Focus Features

Downton Abbey (2019, Michael Engler)

I’m trying to decide if Downton Abbey is wholly incomprehensible to someone who didn’t watch the television show, or if they’d appreciate it. Julian Fellowes’s screenplay is very tidy, no loose strings, always the right mix between A, B, and C plots, so one can at least appreciate the pacing without knowing exactly why it’s so especially funny when footman Kevin Doyle makes a fool of himself in front of the King and Queen, but one would still get the surface humor. Downton’s got a bunch of great surface humor, including Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton, which is a rather impressive feat for Fellowes, Smith, Wilton, and director Engler because the film doesn’t do any setup. There’s not just very little ground situation establishing going on, there’s none. The movie opens with the hook—the King and Queen send a letter to Downton Abbey, let’s watch the letter get there via 1920s transportation, oh, how lovely and quaint, thanks to Ben Smithard’s gorgeous photography (they go Panavision for the movie, which is full of lingering shots on the country house itself, also showing off the increased helicopter budget)—plus the letter getting to the town and the familiar sights before the house itself. Maybe, with the quaintness, the lovely photography, and John Lunn’s always very effective theme… an unfamiliar could get in the right mood.

Because while it’s impressive how successfully Fellowes writes the almost two hours, with the fifteen or twenty person principal cast, it’s not a surprise he’d accomplish it. Fellowes wrote many years of the show, including some extended length holiday specials. Downton Abbey: The Movie feels very much like a very special holiday episode. There’s not a lot of progress from when the show ended, at least not in terms of new cast. There aren’t any new regulars, there are a lot of previously emphasized, sort of unresolved subplots examined—Sophie McShera still hasn’t decided if she’s getting married, Robert James-Collier’s still miserable in the closet, and… um. Okay, maybe there’s not a lot on that front. But James-Collier gets one of the bigger B plots, and McShera’s got a solid C. The only reason James-Collier’s subplot, involving actual romance for him, isn’t an A plot is Fellowes keeps it on low until the third act when he needs some drama to juxtapose with the chaos at the royal dinner. It’s a very smart script, just self-indulgent enough, just pleasant enough.

Is it particularly ambitious? No. The biggest A plot—besides everyone in the movie preparing for the royal visit in one way or another—is Allen Leech. Leech gets to do the “Irishman under investigation” subplot and he gets to do a “maybe the widower finally move on” subplot. Laura Carmichael gets a solid B plot. Michelle Dockery, however, is seated at the “here to support other people’s plots with none of my own” table, along with Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern. There are good moments for everyone and all the acting is good, they just don’t get anything special to do. No heavy lifting.

Though Dockery does get a little at the end, as she’s the one who gets to have the big moment with Maggie Smith. In its last few minutes, Downton: The Movie unintentionally reveals its great potential would not have been as an extended, Cinemascope holiday special, but as something from Smith’s perspective. The ambition isn’t there though. The film’s got just the right amount of fan service as well as new material.

Technically the only complaint is, occasionally, Engler chooses the wrong character to—literally—focus on in a shot. It’s like he doesn’t have the right sense of some scenes’ emotionality. And, of course, it’s over too soon. It’s not too short. But it is over too soon.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Engler; written by Julian Fellowes; director of photography, Ben Smithard; edited by Mark Day; music by John Lunn; production designer, Donal Woods; produced by Fellowes, Gareth Neame, and Liz Trubridge; released by Focus Features.

Starring Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), Allen Leech (Tom Branson), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Talbot), Maggie Smith (Violet Crawley), Elizabeth McGovern (Cora Crawley), Hugh Bonneville (Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham), Penelope Wilton (Isobel Merton), Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes), Jim Carter (Mr. Carson), Robert James-Collier (Thomas Barrow), Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates), Brendan Coyle (Mr. Bates), Sophie McShera (Daisy Mason), Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore), Michael Fox (Andy Parker), Raquel Cassidy (Miss Baxter), Kevin Doyle (Mr. Molesley), Harry Hadden-Paton (Bertie Hexham), Imelda Staunton (Maud Bagshaw), Tuppence Middleton (Lucy Smith), Kate Phillips (Princess Mary), Geraldine James (Queen Mary), Simon Jones (King George V), Max Brown (Richard Ellis), Stephen Campbell Moore (Captain Chetwode), Susan Lynch (Miss Lawton), David Haig (Mr. Wilson), Mark Addy (Mr. Bakewell), Philippe Spall (Monsieur Courbet), and Richenda Carey (Mrs. Webb).


Greta (2018, Neil Jordan)

Greta is exceedingly competent. It’s way too unimaginative, predictable, traditional, and restrained in the final third, but it’s always exceedingly competent at those things. Even after it’s clear top-billed Isabelle Huppert isn’t going to create a singular cinema villain and even after it’s clear she’s not even as good as she was in the first hour… she’s always exceedingly competent. Ditto de facto lead Chloë Grace Moretz; she gets thin, melodramatic backstory, an annoying sidekick, a boring job, and a bland dad, but she always makes it work. Greta’s even able to make its utterly predictable last shot work.

Probably because the whole thing is utterly noncommittal and emotionally exploitative until the thriller dangers take over.

The film doesn’t start out noncommittal or emotionally exploitative. The first act at least hints at some sincerity—another of the script’s efficiencies—Moretz is a recent college (Smith, natch) graduate living the dream in New York City. Literally. She works as a waitress, but has no future ambitions and doesn’t need any because she lives with good friend Maika Monroe, whose dad bought her a loft for college graduation. Monroe doesn’t appear to do anything but yoga and party. Again, efficiency after efficiency. Moretz’s dad, Colm Feore, lives back in Boston. Moretz came to New York not because she gets to live rent-free in a bitchin’ loft but because her mom died the year before and she’s grieving. It’s implied Feore grieved his way immediately into another marriage, but it’s never explained. Because efficiency. And also the implied detail makes the film less shallow.

So one day Moretz finds a handbag on the train and—thanks to the lost and found not being open—has to bring it back to the owner herself. The owner is French-ish Isabelle Huppert, who lives all by herself because her husband died the year before and her daughter is off in Paris. Huppert and Moretz immediately bond, much to Monroe’s chagrin—she feels like Moretz is judging her negatively for being a superficial rich girl (which Moretz can’t be because she doesn’t do yoga and also dead mom). Except (and it happens before the second act) it turns out Huppert is seriously creepy creeper and Moretz tries to break off their relationship, only for Huppert to start stalking her. And eventually Monroe, leading to some great thriller sequences from Jordan, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, and editor Nick Emerson.

Huppert’s stalking gets worse, leading to bigger and bigger set pieces, until the last third (or so) of the film when the danger to Moretz starts to become far more literal. No more foreshadowing, no more backstory hints (and the ones the film has revealed add up to nothing because of how the third act plays), just terror.

The conclusion is a mix of predictable, problematic, satisfying, and truncated. Greta runs just less than a hundred minutes and definitely could use a more thorough denouement. Jordan and co-writer Ray Wright go for intensity to get the film to the finish, which is fine in the moment, it just doesn’t add up to anything. Nothing in the film adds up to anything. None of the suspicions, none of the characters’ traumatic histories, none of the characters’ criminal histories (private investigator Stephen Rea discovers more about Huppert from one file folder than the cops do after multiple interactions with both Huppert and Moritz); none of it matters in the end. So no character development, not for Moritz or Huppert. Moritz definitely needed some. Huppert, if the villain role were better, might be able to get away without it. But the role’s not better. It’s lacking. Even if she does power through the third act quite well.

Moritz is good too, though the film’s patronizing towards her, like it resents her for not having enough to do because it doesn’t give her enough to do. Monroe gets better as things go on. She’s good at action, not at exposition. She’s real rough in the first act.

Rea’s great.

Feore’s okay. It’s a perfect role for stunt-casting or a character actor and instead it’s filler with Feore.

Like I said, it’s all exceedingly competent, making Greta a successful viewing experience without being a successful film.

It’s too bad. A better, sincerer, more ambitious script could’ve given Huppert, Moretz, and Monroe some great roles.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Neil Jordan; screenplay by Ray Wright and Jordan, based on a story by Wright; director of photography, Seamus McGarvey; edited by Nick Emerson; music by Javier Navarrete; production designer, Anna Rackard; produced by Lawrence Bender, James Flynn, Sidney Kimmel, John Penotti, and Karen Richards; released by Focus Features.

Starring Isabelle Huppert (Greta Hideg), Chloë Grace Moretz (Frances McCullen), Maika Monroe (Erica Penn), Zawe Ashton (Alexa Hammond), Stephen Rea (Brian Cody), and Colm Feore (Chris McCullen).


Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Wes Anderson)

With Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson has finally put his directing craft so far ahead of his narrative, the narrative doesn’t matter. Neither, in Moonrise‘s case, do the actors. There isn’t a single outstanding performance in the film… maybe because Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola don’t write one. They’re to the point of using Jason Schwartzman as a gag cameo.

Moonrise is purposefully, aggressively artificial–Bob Balaban plays an omnipotent, future narrator who interacts with the characters. But it doesn’t really matter because Anderson’s craft is outstanding and the writing is still decent. A lot of the scenes between preteen outcasts Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are lovely.

Anderson shoots as much of the film as he can in profile; the camera pans to introduce new action instead of cutting. Partially due to the film’s artificiality–partially to Anderson and cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman’s photography–it works. Moonrise isn’t supposed to be real. For instance, Tilda Swinton’s reduced to her job title.

Swinton’s no great shakes in the picture, but she’s not supposed to be. She’s gag casting, much like Schwartzman and Harvey Keitel. Keitel’s the best of those three. Bruce Willis and Edward Norton both do pretty well, though neither have enough material. Anderson and Coppola give Bill Murray absolutely nothing–he doesn’t even interact with his kids in the film, just barks near them. As his wife, Frances McDormand is better.

Moonrise Kingdom‘s a masterfully produced film. It’s just pointless, save demonstrating Anderson’s abilities as a director.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Wes Anderson; written by Anderson and Roman Coppola; director of photography, Robert D. Yeoman; edited by Andrew Weisblum; music by Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Adam Stockhausen; produced by Anderson, Scott Rudin, Jeffrey Dawson and Steven M. Rales; released by Focus Features.

Starring Jared Gilman (Sam), Kara Hayward (Suzy), Edward Norton (Scout Master Ward), Bruce Willis (Captain Sharp), Bill Murray (Walt Bishop), Frances McDormand (Laura Bishop), Tilda Swinton (Social Services), Jason Schwartzman (Cousin Ben), Harvey Keitel (Commander Pierce) and Bob Balaban (Narrator).


The American (2010, Anton Corbijn)

If someone had told me, I don’t think I would have believed Anton Corbijn got his start directing music videos. His direction of the American is so gentle and deliberate–so forcibly detached from his characters–it just doesn’t seem possible. Maybe they were all really well-directed music videos.

I hadn’t originally planned on rushing to see the American, which, it turns out, would have been a big mistake. I think the title’s meant as a joke (the source novel has a different one), because the film puts George Clooney–one of America’s most recognizable celebrities–in a completely not American film.

And Clooney’s the only American around in the film. But his presence isn’t played for comedy or irony–he even has big American ideals, though they’re never spelled out.

The film takes place over–at most–a month. It’s carefully paced, never exciting (it’s not a thriller), and extremely cautious. Think Our Man in Havana mixed with a Clouzot film, only without any humor.

And the ending works. Once it gets to the third act, it’s all brilliant, but there were a couple very bad places it could go. It goes to neither, doing something lovely and unexpected instead.

Clooney’s great–the American suggests he’s just going to get even better–and his supporting cast is wonderful. The two women, Thekla Reuten and Violante Placido, are amazing–Placido in particular. Reuten is good in a simpler role, Placido’s is rather complex.

It’s a quietly significant film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Anton Corbijn; screenplay by Rowan Joffe, based on a novel by Martin Booth; director of photography, Martin Ruhe; edited by Andrew Hulme; music by Herbert Grönemeyer; production designer, Mark Digby; produced by Anne Carey, Jill Green, Ann Wingate, Grant Heslov and George Clooney; released by Focus Features.

Starring George Clooney (Jack), Violante Placido (Clara), Paolo Bonacelli (Father Benedetto), Thekla Reuten (Mathilde) and Johan Leysen (Pavel).


Shaun of the Dead (2004, Edgar Wright)

So, people told me Shaun of the Dead was good, but they kept describing it as something akin to Hot Fuzz and whatnot. It’s not a spoof of a zombie movie though. It’s a zombie movie with a couple losers discovering their skill sets make them good at surviving a zombie holocaust, if not excelling at it.

Actually, it’d be kind of easy to describe Shaun of the Dead as Clerks with zombies. Maybe too easy? I’m not sure. Wright’s a far better director than Kevin Smith, creating this intense atmosphere the audience can feel while the characters are a little too dull to figure out what’s going on. Where the film hits gold is making Simon Pegg both a bit of a twit and also a character for the audience to identify with. He’s actually the only male character in the film who doesn’t have a serious defect (Nick Frost is a drunken loser, Peter Serafinowicz is a yuppie jerk, Dylan Moran is an ass, Bill Nighy is a jerk) and so it’s not really surprising how Lucy Davis occasionally gives him the bedroom eyes. It’s not mentioned (Kate Ashfield plays Pegg’s love interest to far less effect, but it might be because Ashfield’s character is just written as the annoyed girlfriend… much like, you know, Clerks).

The film’s hilarious from the start and keeps a nice air of unpredictably about it. Zombie films feature this ragtag cast of characters, thrown together, but not Shaun. It’s far more… realistic.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Edgar Wright; written by Simon Pegg and Wright; director of photography, David M. Dunlap; edited by Chris Dickens; music by Dan Mudford and Pete Woodhead; production designer, Marcus Rowland; produced by Nina Park; released by Focus Features.

Starring Simon Pegg (Shaun), Kate Ashfield (Liz), Nick Frost (Ed), Lucy Davis (Dianne), Dylan Moran (David), Peter Serafinowicz (Pete), Bill Nighy (Philip), Jessica Hynes (Yvonne) and Penelope Wilton (Barbara).


The Limits of Control (2009, Jim Jarmusch)

Someone–Ebert maybe–is going to laud The Limits of Control. The nicest thing one can really say about it is it isn’t abjectly terrible. There aren’t many bad performances (Tilda Swinton’s lame and Bill Murray’s awful and Isaach De Bankolé is weak when he has more lines than the Terminator) and Jarmusch really does know how to frame a shot. But it’s a piece of malarky. It’s supposed to come off as subversive and anti-American in the end–I can’t really explain how without spoiling–and instead it just comes off as silly. You want to see sublime, subversive commentary on American foreign policy, read Warren Ellis’s Crécy. At its best, Limits of Control is obvious… at its worst, well, to put it bluntly, Jarmusch is full of shit.

Jarmusch has always been–often been–an international filmmaker. Limits of Control is a fine example. Set in Spain with an African leading man, there are Mexican actors, British, American, Spanish, probably a French actor in there somewhere… Jarmusch’s has got some great plays with language. But this exotic cast list is mostly just a diversion. It’s to make the audience feel like he or she is watching something, well, art house.

The most striking success of Limits of Control is its commentary on the spy thriller genre in general. It owes a lot to Hitchcock’s 1930s British thrillers, with the MacGuffin somewhat extracted from the film. The result is a boring two hours of people acting suspiciously with coincidence after coincidence occurring without a thread to tie them. So what. Jarmusch could have cut the pay-off scenes out of The Lady Vanishes and he’d get a similar effect. Well, maybe not The Lady Vanishes because so much of it relies on chemistry and Limits of Control has none. It’s like Jarmusch knew he’d have to do something to get people–critics–to talk about his film, so he made Paz de la Huerta take off her clothes for every scene. What’s the effect? Explicit nudity’s boring. Wow, good one. It’s not like Paul Verhoeven didn’t make explicit nudity boring fifteen years ago.

At times it seems like Jarmusch is going somewhere. Like it’s going to be The Courier’s Tragedy or something. It never is. In fact, the best way to describe The Limits of Control is The Courier’s Tragedy without the point. It’s Jarmusch spinning his wheels until the end–the big reveal in The Limits of Control is, literally, a pin.

Then some of it slowly starts to make sense. But it’s dumb, so who cares?

John Hurt’s great. Jean-François Stévenin has a good small role. de la Huerta isn’t bad. When he’s not talking De Bankolé is great.

I think Jarmusch was going for some kind of mystical realism with the film too.

He fails.

Oh, and how did he misuse Christopher Doyle? The colors are all flat and dead.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch; director of photography, Christopher Doyle; edited by Jay Rabinowitz; music by Boris; production designer, Eugenio Caballero; produced by Gretchen McGowan and Stacey E. Smith; released by Focus Features.

Starring Isaach De Bankolé (Lone Man), Alex Descas (Creole), Jean-François Stévenin (French), Óscar Jaenada (Waiter), Luis Tosar (Violin), Paz de la Huerta (Nude), Tilda Swinton (Blonde), Youki Kudoh (Molecules), John Hurt (Guitar), Gael García Bernal (Mexican), Hiam Abbass (Driver) and Bill Murray (American).


Ash Wednesday (2002, Edward Burns)

Burns must have cast Elijah Wood because of Lord of the Rings, figured his presence would boost Ash Wednesday‘s salability. At some point during filming, as Burns watched Wood’s useless, laughable, whiny performance… he must have regretted it. It’s not like the film’s only problem is Wood–far from it–but he’s just so terrible, so incompetent, the whole proposition becomes ludicrous when he appears.

And the appearance of his character is actually one of the film’s other primary problems. The first twenty-five minutes–save a useless prologue, probably only in there to get Wood on screen at the outset in order to satisfy that rabid Elijah Wood fan-base–are a solid, boring day in the life. Burns isn’t going for metaphor with the title, the film takes place on February 16, 1983. He’s playing a bar owner who goes about his morning, trying to get to church and stuck hearing about his brother (Wood)–supposedly deceased–back from the grave. He’s got good mobsters, bad mobsters and a priest pestering him. It’s a solid twenty-five minutes, because there’s no indication Wood’s still alive, and it’s just day-in-the-life and Burns does it well. I wonder if he distracted himself from Wood’s performance with the exquisite direction. He futzes with the focus for effect at times and it doesn’t work, but Ash Wednesday has some wonderful composition. It’s so good, one can forgive Burns his sepia filter, which he must have been using to give it the 1983 look. It doesn’t really work, but, again, it’s forgivable.

The problems with the script are a different matter. Burns’s protagonist is barely a character. The more people talk about him–the main source of information about the stoic, somber individual–the more difficult it becomes to reconcile Burns’s portrayal with the imagined personality. One of Burns’s greatest strengths as a writer-director-actor is his ability to write himself a good character. He’s not Marlon Brando–in most of his films, the flashier performances go to other actors–but here, he misfires. Presumably, the Wood role was supposed to be flashier, but instead it’s like a mob comedy–like that movie with Charles Grodin and Martin Short where Short plays a little kid–Wood is playing a tough guy.

There’s also an inherent problem with the genre. The Irish crime genre has almost no successes–all I can think of, recently, is The Departed. Almost every other notable one–I’m thinking primarily of State of Grace–is a disaster. Burns certainly doesn’t bring anything new to it, but there’s a potential to Ash Wednesday he doesn’t seem aware of.

If the film had been a day-in-the-life where Wood doesn’t show up until the last act (or not at all)–and Burns had written himself a better role–it would have been something interesting… a character drama set in a crime-friendly environment. Would have been solid.

It’s just a shame such good direction–and such a good cast (Oliver Platt, James Handy, Peter Gerety)–got wasted on such a poor effort. David Shire’s music too. It’s a simple, repetitive piano score. Boring, like the entire movie should have been.

Still, without Wood, it would have at least been passable… though Rosario Dawson doesn’t have an ounce of chemistry with anyone in the film.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Edward Burns; director of photography, Russell Lee Fine; edited by David Greenwald; music by David Shire; production designer, Susan Block; produced by Margot Bridger and Burns; released by Focus Features.

Starring Edward Burns (Francis Sullivan), Elijah Wood (Sean Sullivan), Rosario Dawson (Grace Quinonez), Oliver Platt (Moran), Pat McNamara (Murph), James Handy (Father Mahoney), Michael Mulheren (Pulaski), Malachy McCourty (Whitey) and Peter Gerety (Uncle Handy).


Milk (2008, Gus Van Sant)

As Milk‘s opening titles ran, it occurred to me Danny Elfman scored it. It doesn’t sound anything like Elfman’s norm–you know, the modified Batman music–but it sounded like the kind of score Danny Elfman should be doing (and should have been doing for years). Milk‘s a biopic–and always feels like one, thanks in great part to Van Sant’s reliance on contemporary news footage for storytelling. It’s a solid move, but it makes me think of Good Night, and Good Luck–which isn’t a bad thing, since Milk‘s an entry in that same genre. The dramatic, filmic biography… but not quite biography, since none of Harvey Milk’s life before the present action begins gets covered. Milk‘s Harvey Milk spends the eight years of the film’s present action becoming someone the man in the opening couldn’t have imagined. Where Milk succeeds so greatly is in the surprise–even knowing the story (or some of it, or just paying attention to the news footage at the beginning of the film), it’s impossible to forecast how the film’s Milk is going to develop.

It’s not Sean Penn’s best performance, but it’s got to be the only one of his best performances where he’s likable. He creates an almost magical character–the scenes with him giving speeches for unions or handing out a bouquet of flowers in a black barbershop–these should be unbelievable scenes (even if the real Milk did exactly the same things), but Penn makes them work. But the character is far from perfect–Van Sant could have easily approached Milk with some kind of destiny angle, but he doesn’t. Penn’s character is a human being, full of mistakes, full of regret, even if he does have a positive disposition. Penn’s played lots of protagonists–he hasn’t done anything in a long time–but in Milk, he plays a hero (his first?). No shock, he’s great at it.

Van Sant’s got an amazing supporting cast. Milk‘s got a huge cast, but the principal supporting actors–Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna–all standout. Hirsch and Brolin probably have an easier time (though both of them have a couple fantastic scenes), but only when I list them next to Luna, who’s got the film’s most difficult role. He plays an annoying, clingy drama queen (sorry, is there a PC term for drama queen); he’s got to irritate the viewer, cause some eye-rolling, but still be a sympathetic person. It’s a very difficult performance and, at the beginning, it doesn’t seem like Luna’s going to pull it off… but then he does.

Actually, a lot of Milk is in a similar situation. It’s always a solid motion picture, but it doesn’t skyrocket until after the halfway mark. The quiet introduction of Brolin, the deepening of Penn’s character, it all takes off. Before, Van Sant feels like he’s experimenting, trying to get the tone right. As it turns out, he is getting the tone right (presumably, it’s not an experiment, but a procedure to get the film to the right place). It’s easily Van Sant’s best film, but Dustin Lance Black’s script doesn’t hurt at all–the script’s mostly passive, but Black has a couple great approaches. Brolin’s place in the plot, for example, is great.

I haven’t mentioned James Franco yet. He deserves a better paragraph than this one will be. He’s astounding–it’s hard to imagine eight years ago I dreaded the very sight of his name–he keeps getting better as an actor. At its most successful, he and Penn make Milk.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Gus Van Sant; written by Dustin Lance Black; director of photography, Harris Savides; edited by Elliot Graham; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Bill Groom; produced by Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen; released by Focus Features.

Starring Sean Penn (Harvey Milk), Emile Hirsch (Cleve Jones), Josh Brolin (Dan White), Diego Luna (Jack Lira), Alison Pill (Anne Kronenberg), Victor Garber (Mayor George Moscone), Denis O’Hare (John Briggs), Joseph Cross (Dick Pabich), Stephen Spinella (Rick Stokes), Lucas Grabeel (Danny Nicoletta), Brandon Boyce (Jim Rivaldo), Zvi Howard Rosenman (David Goodstein), Kelvin Yu (Michael Wong) and James Franco (Scott Smith).


Burn After Reading (2008, Joel and Ethan Coen)

The Coens usually write tight scripts. Burn After Reading doesn’t have a particularly tight script. Instead, it’s got a bunch of great performances and funny scenes–astoundingly good dialogue (their use of curse words for humorous effect is noteworthy)–and some great details. But the film isn’t really much of a story. Literally speaking, it’s about what happens after the CIA decides to transfer John Malkovich over to the State Department for no specified reason. In the film’s first uproarious exchange, Malkovich objects to being classified an alcoholic by a Mormon (Burn came before Prop 8, so there–unfortunately–isn’t any mention of alien planets). But the film isn’t really about Malkovich. He’s in quite a bit of it–and is excellent in the film in ways he hasn’t gotten to be excellent in quite a while–but he’s not the lead by any means.

Burn distracts from its lack of protagonist or tight plotting with the funny business. There’s a reasonably traditional first act with Malkovich, but only until it introduces Tilda Swinton (as Malkovich’s wife) and George Clooney (as her lover). Swinton turns in the film’s only bad performance and it isn’t really her fault, it’s the Coen’s. She plays a pediatrician who’s cruel to kids (in front of their parents). Doesn’t seem like she’d make it long in that professional. But it gets a little worse–I don’t think the Coens even bother to name her well in the film. I’m seeing her character’s name in the credits and it’s something of a surprise… like I only would have figured it out through process of elimination.

Anyway, once they show up, it’s not long before Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt arrive. McDormand and Pitt have lots of the film’s best scenes. Pitt shows off why he’s such a great comic actor–they’re both playing dopes, with McDormand a little smarter (only a little). As far as the performances go, Clooney probably comes in second behind Malkovich. While Malkovich gives this great performance, it’s just this technically excellent actor with good material. Clooney–in his Coen Brothers mode–creates this wonderful character, full of tics and idiosyncrasies. Much like the film itself, he exists to amuse.

The only other supporting roles of note are Richard Jenkins, David Rasche and J.K. Simmons. Jenkins does very well–but he always does very well–even if he doesn’t have much to work with. Rasche and Simmons have these fantastic scenes together, which is where Burn After Reading is so frustrating. Their scenes together–two of them–are comic gold, but the scenes’ presence in the film itself is what works against Burn After Reading as a solid narrative.

It’s the Coen Brothers making a movie to get belly laughs and not taking anything else into account. I’m sure one could argue the lunacy of the plot is some kind of post-modern spy movie, but it’d be inaccurate. Burn After Reading is a really funny movie. It probably ought to be something more, given the numerous excellent performances (McDormand, who I didn’t mention before, only creates a caricature, but it’s a good one). But its failing in that department actually doesn’t feel like much of a failure.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki; edited by Roderick Jaynes; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Jess Gonchor; produced by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner; released by Focus Features.

Starring George Clooney (Harry Pfarrer), Frances McDormand (Linda Litzke), John Malkovich (Osbourne Cox), Tilda Swinton (Katie Cox), Brad Pitt (Chad Feldheimer), Richard Jenkins (Ted Treffon), Elizabeth Marvel (Sandy Pfarrer), David Rasche (CIA Officer), J.K. Simmons (CIA Superior) and Olek Krupa (Krapotkin).


Hollywoodland (2006, Allen Coulter)

Hollywoodland is not a narrative mess. It’d be a far more interesting (and far less boring) two hours if it were. Instead, Paul Bernbaum’s plotting is intentional and considered. Neither Bernbaum nor director Allen Coulter seem to understand the problems with having two protagonists, not having anything to do with each other, juxtaposed for a couple hours, however.

It starts really strong, with Adrien Brody fantastic as the glib private detective. He has a solid sidekick and love interest in Caroline Dhavernas and Coulter does do a great job giving Hollywoodland the right feel. The lack of a definite time period–Hollywoodland takes place in 1959, but the flashbacks seem to go back ten years–really hurts it. I guess that aside will be the segue into the flashbacks. The first few, which chronicle Ben Affleck’s career woes and romance with Diane Lane, aren’t bad. Then it becomes clear Diane Lane isn’t actually going to be in the film very much and her mediocre acting quickly descends into shrillness as she tries again for an Oscar. She’s not the worst (Bob Hoskins is far, far worse), but she becomes rather tiresome.

Affleck, on the other hand, deserves his own two hour film, not just this one’s poorly framed flashbacks. He’s great–better, as time goes on, than Brody. Because the movie eventually falls apart, as Brody’s story turns into the standard failed father, disillusioned detective bit. The end’s just awful.

Michael Berenbaum’s cinematography is wonderful, giving the film both rich color but also sharpness. The score’s good. It’s a well-produced film, not question, the script is just bad. The beginning–the script’s–is great, particularly in the dialogue and the way people interact. These qualities disappear quickly (it’s almost like the opening got worked on and nothing else got revised).

Jeffrey DeMunn’s good, Lois Smith’s good, even Robin Tunney’s good. Molly Parker is criminally wasted.

The big problem with Hollywoodland–conceptually–is in its approach. It’s a mystery about the death of George Reeves, but then goes and reveals his death is actually nowhere near as interesting as his life.

Luckily, it’s long enough and starts to go bad around ninety-five minutes, maybe sooner, so I wasn’t disappointed by the ending… just glad it was finally over.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Allen Coulter; written by Paul Bernbaum; director of photography, Jonathan Freeman; edited by Michael Berenbaum; music by Marcelo Zarvos; production designer, Leslie McDonald; produced by Glenn Williamson; released by Focus Features.

Starring Adrien Brody (Louis Simo), Diane Lane (Toni Mannix), Ben Affleck (George Reeves), Bob Hoskins (Eddie Mannix), Robin Tunney (Leonore Lemmon), Kathleen Robertson (Carol Van Ronkel), Lois Smith (Helen Bessolo), Phillip MacKenzie (Bill Bliss), Larry Cedar (Chester Sinclair), Caroline Dhavernas (Kit Holliday), Jeffrey DeMunn (Art Weissman), Joe Spano (Howard Strickling), Kevin Hare (Robert Condon) and Molly Parker (Laurie Simo).


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