believable she’s interested in Ben Affleck, but they—Wallace and Bay—can’t figure out how to get Beckinsale interested in third love triangle leg, Josh Hartnett.

See, Affleck and Hartnett are childhood best friends from Tennessee—the accents are better than you’d think; maybe not authentic, but better than you’d think. Affleck’s the alpha, Hartnett’s the beta. Though Affleck’s still fallible, he’s got dyslexia in 1941.

So let’s talk about the melodrama.

The movie opens with a flashback showing Hartnett’s character has a bad but sympathetic dad (William Fichtner in a flashback-redeeming cameo—or at least flashback-evening cameo) and sets Affleck up as his protector. Only Affleck’s about to ship out to England to get in the war because he’s getting old and still wants to be a war hero. He lies to Hartnett about volunteering and breaks new girlfriend Beckinsale’s heart, but she’s going to wait for him. Coincidentally Navy nurse Beckinsale and Army flier Hartnett both get posted to Pearl Harbor, where they see each other to say hello but don’t hang out. Or maybe they do. Because their supporting casts hang out but the film doesn’t do anything with Harnett or Beckinsale’s character development. What you’ve got with Pearl Harbor is a film wanting a beta to alpha arc for Harnett, but resenting Hartnett for being a beta, and then accidentally coming to the conclusion the alpha and beta labels are a bad way to think about masculinity. Only it can’t recognize that possibility because… dudes. There’s nothing more painful than the scenes when Affleck and Hartnett try to bond after Affleck gets back to find Hartnett and Beckinsale together. Much like when Beckinsale’s character is so exceptionally shallow you have to wonder how she made it through the scene without just defaulting to an honest answer and then when she becomes literal background in the third arc, you eventually welcome Hartnett and Affleck just standing around looking pensive as opposed to trying to talk about their incredibly complex situation.

Even though there are a couple times they’re supposedly going to have a hard talk. And there are a couple times Beckinsale’s going to get real with someone. Only she doesn’t have enough agency to do it. And Wallace doesn’t know how to write men talking about anything not military or war expository-related except Affleck and Hartnett’s buddies trying to figure out the best way to manipulate the nurses into bed. But they don’t mean it in a bad way—come on, it’s 1941, no one knew women were people yet.

Not even women.

So, spoiler, no, Beckinsale doesn’t have some kind of empowerment arc.

In fact, even though she gets the ill-advised, poorly written, and awkwardly placed end narration… Bay cuts her out of the end of the movie because she’s not a dude.

I guess to simplify the problem with the melodrama plot—it’s about Hartnett having a man-crush on Affleck because Affleck’s a square-jawed superman only to realize he’d rather have a lady, something Affleck seemingly wanted for himself but wasn’t ever going to tell puppy dog Hartnett about, and then Beckinsale—the object of their affections—doesn’t have enough of a character to react honestly to either, but with Affleck there’s at least movie romance cuteness; with Hartnett it’s a chemistry-free, erotic-free, erotic affair. It’s wholesome. With shtupping. Is it wholesome shtupping? Eh? Bay’s really bad at directing sex scenes.

Really, really, really, really bad. You’re surprised the actors aren’t blushing red from the stupidity.

Not like the canoodling, which Bay does somewhat well. Hartnett and Beckinsale’s romance is mostly short montage sequences where they cuddle and breath heavy on each other and it looks like a perfume commercial.

But the Pearl Harbor attack sequence is awesome filmmaking. Editors Roger Barton, Mark Goldblatt, Chris Lebenzon, and Steven Rosenblum don’t get jack to do before it and about twice that amount after it, but the attack is breathtaking thanks to them. Their cuts are so good the digital vaselining of the frame to insure the PG-13 doesn’t matter. It doesn’t work, but it doesn’t matter. John Schwartzman’s photography is great throughout, especially on the attack. Even an uncaring bastard like Bay is able to make each death tragic. It also reveals if Cuba Gooding Jr., who’s shoehorned into the movie to give it a single Black character with a story arc, is Bay’s real hero. Gooding’s a cook who ends up shooting down Japanese planes; Bay’s a lot more interested in the ground action than the flying action. Pearl Harbor doesn’t reinvent any wheels (or even try), but it definitely gets a lot less interest when it’s “leads” Affleck and Hartnett hitting the sky to avenge.

But getting them to the planes to go into the sky? Bay’s all about their (ground) trip to it. It’s a problem. Bay’s a problem.

Other great crew contributions? Nigel Phelps’s production design is fantastic. Hans Zimmer’s score is fine. Nothing special, but nothing bad. It’s all about that editing though. All about that editing.

Now for the acting. Lots of good supporting performances. The film has a bunch of sturdy character actors giving sturdy performances in bit parts. In the bigger ones, Aykroyd’s pretty good. Voight’s no qualifiers good. He’s really able to turn FDR into an action hero. It’s something. Baldwin’s great as Doolittle. Gooding’s fine. It’s a shallower performance than it’s the part because Wallace does a crap job with it. Bay and Wallace believe in institutional racism in 1941 but not person-to-person racism. The movie’s patronizing as hell.

Of the main cast—Hartnett’s flying sidekicks and Beckinsale’s nursing sidekicks—Michael Shannon is a revelation, Tom Sizemore’s good, Ewen Bremner’s able to get over his stutter, which is only there to get sweet nurse Jaime King to fall for him. Jennifer Garner’s bad but likable as the nerdy nurse. Some of the better glorified cameos are Feore, Leland Orser, and Kim Coates.

Affleck’s a really good lead. He’s able to do it all. He’s not able to give he and Beckinsale enough chemistry to give their romance depth, but its all so disingenuous it’d be a miracle. And Pearl doesn’t have any miracles.

Hartnett’s got some really good moments and some potentially good scenes. It’s hard to wish for more because it’s so clear the film’s disinterested in him. Hartnett and Beckinsale start their flirtation just as the Pearl Harbor attack preparations subplot really gets going and, again, it’s not like Wallace and Bay are actually interested in how anyone existed in fall 1941 in Pearl Harbor and definitely not with a girl.

Beckinsale’s… never bad. She’s never… wholly unconvincing. Though she has an utter lack of chemistry with Hartnett, who she needs some with because they get so little in the script, and still not quite enough with Affleck to get over the silly romance stuff. You’d say she was miscast but she’s good with the straight nursing stuff.

In case anyone’s wondering, Pearl Harbor intentionally and utterly fails Bechdel. I suppose it’s technically exempt when they’re talking about the wounded but… the rest of it? This group of nurses moves from rural U.S.A. to paradise Hawaii and has no reaction other than “boys, boys, boys.”

When Wallace and Bay are bad at something… they’re real bad at it.

It’s shame the movie’s not better. But it’s far from a failure; Bay lacks narrative instinct and interest, he’s indifferent to his actors’ performances—which nicely doesn’t matter because most of the parts are thin and the performances grand—but he’s ambitious to the nth with the attack sequence and he’s at least willing to acknowledge it does need some kind of bookends. Unfortunately for the actors, the audience, the film, Wallace is writing those bookends. Because he’s inept. You’d expect more from an intern who watched a week of History Channel. Some of its Bay’s fault—if he’d cared about the melodrama, it’d be fine….

As is, thanks to the cast and crew’s work, Pearl Harbor is tolerable when it’s not phenomenal, which isn’t bad at all.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Bay; written by Randall Wallace; director of photography, John Schwartzman; edited by Roger Barton, Mark Goldblatt, Chris Lebenzon, and Steven Rosenblum; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Nigel Phelps; produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Bay; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Ben Affleck (Rafe), Josh Hartnett (Danny), Kate Beckinsale (Evelyn), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Miller), Alec Baldwin (Doolittle), Ewen Bremner (Red), Michael Shannon (Gooz), William Lee Scott (Billy), Tom Sizemore (Earl), Jaime King (Betty), Jennifer Garner (Sandra), Catherine Kellner (Barbara), Sara Rue (Martha), Mako (Yamamoto), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Genda), Dan Aykroyd (Thurman), Kim Coates (Richards), Leland Orser (Jackson), Colm Feore (Kimmel), Raphael Sbarge (Kimmel’s Aide), and Jon Voight and the President of the United States.


Great Balls of Fire! (1989, Jim McBride)

There’s no point to Great Balls of Fire! As a biopic it’s shaky–lead Dennis Quaid only gets to be the protagonist when he’s not being too despicable, which isn’t often and the film has to distance itself from Winona Ryder, playing Quaid’s love interest.

And thirteen year-old cousin.

So it’s understandable director McBride and co-screenwriter Jack Baran don’t want to delve too deep into the characters.

It’s also not a comedy, because even though Quaid plays Jerry Lee Lewis like an affable buffoon, it’s never clear if it’s all an act and Quaid (or Lewis) is really calculating or he’s just an idiot. Either way, he knows perving on his thirteen year-old cousin is wrong because her father–John Doe–is also putting a roof over Quaid’s head and playing in his band. During one montage sequence–when Lewis performs on “The Steve Allen Show”–suggests Fire could be some kind of rumination on American culture in the fifties, as the film cuts to various television shows of the era with the characters watching the television in shock… but it’s just that one sequence.

Otherwise, Fire just sort of churns along through the timeline. Hit records, marriage, failure. Sort of. There’s no arc to any of it. No one gets one. Not Quaid, whose character has less internal activity than a three scene cameo by Michael St. Gerard as Elvis. Certainly not Ryder, who gets a fun montage where she’s shopping for her home, then a breakdown when she realizes she’s just a kid then… relatively nothing until she starts getting abused by drunken failure Quaid. Doe kind of gets an arc. But it’s all background, going on when McBride is paying attention to other things. Doe probably gives the film’s best performance, partially because of that arc.

As his wife (and Ryder’s mom), Lisa Blount is fine. She’s in the movie a lot but gets absolutely nothing to do actually do. Except calm Doe occasionally.

Trey Wilson and Stephen Tobolowsky are the record producers. They’re fine. Wilson’s a little better, though both their parts are razor thin.

Then there’s Alec Baldwin as preacher Jimmy Swaggart (real-life cousin to Jerry Lee Lewis). He’s okay? His presence in the film is simultaneously sensational and pointless.

Quaid’s really good at pretending to play and sing the music. The real Lewis recorded all the songs and there are piano stunt doubles for the harder stuff; but what Quaid does, he does really well.

Technically the film’s more than proficient. Good production design from David Nichols. Solid photography from Affonso Beato. The problem’s the script. No one can act it well because it doesn’t want to be acted well. It gets queasy dwelling on its caricatures.

In the end, Fire just fizzles out. It’s often entertaining, sometimes engaging, but McBride and Baran don’t have a handle on the story they want to tell, much less how to tell it.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Jim McBride; screenplay by Jack Baran and McBride, based on the book by Myra Lewis and Murray Silver Jr.; director of photography, Affonso Beato; edited by Lisa Day, Pembroke J. Herring, and Bert Lovitt; production designer, David Nichols; produced by Adam Fields; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Dennis Quaid (Jerry Lee Lewis), Winona Ryder (Myra Gale Brown), John Doe (J.W. Brown), Lisa Blount (Lois Brown), Trey Wilson (Sam Phillips), Stephen Tobolowsky (Jud Phillips), and Alec Baldwin (Jimmy Swaggart).


Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015, Christopher McQuarrie)

While Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation doesn’t deliver much in the way of plot twists, it instead delivers a lot of easy smiles and a handful of good laughs. The easy smiles aren’t just for the action sequences, which often focus on characters’ reactions to them–sometimes relief, sometimes awe at Tom Cruise’s derring-do–but also for the chemistry. There’s not much in the way of character development in Rogue Nation (what does Ving Rhames do in his six months of retirement?), but the actors have a great time onscreen churning out the (relatively light) exposition and going through the espionage motions.

Rogue Nation opens with its biggest set piece–Cruise jumping on a cargo plane, which then takes off. Director (and writer) McQuarrie plays it for a nice combination of laughs and spectacle. Cruise’s sidekicks are all commenting on it, albeit sometimes from thousands of miles away. For the film’s first hour, McQuarrie relies on Simon Pegg for humor. Pegg doesn’t disappoint. After the first scene, it takes a while for Rhames to reappear, while Jeremy Renner (as the team’s permissive straight man) is a constant. First as the chiding presence, then as Cruise and company’s defender once CIA suit Alec Baldwin dismantles the IMF, making Cruise a fugitive.

Cruise is too busy hunting down an unknown villain–Sean Harris–who kidnapped him. Woman of mystery and ostensible Harris lackey Rebecca Ferguson helps free Cruise, just before he has to go on the run from Baldwin. Ferguson and Cruise’s scene, complete with complementary butt-kicking of Harris’s thugs, oozes with chemistry. It takes a while for Ferguson to return to the action; McQuarrie smartly doesn’t focus too much on Cruise–rather Pegg’s angle–because Cruise is… well… a little on snooze when Ferguson’s not present.

Eventually Cruise gets the band back together and travels from Vienna to Morocco to London while pursuing Harris and Ferguson. Baldwin’s after them (sort of) and Ferguson’s disavowed British agent subplot figures in as well. There’s a big car chase in Morocco, a shootout in the Vienna opera house, an underwater heist, and some attempts at plot twists in the U.K. McQuarrie’s set pieces for the third act are all a lot smaller than the ones before. He’s trying to wrap up the film with narrative not action, which is fine, but far from exciting. Particularly because, like I mentioned before… his plot twists aren’t particularly surprising. If they aren’t predictable, they’re entirely inconsequential. Rogue Nation constantly amuses, but never surprises.

It also leaves a couple big questions unanswered, just because they don’t matter once the plot points they’re supporting are resolved. McQuarrie can’t be bothered with anything even hinting at character development. Sometimes he just avoids it by cutting away from a scene and changing the narrative distance–Cruise will take over after a Ferguson solo scene, so her resolution in her own scene becomes a plot point in his new one. Or McQuarrie just forgets about something. It’s more frustrating when he forgets about it, because then it’s clear it never mattered in the first place.

Technically, the film’s excellent. Fine editing from Eddie Hamilton, good photography from Robert Elswit (except in the finale, where it just seems a little too artificial), decent music from Joe Kraemer. A lot of Rogue Nation‘s technical competences are just competences; they’re perfunctory. The film’s strengths are in the performances and the actors’ chemistries. Not just Ferguson and Cruise, but Cruise and Pegg, Cruise and Rhames, Cruise and Renner. Even Rhames and Renner, who do this odd couple schtick for about three minutes spread over a half hour or so. There’s not a lot to their interplay, but it’s damned amusing when they’re onscreen together.

And Harris is good as the odious villain. Rogue Nation sets him up as this terrorist mastermind, but doesn’t show any of the terror (good thing Cruise is really affecting when he’s passionate enough to yell). But when Harris is scheming or terrorizing Ferguson? He’s good. Understated. Maybe the only understated thing in the entire film.

Of the supporting good guys, Pegg’s best. He’s got the most to do. He’s even got the start of a character arc. Renner and Rhames are both fine. No heavy lifting, just easy smiles.

Cruise and Ferguson get the most screen time, with Ferguson getting more of the heavy lifting acting. Cruise has a little, but nothing compared to her. Just more than everyone else. Except–maybe–Pegg. And Cruise gets to do some straight humor scenes, which is nice. Unfortunately, McQuarrie hurries through them.

Baldwin’s in a glorified cameo. It ought to be stunt casting, but it’s hard to identify why it’s much of a stunt.

Rogue Nation is constantly entertaining and never challenging, never ambitious. McQuarrie’s direction is even, he toggles more than adequately between the various elements–humor, action, thriller, exposition–he just doesn’t shine at any of them. Except maybe the humor, which he eschews in the second half for the most part. He’s able to get away with some sincerity, however, thanks to Cruise and company. The actors are able to sell it.

The film’s a fine diversion. But it’s clear from the end of the first act it’s never going to particularly excel overall.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie; screenplay by McQuarrie, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by Eddie Hamilton; music by Joe Kraemer; production designer, Jim Bissell; produced by Tom Cruise, J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Dana Goldberg, David Ellison, and Don Granger; released by Paramount Pictures

Starring Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Rebecca Ferguson (Ilsa Faust), Sean Harris (Lane), Simon Pegg (Benji Dunn), Jeremy Renner (William Brandt), Ving Rhames (Luther Stickell), Jens Hultén (Vinter), Simon McBurney (Atlee), and Alec Baldwin (Hunley).


Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018, Christopher McQuarrie)

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is two and a half hours of almost constant, continuous action. There’s an opening sequence to set things up–Tom Cruise botches a mission because he likes his sidekicks too much (and who wouldn’t like Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg, who make a fantastic pair in the film). He gets in dutch not with boss Alec Baldwin (who can barely maintain his man crush on Cruise) but with Angela Bassett, who’s the CIA boss. Cruise and company are IMF, which stands for Impossible Mission Force. Oddly, even though Henry Cavill (as Bassett’s CIA muscle who tags along to babysit Cruise) makes fun of the Mission: Impossible “let’s wear masks and pretend to be bad guys” thing, he doesn’t make fun of the Impossible Mission Force name.

Maybe writer (and director) McQuarrie only wanted to go so far with it.

So even though Cruise has botched the opening mission, Bassett’s willing to let him go off and try to save the world from rogue secret agents who want plutonium. Sadly they don’t need it to get 1.21 gigawatts, they need it to set off nuclear bombs and destabilize the world as we know it. As long as he takes Cavill along.

Bassett describes Cruise as a scalpel and Cavill as a hammer, but it’s more like Cruise is a hammer and Cavill is a jackhammer. Cavill towers over Cruise, making their scenes together in the first act all the more impressive because Cruise maintains the upper hand. Not hogging the screen acting-wise, but in terms of being the more dominating ideology. Cruise is a good secret agent, Cavill is an immaculately groomed thug. Cruise is fairly immaculate as well, but he gets dirty. Not too dirty; whoever was in charge of maintaining their hair during action scenes deserves some kind of special Oscar. Secret agents have great hair.

Pegg, Baldwin, and Bassett included. Rhames is shaved bald. And when British secret agent and former Cruise and company member Rebecca Ferguson shows up a little while into the film, she too has great hair. Only Sean Harris, as the villain, doesn’t have great hair. He’s wild and unkempt. He’s an ex-secret agent who wants to destroy the world. Cruise stopped him once and, in Fallout, now has to decide whether or not to potentially free Harris to get back that plutonium.

The film stays in Europe for most of the story, with the biggest sequences in Paris and London. The finale heads to rural Central Asia, where director McQuarrie proves just as adept at mounting phenomenal action sequences as he does in European metropolises. McQuarrie never lingers too long on landmarks, but he’s always aware of the architecture. There’s lots of Cruise in long shot, running through a building (or across the top of one) and great scenic backdrops. It’s charming. And always perfectly paced. McQuarrie’s direction, more than his script, more than any of the performances, makes Fallout. He gets the film set up, gets it moving, and runs it to the finish. He never races–Fallout’s pacing (especially for a two and a half hour movie) is outstanding. McQuarrie has some twists, but he’s also just got good plot developments.

He’s also able to use dream sequences–albeit ones with visions of nuclear destruction–to do a lot of Cruise’s character development. Though, really, Fallout doesn’t have much character development. Not for anyone else, anyway. Pegg’s got a tiny personal subplot about being more self-confident and Ferguson’s sort of got one but not really. Like Rhames doesn’t have any. Neither does Cavill. He’s there to be a foil. There’s not time for character development. There’s plutonium out there and Cruise’ll be damned if he’s going to let anyone get hurt.

All of Cruise’s dream sequence character development involves guilt over how he ruined ex-wife Michelle Monaghan’s life by being a secret agent, forcing her into hiding. Monaghan’s a memory in Fallout, someone offscreen in danger to give Cruise something constant to fret about. McQuarrie doesn’t give Cruise any angst to deal with, just the dream sequences haunting him. Harris haunts him too, because Harris knows Cruise too well. It’s impressive how well McQuarrie integrates it into the film since Fallout’s always moving. Even when Rhames has to tell Ferguson about Monaghan because Ferguson is sweet on Cruise and thinks Cruise might just be sweet on her, which leads to a lovely scene in Paris in a park. McQuarrie is sparing with the quiet moments, but they’re always exceptional. They’re so well-executed, technically speaking, it lets him get away with the script being a little saccharine.

Baldwin’s not the only one with a man crush on Cruise; McQuarrie’s pretty smitten too. Cruise isn’t just a good guy, he’s the only good guy who can save the world. It’d be eye-rolling if the film didn’t make such a successful argument for it.

All the acting is fine or better. Vanessa Kirby, as a blue blood heiress arms dealer, gets a little grating, but she’s an arms dealer. She’s not really supposed to be too sympathetic.

Cruise is good. He’s got some really fun moments, not just the action stuff, but also the action stuff. He and Ferguson’s gentle flirtation is likable, just like he and Cavill’s muted hostility is entertaining. Rhames and Pegg are both fun. Harris is a good villain. Cavill’s good, though probably has the worst character in the film. McQuarrie never quite gives him enough and sometimes too little. Especially in the third act. Same with Ferguson; she’s got her own subplot–aside from the Cruise crush–and McQuarrie kind of chucks it once she fully teams up with Cruise and company. Actually, there’s enough of a logic leap with her character… maybe some scene got cut.

On the technical side, Fallout’s excellent. Rob Hardy’s photography is good, Eddie Hamilton’s editing is great. Lorne Balfe’s score is quite good; he’s sparing when integrating the Lalo Schifrin theme and always right on when does (or doesn’t) use it.

Fallout’s a superior large-scale, stunt-filled, action picture. It’s more thrilling than ever a thriller–in the third act, even the good guys can’t really be in any life-threatening danger because franchise, McQuarrie is still able to make every moment rivet. Fallout is a spectacular action spectacle.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie; screenplay by McQuarrie, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller; director of photography, Rob Hardy; edited by Eddie Hamilton; music by Lorne Balfe; production designer, Peter Wenham; produced by Tom Cruise, McQuarrie, Jake Myers, and J.J. Abrams; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Henry Cavill (Walker), Ving Rhames (Luther), Simon Pegg (Benji), Rebecca Ferguson (Ilsa), Vanessa Kirby (White Widow), Michelle Monaghan (Julia), Alec Baldwin (Hunley), Angela Bassett (Sloan), Wes Bentley (Patrick), Liang Yang (Lark), Kristoffer Joner (Nils Debruuk), and Sean Harris (Solomon Lane).


Glengarry Glen Ross (1992, James Foley)

The first half of Glengarry Glen Ross is phenomenal. David Mamet’s screenplay is lightning fast during this section, moving its characters around, pairing them off for scenes or moments–the brevity is astounding. Half the movie is over and it feels like just a few minutes. Then the second half hits and the pace is still good, but the energy is different. It meanders. Apparently the only thing keeping director Foley going was having different locations and different camera setups–many questionably framed for pan and scan; in the second half of the film, set entirely on one set, Glengarry Glen Ross starts to fizzle. The actors keep it viable for as long as they can, but then it becomes clear Foley’s just composing for one actor, one performance, not all the actors, all the performances. The film never solidifies and it’s so fast, it’s almost over before it becomes clear Foley’s not going to bring it together. He instead relies on James Newton Howard’s peppy smooth jazz score. It’s never a good idea to rely on smooth jazz, peppy or not.

Every performance in Glengarry Glen Ross is outstanding. Foley’s problem isn’t giving the actors time to act, he does fine with that aspect of his directing. Sure, even in the first half, he isn’t directing their scenes perfectly, but he’s definitely giving them room to act. Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin, Jonathan Pryce, Alec Baldwin. They’re all great. Pryce and Baldwin don’t have particularly great parts, but they’re great. Baldwin gets a big speech, which he nails. Pacino, Lemmon, Harris and Spacey get the meatier parts (Spacey the least, Harris and Pacino just through force). Lemmon’s the lead for most of the film. Only not so in the second half, which Mamet might be able to cover if Foley knew how to stage the second half. He avoids doing an adaptation of the play–Glengarry Glen Ross was a play first, also by Mamet–for the first half, only to be forced into it in the second half and have no idea how to do it. Arkin doesn’t get much meat, but he still turns in a great performance. The performances are impeccable.

And impeccable performances, along with strong dialogue, keep the film going for quite a while. There aren’t even any danger signs until Harris and Arkin’s subplot in the first half, when Howard E. Smith’s editing seems to be elongating and distracting their conversations instead of curating and appreciating them. Glengarry Glen Ross isn’t a mystery. There’s a mystery in it–sort of–and Foley stumbles when trying to integrate it. All the humanity in the film is from its actors essaying the screenplay. None of it comes from the filmmaking itself, which is a big problem.

Again, Pacino, Lemmon and Harris are all phenomenal. None of them have great characters to work with–they have some great material, but not great characters. As an example of excellent acting, Glengarry Glen Ross works. As a film? Not so much.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by James Foley; screenplay by David Mamet, based on his play; director of photography, Juan Ruiz Anchía; edited by Howard E. Smith; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Jane Musky; produced by Stanley R. Zupnik and Jerry Tokofsky; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Al Pacino (Ricky Roma), Jack Lemmon (Shelley Levene), Alec Baldwin (Blake), Alan Arkin (George Aaronow), Ed Harris (Dave Moss), Kevin Spacey (John Williamson) and Jonathan Pryce (James Lingk).


Working Girl (1988, Mike Nichols)

Towards the end of Working Girl, the film seems to jump around a bit with the timeline. It seems to jump ahead, but then it turns out it doesn’t. And it only seems to jump ahead because of how director Nichols and editor Sam O’Steen structure a couple transitions. It’s not a big thing, but it does cause the viewer to reseat him or herself; it’s sort of a false ending but not. It’s a tension reliever.

Kevin Wade’s script has a lot of obvious material, but it saves the most important revelation–one the film shockingly gets away with not revealing in the first act–until the last few moments. And it’s all paced out perfectly.

But Working Girl couldn’t possibly function without its principal cast members. In the lead, Melanie Griffith is phenomenal. She needs to be sympathetic, but Nichols and Griffith subtly tone down the sympathy she gets for being unappreciated. There’s an initial shock value to her situation and then, over the course of the film, they show that shock was just to get the viewer paying attention.

As her romantic interest, Harrison Ford is fantastic. His character is one of the film’s more complicated–as the evil harpy boss, Sigourney Weaver is similarly fantastic. Weaver’s able to appear likable even when she shouldn’t. Ford is able to be assured even when he shouldn’t.

Nichols, O’Steen and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus put together some truly great scenes here.

It’s rather great; Griffith and Ford are wonderful together.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mike Nichols; written by Kevin Wade; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Sam O’Steen; music by Rob Mounsey; production designer, Patrizia von Brandenstein; produced by Douglas Wick; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Melanie Griffith (Tess McGill), Harrison Ford (Jack Trainer), Sigourney Weaver (Katharine Parker), Alec Baldwin (Mick Dugan), Joan Cusack (Cyn), Philip Bosco (Oren Trask), Nora Dunn (Ginny), Oliver Platt (Lutz), James Lally (Turkel), Kevin Spacey (Bob Speck), Robert Easton (Armbrister) and Amy Aquino (Alice Baxter).


Blue Jasmine (2013, Woody Allen)

There are a lot of interesting things Woody Allen does with Blue Jasmine–genre shifts, a somewhat fractured narrative style where he reveals lead Cate Blanchett’s past in glimpses–but the most surprising one has to be when she ceases to be the film’s protagonist and becomes its subject.

Blanchett sort of shares the picture with Sally Hawkins, who plays her sister. Blanchett was a rich New York wife, now she’s down and out and having to stay with working class Hawkins in San Francisco. For the first half hour or so, Allen plays it like he’s working on the relationship between the two women. Or maybe something to do with Bobby Cannavale as Hawkins’s current boyfriend or Andrew Dice Clay as her ex.

Allen gets some exceptional performances in the film. Blanchett’s peerless in the lead. She’s a target for derision, for pity, for anger, often with Allen having her change gears immediately during a scene. Hawkins is good as the sister; she doesn’t have much to do except react to Cannavale or Clay. Both of them are fantastic, with Clay being something of a revelation.

In other supporting roles, Louis C.K. and Peter Sarsgaard are both good. Baldwin’s fine in his part too. There’s just nothing to compare with the intensity of Blanchett, Cannavale or Clay.

Allen’s use of San Francisco is muted. Javier Aguirresarobe’s photography is excellent, but it’s just a setting for the story. Most of the shots are close-ups.

Jasmine’s quiet, loud and excellent.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Woody Allen; director of photography, Javier Aguirresarobe; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production designer, Santo Loquasto; produced by Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum and Edward Walson; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Cate Blanchett (Jasmine), Sally Hawkins (Ginger), Bobby Cannavale (Chili), Peter Sarsgaard (Dwight), Andrew Dice Clay (Augie), Louis C.K. (Al), Tammy Blanchard (Jane), Max Casella (Eddie), Michael Stuhlbarg (Dr. Flicker), Alden Ehrenreich (Danny) and Alec Baldwin (Hal).


Miami Blues (1990, George Armitage)

Besides an absurd reliance on flip and pan transitions, director Armitage does an often excellent job directing Miami Blues. His script–adapting a novel, so who knows how much is his fault–is a different story. Blues is the story of a charismatic psychopath (Alec Baldwin) fresh from prison who wrecks havoc in the Miami area. The Blues in the title must be for Fred Ward, who plays the unlucky cop who’s trailing him.

Armitage, Baldwin and Ward all play Blues like half a comedy. Ward does the joke well, but Baldwin’s disastrous at it. His performance as a psychopath is so strong, it kills all the humor possibilities. Or maybe Armitage is just an incompetent director and didn’t mean to direct the scenes funny. Though that explanation seems unlikely, especially since the film opens and closes on a smile.

In this strange mix is Jennifer Jason Leigh. While Ward’s good and Baldwin’s problematic (but technically good), Leigh is astoundingly great as the dimwitted hooker who falls for Baldwin. Leigh’s so good, she makes Blues worth a viewing. Had Armitage followed Leigh (or Ward) instead of Baldwin, the film would have been a lot better.

The rest of the supporting cast–no one else has much screen time–is excellent. Nora Dunn and Charles Napier play Ward’s colleagues, Bobo Lewis is great as Baldwin’s landlord and Paul Gleason has a little part.

While Armitage’s best directorial moments come early–and lessen the disappointment of the middling script–Leigh never disappoints.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by George Armitage; screenplay by Armitage, based on the novel by Charles Willeford; director of photography, Tak Fujimoto; edited by Craig McKay; music by Gary Chang; production designer, Maher Ahmad; produced by Jonathan Demme and Gary Goetzman; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Alec Baldwin (Junior), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Pepper), Fred Ward (Sgt. Hoke Moseley), Nora Dunn (Ellita Sanchez), Charles Napier (Sgt. Bill Henderson), Shirley Stoler (Edie Wulgemuth), Bobo Lewis (Edna Damrosch), Obba Babatundé (Blink Willie), Gary Howard Klar (Head Bookie), José Pérez (Pablo) and Paul Gleason (Sgt. Frank Lackley).


To Rome with Love (2012, Woody Allen)

To Rome with Love is sort of hostile to its viewer. Allen sets up three (or four, depending on how you want to count) plots and plays them all concurrently. However, these three (or four) plots don’t necessarily coexist in the same Rome, certainly not at the same time they linearly play out in the run time. He’s also a little dishonest in how he introduces them–Alec Baldwin’s plot gets a big introduction but it immediately shifts gears.

Wait, there are four plots. I keep losing count….

There’s Alison Pill as a young American tourist. Allen and Judy Davis play her parents. Allen and Davis are great together, in case I forget to mention later. Davis just sits and watches him, with real laughs at his deliveries.

Then there’s Alec Baldwin, who gets entangled in Jesse Eisenberg’s love triangle with Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page.

Alessandra Mastronardi and Alessandro Tiberi are honeymooners. Penelope Cruz figures in at some point.

And then Roberto Benigni is the example of the middle class Roman.

Okay, there are four plots. There are sort of five.

Anyway… the best ones are the Tiberi and Mastronardi one and the Benigni one. Or, as one might say, the Roman ones.

Pill’s not in her story enough, though it’s fairly charming.

The one with Eisenberg misfires. He’s ineffectual, Page’s woefully miscast and Gerwig’s great but underutilized.

Allen experiments with narrative here… and doesn’t seem to like the results.

Rome… and gorgeous Darius Khondji photography help a lot.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Woody Allen; director of photography, Darius Khondji; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production designer, Anne Seibel; produced by Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Giampaolo Letta and Faruk Alatan; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Woody Allen (Jerry), Alec Baldwin (John), Roberto Benigni (Leopoldo), Penélope Cruz (Anna), Judy Davis (Phyllis), Jesse Eisenberg (Jack), Greta Gerwig (Sally), Ellen Page (Monica), Antonio Albanese (Luca Salta), Fabio Armiliato (Giancarlo), Alessandra Mastronardi (Milly), Ornella Muti (Pia Fusari), Flavio Parenti (Michelangelo), Alison Pill (Hayley), Riccardo Scamarcio (Rapinatore hotel) and Alessandro Tiberi (Antonio).


Beetlejuice (1988, Tim Burton)

How did Beetlejuice ever get past the studio suits? It really says something about eighties mainstream filmmaking and today’s. It’s not just the absence of a likable protagonist—Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are the main characters for the first forty-five minutes, then hand the film off to Winona Ryder, who carries it until the last quarter, when Michael Keaton finally takes over—but it’s also just really strange.

The script’s a tad tepid. I’d forgotten the conclusion; it turns the movie into a sitcom pilot. I imagine Burton didn’t really care about the script being solid, because he makes the film look spectacular throughout.

It opens with this beautiful shot of a model—Thomas E. Ackerman’s photography is wondrous throughout; it’s a shame Burton didn’t bring him along for Batman—and every subsequent shot is great.

All of the model work is fabulous—even if some of the composite shots are problematic—making Beetlejuice a joy to watch.

What’s not a joy is some of the acting. The script’s weak enough, it’s probably mostly the screenwriters’ fault but still….

Davis and Catherine O’Hara are both bad. Glenn Shadix is, politely speaking, too broad.

But the rest of the cast is great—Baldwin, Jeffrey Jones, Winona Ryder, Sylvia Sidney. Great small stuff from Robert Goulet and Dick Cavett.

And Keaton? He’s funny, but he doesn’t make the movie. The role’s too easy.

But, like I said, Burton’s direction (and the mostly strong performances) make it a joy to watch.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Tim Burton; screenplay by Michael McDowell and Warren Skaaren, based on a story by McDowell and Larry Wilson; director of photography, Thomas E. Ackerman; edited by Jane Kurson; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Bo Welch; produced by Michael Bender, Richard Hashimoto and Wilson; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Michael Keaton (Betelgeuse), Alec Baldwin (Adam Maitland), Geena Davis (Barbara Maitland), Winona Ryder (Lydia Deetz), Catherine O’Hara (Delia Deetz), Jeffrey Jones (Charles Deetz), Glenn Shadix (Otho), Annie McEnroe (Jane Butterfield), Rachel Mittelman (Little Jane Butterfield), Robert Goulet (Maxie Dean), Adelle Lutz (Beryl), Dick Cavett (Bernard), Susan Kellermann (Grace) and Sylvia Sidney (Juno).


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