Columbia Pictures

To Die For (1995, Gus Van Sant)

To Die For’s got one of those effortlessly smooth but obviously intricate narrative structures. Screenwriter Buck Henry is adapting a novel, which author Joyce Maynard structured with many different first person accounts. Van Sant and Henry and editor Curtiss Clayton keep the sense of different perspectives—including some interview sessions where someone is obviously making a documentary, maybe not even necessarily the same documentary between interviewees—but the film’s never actually first person. There’s always a narrative distance. Because To Die For only shows so much of its characters. They’re all still mysteries at the end. The film’s got a very definite, very dark sense of humor and it’s never clear just how much Van Sant and Henry are bending reality.

For example, Tim Hopper and Michael Rispoli’s almost entirely dialogue-free police detectives. They’re absurdly intense, emphasis on the absurd. Only Van Sant never plays them for laughs. They cut through the film, their absurd unreality somehow realer than what’s been going on in the film.

To Die For is about cable access weatherperson Nicole Kidman seducing a teenage boy (Joaquin Phoenix) to kill her husband (Matt Dillon). The first act of the movie covers the basic setup and then how Kidman and Dillon got together and how their families clash. Dillon’s Italian, Kidman’s a WASP. It’s quite wonderfully never clear what attracted Kidman to Dillon. Apparently she really did “go wild” for him, but then he got in the way of her career. In addition to her nightly weather duties, Kidman’s making a documentary about local teenagers, including Phoenix. Once Dillon decides it’s time for Kidman to start popping out babies—he gave her a year—well, Kidman starts having sex (apparently a lot of sex, which isn’t initially clear and adds a bunch of layers to things in hindsight) with Phoenix, the end plan being getting Phoenix to kill Dillon.

The film almost entirely shows Kidman’s planning the murder from Phoenix and Alison Folland’s perspectives. Folland is one of the other teenagers in the documentary. Kidman’s documentary, not the pseudo-documentary narrative device. Casey Affleck is the third kid. Folland just wants a friend, Phoenix is in love, Affleck is an ass. They’re all poor, all neglected or abused, all dumb. Affleck gets assigned the project (by Henry, who cameos as their school teacher), but Folland and Phoenix sign up. They’re the only two in the class who don’t see Kidman is a little too much. There’s something clearly off about her.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, that off is she’s an undiagnosed sociopath, something no one suspects—including her—because her parents have spoiled her for so long. Their pampering of Kidman hid it, which the film momentarily and brilliantly addresses when Kidman freaks out dad Kurtwood Smith, who until then seems like it’s completely aware of her peculiar personality. Kidman’s obsessed with wanting to be a newscaster, which motivates every action until she realizes she doesn’t have to be a newscaster to be famous. It’s another of the film’s awesome little character development moments, when Van Sant and Henry reveal they’ve been discreetly layering in an arc, using the pseudo-documentary structure to give it some extra kick. Sometimes for humor (not laughs, humor), sometimes just because.

There are seven concurrent narrative layers. They all take place sometime after the events. There’s Illeana Douglas (as Dillon’s sister who always knew Kidman was bad news); she’s being interview for a documentary. There’s Phoenix in prison. There’s Folland not in prison. Then there’s the parents on a daytime talk show—just the straight talk show footage—Smith and Holland Taylor as Kidman’s parents, Dan Hedaya and Maria Tucci as Dillon’s. Susan Traylor plays Kidman’s sister, who never has anything to say but always has this knowing look. There’s Wayne Knight as Kidman’s boss at the TV station. Then there are the flashbacks. And, finally, there’s Kidman narrating to the camera.

Only she’s not confessing so her material is very different. The reality she presents is very different from what we see transpire. Maybe it’s never clear with Taylor, but Smith seems to know Kidman’s guilty.

Listing the best performances in the film is basically just like listing the cast. Kidman and Phoenix are both phenomenal. And even though they have a bunch of scenes together and Kidman’s manipulating him and Phoenix is bewitched, their character arcs are entirely separate and so are their performances. They don’t have “chemistry” because it’s not possible for them to have it in those conditions. Folland’s great. Douglas is great. Knight’s great. Smith’s great. Affleck, Dillon, Hedaya, Taylor, Tucci; they’re all good. They just can’t compare. They don’t get the material, though there’s always this implicit material. Like Traylor’s looks, whatever they mean.

Good photography from Eric Alan Edwards, good production design from Missy Stewart, perfectly matched Danny Elfman score (it’s a constant, emotive, supportive but never ambitious score). To Die For’s technicals excel. Everything about it excels, especially Kidman, especially Phoenix, especially Van Sant, and especially Henry.

It’s gang busters.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Gus Van Sant; screenplay by Buck Henry, based on the novel by Joyce Maynard; director of photography, Eric Alan Edwards; edited by Curtiss Clayton; production designer, Missy Stewart; music by Danny Elfman; produced by Laura Ziskin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Nicole Kidman (Suzanne Stone), Joaquin Phoenix (Jimmy Emmett), Alison Folland (Lydia Mertz), Casey Affleck (Russel Hines), Illeana Douglas (Janice Maretto), Wayne Knight (Ed Grant), Kurtwood Smith (Earl Stone), Holland Taylor (Carol Stone), Dan Hedaya (Joe Maretto), Maria Tucci (Angela Maretto), Susan Traylor (Faye Stone), Tim Hopper (Mike Warden), Michael Rispoli (Ben DeLuca), Gerry Quigley (George), Buck Henry (Mr. H. Finlaysson), and Matt Dillon (Larry Maretto).


It Happened in Hollywood (1937, Harry Lachman)

It Happened in Hollywood is very nearly a success, which is surprising since most of the film is entirely mediocre. There’s a great lead performance from Richard Dix, as a silent movie cowboy who can’t make it in talkies (though, to be fair, the one bombed screen-test scene was more used to comment on the industry’s problematic transition to sound), and it’s nice whenever Fay Wray shows up as his regular onscreen love interest and off-screen possible love interest, but she’s not in it much. And the script doesn’t start getting inventive until well into the second half of the film, which only runs sixty-seven minutes. The direction, which has all sorts of opportunities to comment on sound storytelling versus silent storytelling, misses them all. Then in the second half, when Kid Melodrama starts kicking in (more on him in a moment), director Lachman misses the most perfect opportunity, one where it’s hard to forgive him.

Because Lachman isn’t a lazy director by any means. Hollywood is on a budget for sure, but Lachman and cinematographer Joseph Walker have a lot of big establishing shots (and small ones) and the one fight scene is good. Even if the production values are a little slim. It’s just Lachman isn’t interested in the story and Hollywood needs someone interested in it. Dix seems pretty interested in it, Wray seems pretty interested in it (when she’s around); the entire supporting cast, with the sole exception of Kid Melodrama, is solid. And they need to be really solid for what the script does with them in the second half. Hollywood doesn’t necessarily start with a lot of potential, but it builds up steadily throughout. Only to choke in the finale and not even because of Kid Melodrama. So let’s get to Kid Melodrama.

Kid Melodrama is Bill Burrud. He’s in the hospital at the start of the film, which is where we meet Dix. He’s on a children’s hospital tour, showing his latest silent Western with Fay Wray as his damsel. He’s the biggest Western star in Hollywood, beloved by children nationwide. Both boys and girls based on the hospital audience, which makes it weird when Dix gives a speech ignoring the girls. Something similar happens again even worse at the end, but it’s not the finale choke so it’s just, you know, 1937.

Anyway. Burrud. Burrud is the sickest kid on the ward. He’s going in for surgery and it doesn’t look good, but Dix promises the kid he can visit Dix and his horse in Hollywood if he gets better. Sadly, Burrud gets better. And he sends Dix letters throughout the first half, which chronicles Dix’s immediate and catastrophic fall from stardom in the first few months of the talkies. While he fails, Wray succeeds. For a short while it seems like the film might be about them, even though Wray’s in the film less and less. When Dix gets a chance in talkies again thanks to the aforementioned fight scene, it’s in one of Wray’s pictures, but only barely returns to Hollywood. She’s around for a second, then disappears again, including from Dix’s disaster. Because Dix is scared of her.

Basically Hollywood is forty-four year old Dix acting like a bashful teenager. Wray’s not much better, but she’s a little better. Dix pulls it off, sure, but eventually it gets a little tiresome, which coincides nicely with Dix deciding to abandon Hollywood forever.

Luckily for him, Kid Melodrama Burrud shows up. He got better just to come out and see Dix and he’s an orphan and the foster care guy makes fun of Dix all the time and Hollywood too. Even though Burrud’s annoying as hell, Dix’s concern for him works. Out of nowhere, It Happened in Hollywood all of a sudden gets to do something different. For a while, it gets rather inventive.

So the utterly pointless finish, which actually manages to interrupt a rather nice scene for Dix and Wray where it seems like at least the script understands how things echo throughout the picture… it’s disappointing. And silly. The film all of a sudden stops taking itself seriously just so it can wrap up. Nicely, Dix and Wray have enough charm to get through.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Harry Lachman; screenplay by Ethel Hill, Harvey Fergusson, and Samuel Fuller, based on a story by Myles Connolly; director of photography, Joseph Walker; edited by Al Clark; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Richard Dix (Tim Bart), Bill Burrud (Billy – The Kid), Fay Wray (Gloria Gay), Victor Kilian (Slim), Charles Arnt (Jed Reed), Granville Bates (Sam Bennett), William B. Davidson (Al Howard), Arthur Loft (Pete), Edgar Dearing (Joe Stevens), James Donlan (Shorty), Franklin Pangborn (Mr. Forsythe), Zeffie Tilbury (Miss Gordon), Harold Goodwin (Buck), and Charles Brinley (Pappy).


The Critic (1963, Ernest Pintoff)

At just about three minutes of “action,” The Critic is the perfect length. It opens with some abstract animation–black shapes dancing around variously colored backgrounds, as active (versus tranquil) classical music plays. The designs get more complex, but for the first thirty seconds (so fifteen percent of the action), Critic plays it straight. It’s some abstract animation short. Not too complicated, but lively.

And then Mel Brooks asks, “What the hell is this?”

And The Critic starts on its path to sublimity.

For a while, it’s just Brooks talking about the action on screen. Dot moving over here, dot moving over there. Some shapes getting jiggy.

Brooks’s character is a cranky, impatient old Russian guy and we’re hearing his thoughts. It’s perfectly fine. Brooks is funny, it’s not going to go on very long, it’s all good.

Only we’re not hearing his thoughts. Or, more, we are hearing his thoughts. But so are all the other people watching the short film with him.

He’s in a theater, talking out loud. That detail gives The Critic the extra oomph it needs and pushes it up and over. It’s awesome.

Brooks ad-libbed the whole thing too. Apparently, the filmmakers didn’t even show him the short before he recorded.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Ernest Pintoff; written by Mel Brooks; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Mel Brooks.


The Buddy Holly Story (1978, Steve Rash)

There are three different things going on throughout The Buddy Holly Story. Well, more than three but there are the three big different things. There’s Robert Gittler’s screenplay, which has one narrative gesture for most of the film. There’s Gary Busey’s lead performance, which is resolute in both its sincerity and its anti-inscrutability. And there’s Rash’s direction, which enables both the script and the performance, but also leverages them to manage the scale.

Rash has a very determined narrative distance with The Buddy Holly Story. It’s Buddy Holly’s story. It’s Busey’s story. If he’s not in a scene, he’s about to be. Even when it’s not his scene, it ends up being his scene, because it’s all about him. Well, his performance. But Busey doesn’t do exposition. The performance doesn’t suggest a propensity for it, the script doesn’t pursue it. The other members in the band are there for exposition. Lovable standing bassist Charles Martin Smith and big but not dumb drummer Don Stroud. Even Amy Johnston, as Busey’s hometown girlfriend, expounds so Busey doesn’t. So the script’s got its own distance to its protagonist.

Because what the film becomes–and stays for quite a while–is these three guys journey into and through stardom. But not the pluses of stardom and not even the minuses (they’re implied and off-screen). They’re moving through the practicalities of it all. They’re at an information disadvantage, going from Lubbock to New York City by way of Nashville. Their actions can influence the trajectory but those actions tend to be reactions. Bluntly, the film positions the band as underdogs, even though they’re objectively not.

American music in the fifties had an enumeration of creatively significant artists working independently, simultaneously, and in both active and passive conjunction. Lots of big things happened in music, including Buddy Holly and some of the other musical acts portrayed in the film. Rash and Gittler consciously keep the characters’ anticipation and trepidation separate from the audience’s. The film is very sad. But it’s not sentimental. It’s sad. It’s guardedly, but enthusiastically nostalgic.

But it’s also very softly lighted–by Stevan Larner–on these often empty sets. Joel Schiller’s production design is great but outside musical set pieces, a lot of the film is just the three guys in sparse interiors. Usually without natural light sources. If there were fluorescent lights all over the place in the fifties, The Buddy Holly Story would be mostly in fluorescent lighted rooms with Busey discovering how far his creative ambitions can go and how to get them there and Stroud and Smith trying to keep up.

There are also bigger scenes, but they’re near vignettes. Like when Busey and the boys go play the Apollo and the white manager (Dick O’Neill) is terrified of putting up the three white boys from Texas for his black customers. The micro-subplot where Busey and the boys tour with Sam Cooke (Paul Mooney). They’re these clumps of larger scale scenes with the band scenes–which do eventually involve other supporting cast members, but as background–handling the narrative progress.

Then in the mid-to-late second act the film spotlights Busey as he branches off from the musical journey plot line to romance Maria Richwine. And the spotlight stays on Busey even away from those scenes. The film doesn’t really change its narrative distance, just its focus… by fading out around Busey. But never isolating him.

It’s a neat trick. Rash and Gittler do a lot with a lot. They’re even able to get away with the obviously historical location footage from establishing shots later on. It’s almost a gradual trust issue. The film doesn’t exactly lull its audience, but it invites a comfortable relationship.

Because the film is a true story and it’s a tragedy and even if you’re going into it completely unaware as a viewer, the filmmakers are aware and they take on certain responsibilities. And everyone making Buddy Holly Story–Rash, Gittler, Busey, Stroud, Smith, and whoever else–are embracing those responsibilities. The film’s astoundingly self-confident from the first scene. It’s never showy but it never meanders either. It doesn’t wander. Rash is guiding that flow, with a variety of styles, and each one has to hit just the right tone.

Not always easy when there are budgetary restrictions. Some of those interiors are sparser than they ought to be.

When the Story gets to the end, the film does just the right thing. It’s not an entirely unexpected thing, it’s not a surprise, but it’s neither the most or least obvious. But then Rash and Gittler haven’t been worried about the audience’s expectations, they’ve been tracking Busey’s. So it’s sort of the inevitable right thing. And you want it to go on forever.

The acting’s all good or better. Busey’s phenomenal. Then there’s the lip-synching. There isn’t any. So that enthusiastic nostalgia without any betraying of the verisimilitude and whatnot. Because Rash and Gittler are taking it seriously.

So it’s like it should be a surprise The Buddy Holly Story is such a success, but it also couldn’t be anything but.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steve Rash; screenplay by Robert Gittler, based on a story by Alan Swyer and a book by John Goldrosen; director of photography, Stevan Larner; edited by David E. Blewitt; music by Joe Renzetti; production designer, Joel Schiller; produced by Fred Bauer; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Gary Busey (Buddy), Maria Richwine (Maria), Charles Martin Smith (Ray Bob), Don Stroud (Jesse), Conrad Janis (Ross Turner), William Jordan (Riley), Amy Johnston (Cindy Lou), Dick O’Neill (Sol Gittler), Neva Patterson (Mrs. Ella Holly), Arch Johnson (Mr. Lawrence Holly), Gloria Irizarry (Mrs. Santiago), and Paul Mooney (Sam Cooke).


La Bamba (1987, Luis Valdez)

La Bamba is a perfectly adequate biopic of fifties rock and roll singer Ritchie Valens, who died at seventeen in a plane crash. Very twenty-five year-old Lou Diamond Phillips plays Valens. He’s adequate. He lip-synchs all right, though the performances (Los Lobos covers Valens’s songs) almost never sound right acoustically. When Phillips shows off his skills to his garage band, for instance, it clearly wasn’t recorded in a garage. But whatever. It’s perfectly adequate.

Ditto the supporting cast. Esai Morales is Phillips’s older half-brother, who’s narratively responsible for everything in the movie–he moves Phillips and mom Rosanna DeSoto (who’s obviously way too young to be their mother) from a migrant community in Northern California down to the Los Angeles area at the beginning of the movie. He brings Elizabeth Peña along too. Peña was Phillips’s love interest before Morales arrives. One look at Morales, however, and she dumps the ostensibly younger Phillips. By the time the film’s jumped ahead after the move, Morales is an abusive drunken pot runner.

Despite bookending the movie and being responsible for so much, Morales doesn’t get to do much. No one really gets to do much in director Valdez’s script, of course. Morales has amazing illustrating abilities, which La Bamba promotes into a second act subplot to apparently fill time, because it goes nowhere. It’s a vehicle for Morales’s eventual breakdown about being jealous of Phillips. It’s a dramatically inert breakdown; it’s fairly clear early on no one’s going to give a standout performance or have some amazing part. Sure, Morales has more to do than almost anyone else, but Valdez doesn’t give him anything. Valdez also isn’t great at directing his actors.

He’s adequate. Enough.

Besides Morales and Peña (who really gets squat), DeSoto doesn’t have an arc outside being Phillips’s fiercely supportive mom. She has three younger children she’s raising, who she never has any significant scenes with. Or even insignificant ones with the baby, who disappears after a while. Then there’s Danielle von Zerneck as Phillips’s girlfriend. Her racist dad (Sam Anderson) doesn’t like her dating a Hispanic kid, though it’s never clear the dad finds out he’s Hispanic just brown. He eventually has problems with Phillips for playing rock and roll more than anything else.

von Zerneck and Phillips have no chemistry but muscle through their subplot–it’s barely a subplot, she’s a narrative prop–all right. The period costumes and cars do some of the heavy lifting; Vincent M. Cresciman’s production design is good.

Joe Pantoliano is similarly fine–and similarly a narrative prop–as the record guy who discovers Phillips.

Valdez’s direction, outside his disinterest in his actors’ performances and some blocking issues cinematographer Adam Greenberg really should’ve corrected, is… you guessed it… perfectly adequate. When Phillips finally performs the title track, the scene’s more effective than usual but only because, well, it’s La Bamba. It’s a great song.

Unfortunately La Bamba, the movie, is lukewarm. And really, really comfortable never being anything but.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Luis Valdez; director of photography, Adam Greenberg; edited by Don Brochu and Sheldon Kahn; music by Carlos Santana and Miles Goodman; production designer, Vincent M. Cresciman; produced by Bill Borden and Taylor Hackford; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Lou Diamond Phillips (Ritchie), Esai Morales (Bob), Rosanna DeSoto (Connie), Elizabeth Peña (Rosie), Danielle von Zerneck (Donna), and Joe Pantoliano (Bob Keane).


Sleepwalkers (1992, Mick Garris)

Sleepwalkers is a very peculiar motion picture. Director Garris never quite composes the shot right, even though he’s really close. Maybe he needs a wider frame or just to zoom out a bit. Instead it always looks like he’s shooting for the home video pan and scan. Rodney Charters’s photography is totally fine, unless they’re trying to do an insert then he never matches and there’s only so much he can do for the CGI morphing scenes.

Sleepwalkers opens with dictionary text setting it all up–Sleepwalkers are these monsters who suck on the life force of female virgins. Cats hate them. Then the action starts. Mark Hamill in a “really? why?” cameo. Then the opening titles. And cut to small-town Indiana–but that Southern California smalltown Indiana with the mountains and all–where teenager Brian Krause is sitting around shirtless and cutting himself.

But, oh, isn’t he kind of a dish. Because it’s weird. Sleepwalkers is always weird, but it actually starts ickier than it finishes because even though the film–mostly writer Stephen King–wants to be really explicit about Krause’s love affair with mother Alice Krige because it’s sensational… and then never does anything with the attention it brings. It’s just icky, then tedious, then annoying because Krige’s performance gets worse as the film goes along.

She’s Mama Monster, which means she stays at home while Krause goes to high school and finds a target. He’s going to feed on the target, then share with Krige. Sleepwalkers is a mix of bad thriller, not great gore, weird monster-based sci-fi, and the incest thing. If Garris and King weren’t making a terrible movie, who knows, maybe they’d have created a new sub-genre. Or at least not made this godawful thing.

But it’s really interesting to see how these disjointed pieces all fight together. Ingenue Mädchen Amick starts the film with Garris trying to make her seem like a slutty virgin. She’s at work at the movie theater, listening to fifties rock on her Walkman, dancing seductively as she sweeps up popcorn. It’s weird. And a little icky but nothing compared to Krause and Krige’s sex scenes; Sleepwalkers’s icky spectrum is long. So then Amick meets Krause and he’s kind of creepy then he’s not, even though the film thinks him reading his story about him and his mom to his English class is a good scene. It’s really bad. But kicks off a “is Krause going to be redeemed” subplot, which doesn’t really matter because Sleepwalkers ends up being a monster movie for most of its run time. Like people running from monsters.

Somehow I’ve missed the part how the first act is also about Krige and Krause torturing cats. Krige’s homebound because she’s deathly afraid of cats. Maybe. It’s unclear. But it sure seems like it. For such a long movie–Sleepwalkers is a long ninety minutes, not in a good way because Garris is astoundingly uninventive–King’s script doesn’t really do character development. Even as scenes often go on way too long. Like the ones with Cindy Pickett and Lyman Ward as Amick’s parents, in a tedious “is this a Ferris Bueller reference” or isn’t it subplot. Everything in Sleepwalkers is tedious.

Some really bad acting throughout. Including the King cameo. Krige’s terrible, though it’s hard to say how much of it is her fault. Though she did take the role. So. Krause kind of has an interesting arc but his performance starts bad, gets worse, gets better, gets worse than worse.

Ward and Pickett aren’t good. Pickett’s worse but only because she’s in it more. Ron Perlman’s really bad as a state trooper. Glenn Shadix is the pervert school teacher out to blackmail Krause. He’s really bad.

Amick makes it through. She’s never good, she’s never terrible, she’s occasionally sympathetic. She’s not trying. Amidst all the trying aspects of Sleepwalkers, Amick weathers the storm. She never seems like she’s in such a bad movie. Krause and Krige always do.

Interesting music from Nicholas Pike. Not terrible. Uses Enya well, even if it does make Sleepwalkers seem like a Cat People ’84 rip-off, eight years too late. Sleepwalkers is in a hurry to get to the monster stuff and then the monster stuff isn’t even cool. They can make objects disappear and change appearance–Krige and Krause–but their reflections in the mirror are of their monster forms. The monster forms are more gross and awkward than scary. And they’re annoying, because they’re not very good. Sleepwalkers is this mish-mash of tone, narrative distance, genre–and it never lets up. Sleepwalkers consistently makes unique and bad choices through its runtime. Including the ending. And it never does anything right. Garris and King don’t pull off a single thing.

It’s the type of movie where the monster woman in her hippie disguise trying to find a virgin to feed her son and lover shoots a car and it blows up. Sleepwalkers is either accidentally ambitious or wholly incompetent. If they’d pulled it off, the film would’ve been amazing. Instead, it’s astounding. And bewildering. And frequently icky bad.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Mick Garris; written by Stephen King; director of photography, Rodney Charters; edited by O. Nicholas Brown; music by Nicholas Pike; production designer, John DeCuir Jr.; produced by Michael Grais, Mark Victor, and Nabeel Zahid; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Brian Krause (Charles Brady), Alice Krige (Mary Brady), Mädchen Amick (Tanya Robertson), Dan Martin (Andy Simpson), Cindy Pickett (Mrs. Robertson), Lyman Ward (Mr. Robertson), Jim Haynie (Sheriff Ira), Ron Perlman (Captain Soames), Cynthia Garris (Laurie), Monty Bane (Horace), and Glenn Shadix (Mr. Fallows).


The Dark Tower (2017, Nikolaj Arcel)

The Dark Tower is the story of unremarkable white kid Tom Taylor–wait, he’s supposed to be eleven? No way. Anyway, it’s the story of unremarkable white teenager Tom Taylor who discovers, no, his visions are real and he is a wizard and he’s going to travel to another dimension and bring a legendary hero back to modern New York City. Once back they will battle to save the universe itself, thanks to the hero’s gunfighting abilities and the kid’s vague magical magicking.

Okay, well, it’s not actually vague magicking. Taylor’s got the Shining. You know, like in The Shining. When they tell him he’s got the Shining, you have to wonder how he got to be fifteen without seeing The Shining. Maybe because he’s supposed to be eleven.

Taylor’s dad died at some point before the movie starts so mom Katheryn Winnick has remarried. She went with astounding tool Nicholas Pauling, who wants Taylor out of there because papa lion? Maybe it’s because Taylor’s got problems–he draws visions of a mythic fantasy world, Idris Elba’s gunfighting hero, and Matthew McConaughey’s creepy man in black. Maybe they sent Taylor to the shrink for drawing pictures of Christopher Walken. At the start, it seems like McConaughey’s going to just do a Christopher Walken impression, which would be a lot better than what he ends up doing. The Walken impression would at least be amusing. Dark Tower is short on amusing.

Because Dark Tower is serious. Director Arcel plays it straight. The screenplay plays it straight. Taylor lives in a New York City infested with disguised demons but it’s still safe enough gun shops have zero security. And no one has cell phones. If Arcel had any personality in his direction, there’d be a possibility for this New York City. The sad thing about Dark Tower is all the missed opportunities. Because, even if it’s short on amusing and McConaughey isn’t as amusing as if he were aping Christopher Walken, none of the principal cast half-asses it. They’re just in an under-budgeted production. They hold together admirably.

Though it gets depressing watching Elba try to do acting while the film’s got no need for him to do any. The script’s got no need for him to do any. All the characters exist entirely through exposition, usually exposing about themselves to others. It’s a weak script. As pragmatic and unenthusiastic as Arcel’s direction gets, it’s nothing compared to the script. Junkie XL’s score does most of the heavy dramatic lifting, just because the script doesn’t have time for it. Of course, the script doesn’t have time for anything while it ought to be doing character development either. Sure, once Taylor gets to Fantasia, he immediately becomes fetching to the opposite sex and finds out he’s a wizard, but it’s not character development. It’s just setup for the finale. Sure, the film’s uninspired and disappointing, but it’s pragmatic as heck.

Taylor’s fine as the Boy Who Lived-lite. Elba’s… potentially good. He’s never near bad, but the part’s crap and Arcel’s got no time for acting. Arcel doesn’t even have time for McConaughey’s ostensible excesses as his evil, magical, maybe Satanic character. It might help if Elba and McConaughey–who have been nemeses for untold ages–had some chemistry. Elba can do lack of enthusiasm, but McConaughey phones it in during their handful of scenes together. Spellbinding acting it ain’t.

Dennis Haysbert and Jackie Earle Haley have glorified cameos. Haysbert is overly portentous but not embarrassing. Haley’s is embarrassing.

Technically, there’s nothing terrible. Rasmus Videbæk’s photography is fine. The special effects are all right. There’s not enough of them–either the budget limitations held back establishing shots or Arcel just doesn’t like them. Given his bland competence as a director, it seems more likely they’re budgetary omissions. There are a lot of budgetary omissions. They’re kind of Dark Tower’s thing–frequent, unexplained, inexcusable absences.

Because with what they had, the filmmakers should’ve been able to turn out a much better ninety-five minutes. The script’s the big problem. And Arcel does nothing to transcend it.

The worst thing about Tower is it actually does end up disappointing. The first half is riddled with problems and always seems absurdly unaware of itself in terms of being a knock-off Neverending Story, Princess Bride, and, I don’t know, Star Wars, but Taylor is sympathetic and compelling. Elba always seems like he’s eventually going to get some great scene. It’s just around the corner.

Only it’s not. A perfunctory ending is around the corner. Because the script, despite being low on ideas from the start, manages to run out of them as things move along.

It’s also–almost–too technically competent to be such narrative slop. Competencies aside, The Dark Tower is poorly written and badly produced. Those lacking qualities sink the picture further than it ought to sink.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Nikolaj Arcel; screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and Arcel, based on characters created by Stephen King; director of photography, Rasmus Videbæk; edited by Alan Edward Bell and Dan Zimmerman; music by Junkie XL; production designers, Christopher Glass and Oliver Scholl; produced by Goldsman, Ron Howard, and Erica Huggins; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tom Taylor (Jake), Idris Elba (Roland), Matthew McConaughey (Walter), Katheryn Winnick (Laurie), Nicholas Pauling (Lon), Claudia Kim (Arra), Dennis Haysbert (Steven), Jackie Earle Haley (Sayre), Fran Kranz (Pimli), Abbey Lee (Tirana), and José Zúñiga (Dr. Hotchkiss).


Only Angels Have Wings (1939, Howard Hawks)

The first forty-five minutes of Only Angels Have Wings is mostly continual present action. Jean Arthur arrives in a South American port town, looking around–followed by two possible ne’er-do-wells (Allyn Joslyn and Noah Beery Jr.)–and the film tracks her experience. Great direction from Hawks, beautiful cinematography from Joseph Walker. Pretty soon she discovers they’re not ne’er-do-wells but ex-pat American fliers doing mail deliveries.

It actually takes a while to understand the mail outfit, with Jules Furthman’s ingenious script taking its sweet time to reveal everything. Arthur with Joslyn and Beery–then meeting adorable entreprenur Sig Ruman–seems like its doing character introduction on Arthur and maybe some setting setup, but it’s not. Arthur’s going to get character introduction and ground situation stuff done, but not in these opening moments. And while it’s establishing the physical setting, it’s only hinting at it. It’s moving the action to it without actually establishing it. Arthur’s only on layover, after all. Her boat leaves before dawn the next morning.

Instead, Hawks and Furthman are subtly using this time to acclimate the audience to the setting. All that stuff about the town and the boat, it’s not really important, what’s really important is the hotel slash bar slash airport. Ruman’s co-owner is Cary Grant, who shows up about eight minutes in. Hawks and Furthman have already done an extraordinary amount of work in those eight minutes. And there’s no time to establish Grant when he does arrive because it’s time for the mail to go out and so there’s an airplane action sequence. Hawks excels at the airplane action sequences. The miniatures are always spot on, the actual airplane footage is breathtaking (and terrifying).

It’s after the twenty-five minute mark–so twenty minutes left in the opening “prologue”–before real character work on Grant starts happening. There’s a lot of exposition and implied stuff. There’s the entirely functional introduction of Thomas Mitchell during that first action sequence; he’s one of the main characters, but he’s a stranger to Arthur and the audience for the first ten minutes he’s on screen. Because Hawks has got a tense action sequence to do and it comes first.

Once Arthur and Grant finally do start getting talking and flirting, Wings momentarily becomes almost a romantic dramedy. Furthman’s dialogue, Arthur and Grant’s chemistry, it’s a break from everything going on in this microcosm Hawks and Furthman have submerged the audience in.

But Only Angels Have Wings isn’t some short subject about Jean Arthur’s layover with some ex-pat fliers before she continues on her way. It’s not even about what happens when she decides to stay because, well, she just found Cary Grant in the jungle and he’s single. At the forty-six minute mark, the film shifts protagonists. Those first forty-five minutes were to transition to top-billed Grant taking over from second-billed Arthur. Hawks and Furthman have gotten the audience acclimated and it’s time to get into everything else, like Ruman and Grant’s business failing and the constant danger of the mail delivery.

The next section of the film, which really runs to the end as far as pacing goes, but the next big event in the film is the arrival of Richard Barthelmess. He’s got history with Grant and Mitchell, but Grant needs a new pilot, leading right away to some great action sequences. But Barthelmess isn’t alone it turns out, he’s got wife Rita Hayworth with him. And Hayworth’s got some history with Grant.

Furthman and Hawks are able to get away with the one-two punch of Barthelmess and Hayworth and all their baggage with the existing cast and it never comes off contrived. It’s even gently foreshadowed. So the whole thing then becomes about this group of people–Grant, Mitchell, Barthelmess, Hayworth (and the other pilots to some degree)–figuring out how they’re all going to exist in this place. Because even though everyone’s flying around, they’re all stranded. The passenger boat only comes every couple weeks, which means Arthur is still around, moving through the film–mostly removed from the subplots save for her now prickly relationship with Grant.

The film resolves the romance stuff by the end of the second act. Furthman’s script always takes the time to do the scenes right–there’s other stuff going on too, Wings gets away with bubbling up subplots whenever it wants, specifically ones involving Ruman and Mitchell.

Then the third act starts with a bang, only to keep intensifying to almost excruitatingly intolerable levels, both through action and drama. The drama then moves on to echo and resolve items introduced at the beginning and during the character setup. It’s a phenomenal script.

All the acting is great. Grant’s able to toggle between his nearly screwball romance with Arthur to the weight of being this flier in a constantly dangerous situation to being a manager. He’s got a slightly different relationship with every one of his pilots, something the film never stops acknowledging. Arthur gets this big stuff at the opening–in the forty-five minutes–and then has to share the rest of the film, only her story isn’t always the most interesting since she’s basically just waiting, so her scenes have to count. They do. Apparently Hawks hated her performance but she’s what makes Grant work the way he does. She unsettles him.

Barthelmess is awesome. He and Mitchell have the hardest parts in the film, but Mitchell gets to be both lovable and sympathetic. Barthelmess gets neither. Until Hayworth somehow makes him sympathetic. She and Grant have these complex, layered scenes together–basically all of their scenes together–and they give Grant some very different character development.

But never at the expense of Hayworth or Barthelmess. They get their character development too. Hayworth getting it a lot less dramatically than Barthelmess.

And then Ruman’s great. He’s louder than most of the characters in the film, but it makes him lovable. Also great is Victor Killian as the radio operator. He’s never loud; he steals scenes quietly. He and Arthur have this whispering scene and it’s stunning.

Only Angels Have Wings is this fast, complex, beautifully made–everything about the production is stellar, down to the costumes–wonderfully acted strange little big movie. Hawks has all sorts of ambitions, some he realizes on his own, some he needs the actors for. But damn if he doesn’t accomplish them all. Even if he didn’t like Arthur’s performance.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Howard Hawks; written by Jules Furthman; director of photography, Joseph Walker; edited by Viola Lawrence; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Cary Grant (Geoff Carter), Jean Arthur (Bonnie Lee), Richard Barthelmess (Bat MacPherson), Rita Hayworth (Judy MacPherson), Thomas Mitchell (Kid Dabb), Allyn Joslyn (Les Peters), Sig Ruman (Dutchy), Victor Kilian (Sparks), John Carroll (Gent Shelton), Don ‘Red’ Barry (Tex), Milisa Sierra (Lily), and Noah Beery Jr. (Joe).


The Cheap Detective (1978, Robert Moore)

It was until after The Cheap Detective was over I realized there’s never anything about Peter Falk’s fee. It’s not clear whether he’s cheap or not. It’s never addressed. It’s one of the many things Neil Simon’s screenplay never gets around to addressing, like if the third act is all a scheme or if it’s all coincidental. It doesn’t much matter–by the third act, The Cheap Detective is so overflowing with characters (there are twenty-three actors listed in the opening titles), and the movie’s less than ninety minutes, it’d be impossible to fit in a good scheme reveal. Not to say the ending is satisfactory. It’s still lazy. It’s just easy to understand why Simon didn’t try for anything ambitious. The movie’s just too crowded.

The Cheap Detective is a mix of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, set in San Francisco, but still with Nazis after French resistance fighters. The difference is the Nazis are from the Cincinnati chapter and the French resistance fighters just want to open a bistro in Oakland. Cheap Detective has a lot of cheap, deadpan jokes, which only go over thanks to the cast.

Because even though the film’s too small–it’s mostly interiors and the same ones, over and over (budget, presumably)–and Simon doesn’t do much with the script besides the amalgamation of Bogart movies played for laughs, the cast is almost always exceptional. And, when they aren’t, it’s usually because the jokes bad.

Falk is the Bogart caricature. More on Falk in a bit, I need to get through the supporting cast. First, the characters cribbed from Falcon and Casablanca. Falcon: Madeline Kahn is Mary Astor, Marsha Mason is Gladys George (partner’s widow), Dom DeLuise is Peter Lorre, John Houseman is Sydney Greenstreet, Paul Williams is Elisha Cook Jr., and Stockard Channing is de facto Lee Patrick (the secretary). Casablanca: Louise Fletcher is Ingrid Bergman, Fernando Lamas is Paul Henreid, Scatman Crothers is Dooley Wilson, Nicol Williamson is the Nazi commander. Ann-Margret and Sid Caesar are kind of riffs on Big Sleep characters but barely. Then James Coco is around–in the Casablanca stuff–as the club owner, since Falk is the detective not Rick. And Eileen Brennan, in the film’s fourth biggest part, is a sultry night club performer who falls for Falk. Or does she.

Simon’s script adapts scenes from both Falcon and Casablanca, somewhat successfully merging the two. It’s silly, smile-provoking, but effective. Kahn is fantastic, DeLuise is fantastic, Mason is fantastic. Brennan’s good with a thin part folded in on itself, Lamas is good, Ann-Margret is fun, John Houseman does a fine impression (it’s interesting to contrast him with DeLuise or Williams, who aren’t aping the source performances as much). Channing is good. She’s got almost nothing to do. Ditto Williamson. Crothers is basically a cameo. In some ways, so is Coco. Fletcher is the least successful, partially because of the part, partially because she still functions like Ilsa in Casablanca only without any chemistry with Falk.

And now it’s time for some Falk discussion, which–sadly–doesn’t rhyme with frank as much as I’d like.

Falk moves through Cheap Detective amiably, humorously, but always as support for his more outlandish costars. He’s not the straight man; he’s a little befuddled (or is he) and he’s always subdued. He’s a great costar. He’s not a great lead. Anyone putting in any effort dominates their scenes with him (so, basically, not Houseman and not Fletcher, though for different reasons).

Even though Falk’s The Cheap Detective, he’s barely the lead and definitely not the protagonist, not with Simon’s third act shenanigans. Those shenanigans are particularly disappointing because the film’s never better than at the end of the second act, when it seems like it might add up to something.

I suppose it does add up to something, but not anything ambitious or even enthusiastic.

Nice music from Patrick Williams. Decent photography from John A. Alonzo, though there’s only so much he can do given the obviously limited shooting locations. Sidney Levin and Michael A. Stevenson’s editing is a mess. They can’t cut to or from close-ups; some of the problem appears to be Robert Moore’s composition. Cheap Detective is Panavision and almost charming for it, but Moore runs out of shots fast and keeps using the same three-shot over and over again. The shots become predictable. And if you’re familiar with the source material, the scenes become predictable. Cheap Detective gets by thanks to the cast and their enthusiasm more than anything the filmmakers contribute.

The film seems like a better idea than it turns out to be in execution, but there’s still some excellent material throughout. And Kahn, Mason, DeLuise, and Brennan are all great.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Moore; written by Neil Simon; director of photography, John A. Alonzo; edited by Sidney Levin and Michael A. Stevenson; music by Patrick Williams; production designer, Robert Luthardt; produced by Ray Stark; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Peter Falk (Lou Peckinpaugh), Madeline Kahn (Mrs. Montenegro), Marsha Mason (Georgia Merkle), Eileen Brennan (Betty DeBoop), Louise Fletcher (Marlene DuChard), Fernando Lamas (Paul DuChard), Ann-Margret (Jezebel Dezire), Stockard Channing (Bess), Dom DeLuise (Pepe Damascus), James Coco (Marcel), Nicol Williamson (Colonel Schlissel), Scatman Crothers (Tinker), Paul Williams (Boy), John Houseman (Jasper Blubber), Vic Tayback (Lt. DiMaggio), and Sid Caesar (Ezra Dezire).


Pushover (1954, Richard Quine)

As far as suspension of disbelief goes, nothing in Pushover compares to the second scene of the film, when twenty-one year-old Kim Novak makes goggly-eyes over forty-eight year-old Fred MacMurray. Both actors handle it straight, which is impressive on its own, but clearly MacMurray realizes how lucky he’s got it. Turns out he’s a cop assigned to seduce a bank robber’s gal–the bank robbery is the opening sequence and fantastic; for whatever reason police captain E.G. Marshall thought MacMurray would be better for the seduction job than slightly more age appropriate Philip Carey, MacMurray’s pal and partner.

Though Carey, it turns out, has some problems with women of “that” type.

Anyway, when Novak figures out she’s been duped and tells MacMurray maybe they should bump off her boyfriend and take the money and run off together… it’s not really too surprising MacMurray’s eventually going to go for it. He holds out something like two days, which is sort of unbelievable. Also unbelievable is MacMurray waited this long to go killer cop, but whatever.

MacMurray, Carey, and questionably professional Allen Nourse (he’s got drinking problems) are staking out Novak’s. First night, Novak heads back to MacMurray’s place looking for him–he’s the one trailing her, presumably realizes where she’s going, doesn’t like her scheme. Then comes around (when he gets back and lies to Carey about what happened, it’s pretty obvious where Pushover is going). Though, the title ought to be a give away. An additional though, however, is Novak seems to genuinely care about MacMurray, which is quizzical to say the least. She’s not a femme fatale in the standard sense. She’s tragic, maybe, and a whole lot more likable than MacMurray by the end.

MacMurray is still somewhat likable by the end, just because it’s MacMurray and, well, even if the movie pretends it’s normal for Novak to go gaga over him… you can only suspend so much disbelief.

The movie runs just under ninety minutes and most of the runtime is spent on the night Novak’s boyfriend shows up and MacMurray executes his plan. Of course, since Nourse is a drunk, things go wrong. And then MacMurray keeps stepping in it, including getting seen in Novak’s apartment by neighbor Dorothy Malone. Malone’s got the wholesome romance subplot with Carey–she’s a nurse and the “right” type as far as Carey’s considered. Given he spends four nights peeping her through her windows when he ought to be watching Novak’s apartment, he ought to know.

Things keep getting worse and worse for MacMurray as he tries to salvage the scheme. All of the action takes place, by this point, in or around Novak’s apartment building. Every time they get out on the street, director Quine and cinematographer Lester White really show off, like they’ve been cooped up too long in the sets and they want to do something neat on location. And they do some neat stuff. Great shadows in Pushover, starting with that second scene, when Novak picks up the irresistible MacMurray (seriously, it seems like she knows him or something she moons over him so much).

As MacMurray’s murders rack up, it becomes more and more obvious he’s probably not going to get away with it–by the second one, you really aren’t rooting for him anymore (but Carey’s such a square it’s hard to root for him, Marshall’s great but an ass, and Novak’s still kind of tragically likable)–so it’s watching the disasters in slow motion. MacMurray’s not great at any of the scheming, he’s just so enamored with Novak. Understandably but, well, maybe he should’ve given it some more thought. Maybe gone bowling instead of stewed over it–the first act is full of character details, which make zero difference once the film moves into pseudo-realtime for most of the second and third acts.

Nice direction from Quine. Good script from Roy Huggins. Pushover never slows down; it needs the pace to make up for MacMurray’s occasionally obviously terrible ideas. Absolutely wonderful score from Arthur Morton. The music and the cinematography deserve a far better project than a professional, adequate thriller.

MacMurray’s a solid lead, of course. His likability is truly exceptional given his character’s actions and almost bemused lack of remorse. Novak’s good; she doesn’t get much to do after the setup, but when she does, she’s good. Better when it’s not her listening to MacMurray’s reassurances regarding their plotting, however. Malone and Nourse are both good. Marshall’s great. Carey’s… earnest. He’s square to the point of being a jackass, but then again, he never realized his best friend was capable not just of corruption but multi-murder.

Pushover’s an engaging, well-executed ninety minutes. Some gorgeous Los Angeles night time shooting and some phenomenal pacing. It’s successful. It’s just not ambitious, outside the technical aspects.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Quine; screenplay by Roy Huggins, based on novels by Thomas Walsh and Bill S. Ballinger; director of photography, Lester White; edited by Jerome Thoms; music by Arthur Morton; produced by Jules Schermer; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Fred MacMurray (Sheridan), Kim Novak (Lona), Philip Carey (McAllister), Dorothy Malone (Ann Stewart), Allen Nourse (Dolan), and E.G. Marshall (Eckstrom).


Scroll to Top