James Newton Howard

Unbreakable (2000, M. Night Shyamalan)

If Unbreakable wasn’t a one hour and forty-six minute self-aggrandizement from wannabe mainstream-auteur (notice, not mainstream auteur) Shyamalan, it’d somehow be even worse. Because at least if Shyamalan is intentionally doing all these things, making all these choices, it’s a cohesive flop. If he’s not, if the mishmash elements are actually mishmash (like, you know, third-billed Robin Wright’s existence), if he really doesn’t think the sixth grade meets screenwriting manuals script is amazing, if there’s not a point to all those crane shots–usually shattering ceilings–then Unbreakable is even worse. And you don’t want it to be even worse because you gave it those 106 minutes, when you should’ve stopped at the opening text giving statistics on the comic book hobby and industry in the year 2000.

Or at least when the next scene of the movie is about a baby being born in a department store in 1961. The newborn has broken arms and legs. There’s almost the plot possibility the all-white store staff did something to the black mom (Charlayne Woodard) and baby. Attending physician Eamonn Walker certainly thinks something happened.

But then the action jumps ahead to the present, with Bruce Willis sitting on a train. He’s a quiet enough guy–totally bald–wearing a suit, but he does then proceed to take-off his wedding ring to flirt with the hottie who sits down next to him. Charmlessly flirt. In an exaggerated sad, creepy way so you know he’s harmless. And it’s not like he leaves the ring off after she bails.

Oh, before I forget. The greatest tragedy of the film is that time jump, because it’s the last time Walker’s in the movie and he gives the only decent performance. Wright’s performance isn’t her fault, but it’s still not good.

But instead you sat through the failed train pickup. Then things start getting exciting when Willis realizes the train’s going really, really fast. Then they stop getting exciting. And so ends the last building of dramatic tension in the film. And Shyamalan is going to make you suffer for sticking with it. No more rising tension. Ever. Not even when Shyamalan moves the camera around really fast to show you you’re supposed to be feeling the rising tension.

Instead it’s about one hour and forty minutes of humorless, joyless moping from everyone involved. I was going to say there’s nothing technically accomplished about the film–while Shyamalan’s hilariously pedestrian Panavision composition isn’t cinematographer Eduardo Serra’s fault, Serra had a duty to the human optical nerve not to do some of these things; similarly, editor Dylan Tichenor didn’t come up with the tone but he executed it. But production designer Larry Fulton does do a fine job creating, at least, Willis and Wright’s house, which is a miserable place you can’t imagine anyone ever said a kind word to one another much less had a holiday meal or birthday party. Wright doesn’t even get to exist in the house without Willis inviting her into the story.

Oh, right. Wright and Willis are breaking up because he’s too distant from her and son Spencer Treat Clark (who really ought to be the worst performance in the film but isn’t because Samuel L. Jackson; but in any fair universe, Clark would be the worst). Only we don’t find out why they’re breaking up for like an hour, until they’re getting back together.

Sorry, I’m forgetting. Willis’s train crashes and everyone dies except him and comic book art gallery dealer Samuel L. Jackson mysteriously contacts him with an unsigned note on his car. Has Willis ever been sick. He hasn’t ever been sick, something Willis finds really weird when he thinks about it so he goes to see Jackson. Jackson thinks Willis is a superhero. Only they never say superhero, they just say hero because Shyamalan is a serious important filmmaker and somehow saying superhero would make the whole thing silly.

Jackson is the baby from the first scene grown up. He has osteogenesis imperfecta; his bones are fragile. The kids who regularly assaulted him growing up called him “Mr. Glass.” He owns an art gallery with terrible drawings of superheroes. Not terrible like they’re fighting gross monsters, terrible like no one on the film had access to actual… drawings. Superhero or otherwise. It’s funny?

Anyway, Jackson tells Willis he’s a superhero because comic books are at least based somewhat in fact when describing superheroes. Jackson’s got this obnoxious history of comics monologue starting in Ancient Egypt, which is really, really, really dumb. Like silly dumb and inaccurate would make more sense if Shuster and Siegel created Superman after seeing a meteor fall. But there’s no Shuster or Siegel or the actual history of superhero comics because, well, Shyamlan’s script is really bad, but also because DC Comics had zero participation in the film. Despite Jackson’s favorite comics looking like DC Comics–what kid wouldn’t run to the corner in 1968 to get the latest Active Comics starring Slayer–in the logo designs, the comics themselves are exceptionally inept. Later on, in comic shops, Marvel Comics appear, which is funny since the final line in the movie is a freaking Superman reference.

Anyway.

Willis thinks Jackson is crazy but then Jackson stalks him at work and soon Willis is thinking maybe he is a superhero. He and estranged son Clark bond over his possible superpowers. It’s a little less affecting after Willis reveals he (Willis, the dad) blames his son for the estrangement, which isn’t really an estrangement so much as Willis is unhappy because he’s not out there being a superhero. Man needs his purpose.

Woman needs her purpose too and Wright’s purpose is to fall back in love with Willis. She fell out because… it’s never clear. The scenes would make more sense if Wright and Willis barely knew one another, not raised a tween together. Wright also has zero relationship with Clark, which is weird because Willis is supposed to be such a bad dad, but when Clark and Wright are in a scene together it’s like they haven’t even been introduced.

Shyamalan’s directorial badness isn’t just in the composition or pacing, whatever he told those actors to do during filming, they should have refused. Because it’s terrible.

No one’s worse than Jackson. Well, Clark, but on a technicality of sorts. Jackson’s got no character whatsoever. He exists for Willis. He’s intentionally unlikable (unless Shyamalan thinks the scene where Jackson hates kids makes him likable), every delivery is flat because he’s so serious, but then he occasionally makes good jokes. Charmlessly. Because no one’s allowed to have any charm in Unbreakable, which is fair. It’s a charm vacuum.

Willis’s performance is bad too. Though less funny because he has less to do than Jackson in a lot of ways, even though he’s the lead and finds out he might be Superman. Well, not Superman. He might be unbreakable and have some psychic powers. Or he just has impressions, which play out as flashback or flash forward scenes with crane shots, which aren’t impressions, but Shyamalan never gets into it too much because it’d be nerdy to define Willis’s power set. Unbreakable is serious stuff, after all.

And, hey, Willis does eventually get to do a hero arc. After ignoring a racist physical assault on a black woman and a white woman getting raped, he finds someone he does want to save. A white guy. Will Super Willis be able to take on the villain, who is stronger than Willis so hopefully Willis doesn’t have super strength, but whatever.

Lousy, lousy, lousy–and entirely inappropriate–epic-sized music from James Newton Howard.

Unbreakable is a dismal experience. But, hey, it’s not like there weren’t signs right away. And it just gets worse. And worse. And worse. And then it’s five minutes in and there are 101 more to go.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan; director of photography, Eduardo Serra; edited by Dylan Tichenor; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Larry Fulton; produced by Barry Mendel, Sam Mercer, and Shyamalan; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Bruce Willis (David Dunn), Samuel L. Jackson (Elijah Price), Spencer Treat Clark (Joseph Dunn), Robin Wright (Audrey Dunn), and Charlayne Woodard (Elijah’s Mother).


Freedomland (2006, Joe Roth)

I didn’t see Freedomland when it came out because I loved the novel and Richard Price adapting the novel or not, the movie’s cast and crew aren’t encouraging it. No movie directed by Joe Roth should inspire confidence, especially not one about racism. Freedomland is about racism. It’s about the really uncomfortable realities of racism. Not racist cops, but racist people. The film opens telling the viewer it takes place in 1999, which when the novel should have been adapted. Possibly even starring Samuel L. Jackson and Julianne Moore in the leads. Possibly with the entire supporting cast intact. But not with Joe Roth directing. Not directing it in Panavision aspect. Not with really slick photography from Anastas N. Michos and awful slick rapid fire editing from Nick Moore. Not with the James Newton Howard occasionally upbeat score. Not with sunny-time super-producer Scott Rudin apparently hunting down a Crash Oscar of his own. Because that Freedomland, this Freedomland, it refuses to call any white characters racist. It refuses to let the racist white cops be racist. It’s particularly mortifying and embarrassing because it’s all post-production neutering. It’s obviously shot Super 35 too, so they even cropped it to this nonsense.

Though someone tried hard to give Jackson as much slack as the frame would allow. Moore’s performance is an unsalvageable train wreck. Roth can’t direct actors, but Freedomland’s cast doesn’t need for direction. They need for some kind of honesty, which just isn’t present in the filmmaking. They need verisimilitude and Roth doesn’t want to acknowledge it. It’s about a black cop (Jackson) suspecting a white woman (Moore), who works exclusively with black people in the projects–specifically black children–is lying about a black guy kidnapping her son. The point of Freedomland is it can’t be more about race if it tried. And Roth and Rudin reduce the film to a ball-less Hallmark movie. It’s unclear how responsible Price is for it, because some of the responsibility is definitely on him. The post-production can be responsible for the atrocious, offensive editing of a riot scene, but the film gets to that riot scene because of Price’s script, because of how he handles the characters. Freedomland is half-assed filmmaking from people who know better. Even Roth should know better. It’s why he shoots it Super 35, so he doesn’t have to commit to anything while actually directing the actors.

Jackson tries. It’s a good part. It’s a poorly written part in what’s a disastrous film, but it’s a good part. And he does try hard. He does fall into a lot of his acting tropes and he never manages any chemistry with Moore, but it’s an admirable performance.

Edie Falco’s great. It’s embarrassing watching Moore opposite Falco. Her part’s terrible, even just going off the script, but she’s great. While Roth’s direction screws up a lot of the part, Price’s script isn’t there for the character.

Good support from William Forsythe. Moore-levels of train wreck from Ron Eldard as her racist cop brother. He and Moore don’t really have any scenes together, which is good because some kind of singularity would occur if they actually had to act at each other under Roth’s incompetent direction. Aunjanue Ellis’s fine. Lots to do in a lame part. She does what she can. Same goes for Clarke Peters and Anthony Mackie.

LaTonya Richardson Jackson stands out; she gets actual chemistry off Jackson, which no one else in the film gets. It’s hard not to assume its because they’re married off screen.

Freedomland is hard to watch and not for any of the reasons it should be hard to watch. It’s opportunistic, insincere and overproduced. If it were well-acted, well-directed, well-anything, it might be interesting as a failure. Instead, it’s even worth a footnote. Except as one of Jackson’s stronger performances. And as one of Moore’s worst.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Roth; screenplay by Richard Price, based on his novel; director of photography, Anastas N. Michos; edited by Nick Moore; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, David Wasco; produced by Scott Rudin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Samuel L. Jackson (Council), Julianne Moore (Brenda), Edie Falco (Karen), William Forsythe (Boyle), Ron Eldard (Danny Martin), Aunjanue Ellis (Felicia), Clarke Peters (Reverend Longway), Anthony Mackie (Billy), Domenick Lombardozzi (Sullivan), Fly Williams III (Rafik), Dorian Missick (Jason) and Peter Friedman (Lt. Gold).


Marked for Death (1990, Dwight H. Little)

The beginning of Marked for Death is nearly all right. It’s a prologue, with lead Steven Seagal–as a DEA agent–in Mexico, doing an undercover drug buy. Things go wrong. Until things go wrong, it’s not bad. Director Little has a lot of motion (which is fine when people are moving around, much less when he’s zooming in to try to keep conversations interesting) and it’s effectively tense. Then the action starts and it all goes to pot, because Little can’t direct an action scene, much less a martial arts scene for Seagal. Marked for Death just never clicks, even though it has most of the required pieces. A sense of humor would have made all the difference.

Seagal has some bad acting in the film, but not too much. He’s opposite actual good actors a lot of the time–Keith David, Tom Wright, Kevin Dunn–and they help the film. They don’t help Seagal’s performance. There’s not much one can do with the part–his DEA agent resigns only to get into a fight with a Jamaican drug lord. To make matters worse, the drug lord (Basil Wallace, who over-acts in the part), goes after Seagall’s family.

Along the way, Seagal drafts high school teacher David as his sidekick in vigilante mission. He also meets a girl–an awful Joanna Pacula–before heading to Jamaica for the showdown. The best parts in the film are some second unit establishing shots in Jamaica, amid palm tress.

Speaking of palm trees, the unbelievably inept chase scene–set in the Chicago suburbs–is littered with palm trees. After the film goes out of its way to establish the Chicagoland connection. Seagal just loves being a soulful Catholic Chicago dude. He should’ve remade the Blues Brothers.

If you look past how the film demonizes Jamaicans (they’re not characters or caricatures even, they’re boring monsters), Marked for Death is just goofy bad, with a lame score from James Newton Howard (who actually appears to be mocking the scenes he’s scoring at times), the crappy script from Michael Grais and Mark Victor, inept action editing. But, through it all, Little still manages to fail everyone else involved. His direction is the pits.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Dwight H. Little; written by Michael Grais and Mark Victor; director of photography, Ric Waite; edited by O. Nicholas Brown; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Robb Wilson King; produced by Grais, Victor and Steven Seagal; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Steven Seagal (John Hatcher), Joanna Pacula (Leslie), Keith David (Max), Tom Wright (Charles), Kevin Dunn (Lt. Sal Roselli), Elizabeth Gracen (Melissa), Bette Ford (Kate Hatcher), Al Israel (Tito Barco), Arlen Dean Snyder (Duvall), Victor Romero Evans (Nesta) and Basil Wallace (Screwface).


Major League (1989, David S. Ward)

There’s so much strong acting in Major League and director Ward’s script has such likable characters (and such a hiss-worthy villain in team owner Margaret Whitton), the film moves on momentum alone for quite a while. It’s only in the third act, when Ward throws in an unnecessary plot twist to ratchet up tension. He shouldn’t need it–it’s a baseball movie and it’s the big championship game–but, while League has a sports emphasis… it’s a comedy first.

And character drama gets comedy.

Thanks to nice direction, excellent photography from Reynaldo Villalobos and James Newton Howard’s score (which easily toggles between dramatic and comedic), it comes through all right. Even when the film stumbles, it stumbles likably.

Since he’s the ostensible lead, top-billed Tom Berenger gets to romance Rene Russo, which leads to some good scenes. Charlie Sheen and Corbin Bernsen get the next billings, but don’t have a lot to do (until that third act misfire). But they’re both appealing, as is Wesley Snipes. The best acting of the ball players probably comes from Dennis Haysbert and Chelcie Ross, who distinguish themselves in caricature roles.

Whitton’s villain is good, James Gammon’s good as the coach and Charles Cyphers has fun as management.

Ward understands the baseball picture as an American film standard and engages with that standard. Not with much ambition, but he’s got a strong enough cast and script he doesn’t need to do much. It’s a solid and affecting enough with some good moments.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by David S. Ward; director of photography, Reynaldo Villalobos; edited by Dennis M. Hill; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Jeffrey Howard; produced by Irby Smith and Chris Chesser; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Tom Berenger (Jake Taylor), Charlie Sheen (Ricky Vaughn), Corbin Bernsen (Roger Dorn), Margaret Whitton (Rachel Phelps), James Gammon (Lou Brown), Rene Russo (Lynn Wells), Wesley Snipes (Willie Mays Hayes), Charles Cyphers (Charlie Donovan), Chelcie Ross (Eddie Harris), Dennis Haysbert (Pedro Cerrano), Andy Romano (Pepper Leach) and Bob Uecker (Harry Doyle).


Night and the City (1992, Irwin Winkler)

Night and the City ends on a comic note. Given the film deals with struggling and desperation–with no humor–having a funny line for a finish doesn’t just feel wrong, it invalidates all the work Robert De Niro does in the film. It turns his performance into a comedic one, which it had not been until that final moment.

Not to mention it undoes a bunch of Jessica Lange’s excellent work. She plays his love interest; she has a husband too. City seems complicated but it really isn’t. Richard Price’s script is full of great dialogue and great parts for actors–Cliff Gorman (as Lange’s husband), Alan King and Jack Warden are all excellent–but it doesn’t move very well. Even though Lange painfully explains why she likes De Niro, it’s not convincing. His ne’er-do-well ambulance chasing lawyer turned boxing promotor isn’t an entirely weak character, but he can’t hold up the entire picture.

Director Winkler is a lot of the problem too. The third act is a disaster, but these terrible music montage choices start somewhere in the second half. City never has much of a style–Winkler apes other New York directors–but it does have amazing editing from David Brenner to distinguish it. Not even Brenner can make the music choices work.

With a better director–and De Niro sharing more of the runtime with the supporting cast–City might have been a decent little picture. Instead, the film is an almost competent misfire.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Irwin Winkler; screenplay by Richard Price, based on the novel by Gerald Kersh; director of photography, Tak Fujimoto; edited by David Brenner; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Peter S. Larkin; produced by Jane Rosenthal and Winkler; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Robert De Niro (Harry Fabian), Jessica Lange (Helen Nasseros), Cliff Gorman (Phil Nasseros), Alan King (Boom Boom), Jack Warden (Al Grossman), Eli Wallach (Peck), Barry Primus (Tommy Tessler) and Gene Kirkwood (Resnick).


The Package (1989, Andrew Davis)

If it weren’t for the cast and direction, I’m not sure how The Package would play. The combination of Gene Hackman and Andrew Davis makes the film, which has a bunch of problems, noteworthy. Davis gives the film enough grit and realism to make it seem wholly believable, just so long as one doesn’t think about it much while watching it.

After a couple starts, about thirty minutes in, it becomes clear The Package is an assassination thriller. Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly compelling assassination thriller. Without Hackman holding it together, it’d fail. Even worse, the first two starts promise something far more interesting and unique.

Even the assassination thriller part starts better than it ends. With a slightly different approach, The Package would be a road movie. It’s still basically arranged in that manner–principle supporting characters show up in sequence, not all at once. First it’s Tommy Lee Jones (in a glorified cameo, which is too bad since he and Hackman are great together), then Pam Grier (solid in a thankless role) and finally Dennis Franz (playing a family man variation of his cop standard). Joanna Cassidy shows up between Jones and Grier and sticks around.

Nearly all the supporting cast is excellent, regardless of how much they have to do. Kevin Crowley, Chelcie Ross, Thalmus Rasulala–small roles, great performances (Rasulala doesn’t even get a name).

The only weak performance is John Heard, which hurts me to even type but he’s just bad.

The Package is okay, if problematic.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Andrew Davis; written by John Bishop; director of photography, Frank Tidy; edited by Billy Weber and Don Zimmerman; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Michel Levesque; produced by Beverly J. Camhe and Tobie Haggerty; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Gene Hackman (Sgt. Johnny Gallagher), Joanna Cassidy (Eileen Gallagher), Tommy Lee Jones (Thomas Boyette), John Heard (Col. Glen Whitacre), Dennis Franz (Lt. Milan Delich), Pam Grier (Ruth Butler), Kevin Crowley (Walter Henke) and Chelcie Ross (Gen. Hopkins).


The Fugitive (1993, Andrew Davis)

It’s been a while since I last saw The Fugitive. I remember it didn’t impress me much, particularly Andrew Davis’s direction.

Needless to say, I was very wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated the film as much as I did this viewing. Davis’s direction is the finest action thriller direction I can recall. The film starts a breakneck pace about twenty minutes into the film and doesn’t stop… I don’t even think it stops at the end. The last scene is very quick as well.

The film’s approach to mainstream filmmaking–setting two strong actors opposite each other without making it a buddy picture–has vanished. The Fugitive doesn’t just juxtapose Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones, it barely gives Ford any screen time to himself when he’s not on the run. The first twenty minutes… it’s summary storytelling. The audience doesn’t really get to know Ford until after he’s running.

Most of Ford’s scenes are by himself, either running or investigating, so it’s up to Jones. The supporting cast around Jones is a phenomenal piece of casting–Joe Pantoliano doing comic relief, obviously, is going to be good, but Daniel Roebuck has some moments too. Davis manages to give his cast great little moments without ever breaking pace.

Michael Chapman’s photography is an essential element. The film’s color scheme manages to be rich and drab at the same time.

I’m trying to think of something negative or unenthusiastic to say about the film.

I can’t think of anything.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Andrew Davis; screenplay by Jeb Stuart and David Twohy, based on a story by Twohy and characters created by Roy Huggins; director of photography, Michael Chapman; edited by Don Brochu, David Finfer, Dean Goodhill, Dov Hoenig, Richard Nord and Dennis Virkler; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, J. Dennis Washington; produced by Arnold Kopelson; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Harrison Ford (Dr. Richard Kimble), Tommy Lee Jones (Deputy Samuel Gerard), Sela Ward (Helen Kimble), Jeroen Krabbé (Dr. Charles Nichols), Joe Pantoliano (Agent Cosmo Renfro), Andreas Katsulas (Frederick Sykes), Jane Lynch (Dr. Kathy Wahlund), Julianne Moore (Dr. Anne Eastman), Daniel Roebuck (Agent Robert Biggs), L. Scott Caldwell (Agent Poole), Johnny Lee Davenport (Marshal Henry), Tom Wood (Agent Noah Newman) and Eddie Bo Smith Jr. (Copeland).


Diggstown (1992, Michael Ritchie)

I forgot MGM still made movies in the 1990s. The aura of bankruptcy and failure has surrounded Leo for so long… it’s distracting. I remember my Diggstown laserdisc sleeve. It’s been at least ten years since I’ve seen the movie. It’s still a great time and I’m left, as I always was when finishing it, perplexed. How did James Woods not have a successful film career as a leading man? Diggstown might have even his last major lead role.

Diggstown has a large cast–figure twenty recognizable cast members–and the casting is brilliant. It might have been the first movie I ever saw Oliver Platt in. The film’s broken up into three parts (not the acts, however). The prison prologue, the set-up, then the long boxing sequence (Louis Gossett Jr. fighting ten guys, which is why the cast is so large). Each section feels different, with Woods owning the prologue, but Platt getting the most attention in the opening of the set-up. It’s a bombastic role and Platt’s perfect for it. There isn’t a bad performance in the entire film (Ritchie’s a fine director of actors), but the acting from Platt, Woods and Gossett is just amazing. Each one of them turn in singular performances–so it’s unfortunate Diggstown doesn’t offer them much more to do.

The film’s funny, endearing and constantly enjoyable, but there’s a certain lack of depth to it. There’s nuance in the film–when Gossett and Woods meet up at the beginning, they’re having an intricately guarded conversation, combining the acting, the direction and the editing. But the nuance doesn’t carry over to the film. It has a simple close. There isn’t much opportunity for a deeper story here, but there’s some (the flirtation between Woods and Heather Graham evaporates as the boxing part of the film begins).

Instead, it’s just a good time, with a great, self-aware performance from Bruce Dern. I’m not always a fan, but when Dern’s on, he’s really on. The supporting cast–John Short, Duane Davis, even Michael DeLorenzo–has some standouts as well.

Diggstown is a well put together film–Ritchie doesn’t have a single unsure directorial moment, every move is confident–and it makes Diggstown one of the finer junior members of the era’s films. Diggstown is a contained, inclusive filmic narrative–the viewer isn’t supposed to engage with Woods as a celebrity, only his performance. There’s even a “Roots” reference and, even if it was supposed to be an in-joke with Gossett, it doesn’t come off as one.

Before I finish up, I need to mention James Newton Howard’s score. The score’s great, really changing pace as the film does–not only does Diggstown have those twenty or so characters for the viewer to remember, it has a lot of locations too–Howard keeps up with everything, developing the score inline with the narrative.

On one hand, I wish Diggstown had a little more depth–the film has room for it, Ritchie and the cast can certainly handle it, but maybe not… It’s a solid, smart, well-made comedy. I remember when I first saw it, on videotape, I couldn’t wait to see what Woods and Platt did next. Platt did well enough, Woods provided a frequent disappointment. Even this time through, sixteen years after it came out, it’s hard not to be excited at the talent on display in the film.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Ritchie; screenplay by Steven McKay, based on a novel by Leonard Wise; director of photography, Gerry Fisher; edited by Don Zimmerman; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Stephen Hendrickson; produced by Robert Schaffel; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer.

Starring James Woods (Gabriel Caine), Louis Gossett Jr. (Roy Palmer), Bruce Dern (John Gillon), Oliver Platt (Fitz), Heather Graham (Emily Forrester), Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb (Wolf Forrester), Thomas Wilson Brown (Robby Gillon), Duane Davis (Hambone Busby), David Fresco (Fish) and Willie Green (Hammerhead Hagan).


I Am Legend (2007, Francis Lawrence)

There should be laws against remaking terrible Charlton Heston movies worse than the source movie. Though, given I Am Legend plays a little like Christian Scientist propaganda… I doubt Republicans would do it… even if it did give Heston a legacy besides being a heartless liar (Bowling for Columbine). It’s also interesting how the material appeals so much to Republican leading men. First Heston, then Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to get it made, and now Will Smith. It’s odd….

The movie is one of the stupider films–just in terms of suspension of disbelief… it constantly contradicts itself. Obviously, screenwriters Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman are terrible (Goldsman wrote, for example, Batman and Robin among other attacks on filmic decency). But it’s really, really dumb. Almost impossible to describe how stupid. These jokers don’t, apparently, even know what the word ‘legend’ means and misuse it horribly.

Francis Lawrence is an okay director, though. He switches poorly between handheld and not, but he can compose a sequence with a good shock. Bad director of actors, but Will Smith playing a “smart” scientist (who does the stupidest things a protagonist has done in any film I can remember) is kind of hilarious. Like if Rob Schneider played FDR.

Also interesting is how most of the film’s sequences and ideas are lifted from better and much smaller-budgeted films. Warner took Resident Evil, 28 Days Later and the Omega Man screenplay they still owned and rolled it up in to a Will Smith Christmas movie. I can’t say holiday, because I Am Legend is a Christian movie. I’m shocked they didn’t play it up some more, trying to get church groups to go.

But the opening special effects, which every review has commented on, of the abandoned New York City, are excellent. Not as effective or good as Twelve Monkeys or Vanilla Sky, but good. The monsters are terrible CG… there’s a scene in the movie centered around Shrek and the CG in it looked more realistic than the monsters. It’s like they ran out of time, because at a very clear point, the CG effects team also stopped working so hard on the Manhattan backdrop.

But… yeah… if you’ve seen Omega Man and know how atrocious it is… it’s genius compared to this one.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Francis Lawrence; screenplay by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman, based on a screenplay by John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington and on a novel by Richard Matheson; director of photography, Andrew Lesnie; edited by Wayne Wahrman; music by James Newton Howard; production designers, David Lazan and Naomi Shohan; produced by Goldsman, David Heyman, James Lassiter, Neal H. Moritz and Erwin Stoff; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Will Smith (Robert Neville), Alice Braga (Anna), Charlie Tahan (Ethan), Salli Richardson (Zoe) and Willow Smith (Marley).


Collateral (2004, Michael Mann)

I actually had to go do some IMDb research (that bastion of scholarly data) before I started this post, because I had to know if Michael Mann intentionally made a movie starring Tom Cruise, with a reasonable Hollywood budget, and intentionally shot it to look like an episode of “Cops.” And he did. He wanted to make DV look like crap instead of like film. It’s interesting, all the things DV doesn’t work with–acting, for example. It’s particularly noticeable with Jamie Foxx, who doesn’t exactly give a crack performance, but he’s not terrible and there are these things he does with his expression the DV picks up, things film wouldn’t have picked up. Acting tells. Cruise probably has them too, but the DV makes his makeup look like he’s about to turn from Larry Talbot into the Wolf Man (a nickel to whoever gets that particular Pynchon reference). I kept expecting his eyebrows to fall off.

Mann’s handling of DV was far superior in Miami Vice–maybe it was technological, maybe it was understanding what kinds of scenes work in DV. A lot of Collateral is well-written. Probably the first hour and ten minutes, before Jamie Foxx starts to turn into an action hero. There’s some great dialogue at the beginning and a nice romantic scene, which Mann is always good with. But after a while, it ceases to be interesting. The story wraps up in a predictable manner and it’s rather limp.

It’s probably the wrong project for Mann… the characters are enigmatic, which he doesn’t do. His characters may be insane or something, but they’re always the protagonists. The closest thing Collateral has as a protagonist is the viewer–Cruise is the villain, Foxx is the pawn. Mark Ruffalo’s got some good scenes as a cop, but his pursuit of Cruise is ludicrous and hard to take serious (and who thought Ruffalo looked good with slicked back hair and a pierced ear?).

I could list the other ways Collateral fails–the music, specifically the soundtrack choices–but it’s all in the execution. It’s a sixty-five million dollar Hollywood movie… if it weren’t in DV and it had a less experimental director, it might have been a fun, empty suspense picture. But Mann’s use of that crappy DV and the presence of Cruise (in his most ineffectual performance in a while–he’s not bad, he just doesn’t have a character to play) suggests it’s supposed to be something more and it isn’t.

Thank goodness for the Panavision Genesis camera, which is gaining popularity. I never thought I’d see Michael Mann pretending he was making the Blair Witch Project. Worse… at least Blair Witch matched its story and its presentation. Collateral is kind of like… I can’t even think of a belittling simile. It’s embarrassing (not my figurative failure, but Mann’s actual one–especially given how strong the first hour is, when the DV was just a severe irritation).

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Mann; written by Stuart Beattie; directors of photography, Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron; edited by Jim Miller and Paul Rubell; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, David Wasco; produced by Mann and Julie Richardson; released by DreamWorks Pictures.

Starring Tom Cruise (Vincent), Jamie Foxx (Max), Jada Pinkett Smith (Annie), Mark Ruffalo (Fanning), Peter Berg (Richard Weidner) and Bruce McGill (Pedrosa).


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