Jennifer Connelly

Creation (2009, Jon Amiel)

Creation is the not the story of how Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) and the ghost of his oldest daughter (Martha West) collaborated in the writing of On the Origin of Species. That story would make a much better movie.

The film opens with a title card explaining it will be about Darwin writing that book, released in 1859. Some conversation early on places the present action in 1858. So a year. At this point, it’s been twenty years since he published Voyage of the Beagle. Some of those adventures show up in flashback–a flashback’s flashback–as Bettany recounts stories to West.

Well, at the beginning. Then not. The Beagle flashbacks are the biggest budgeted sequences in Creation and director Amiel treats them as set pieces. Only then such flashbacks (in flashbacks) stop and so do set pieces. Instead, it’s just Bettany hanging around at home, making churchy wife Jennifer Connelly real upset with his blasphemous manuscript and research. It seems like this narrative floundering is covering a lot of time but it turns out it isn’t. Amiel and screenwriter John Collee are terrible at pacing. Why do they need pacing when they can have Bettany talk to West (not an actual ghost, just a narrative contrivance). If only the exposition moved the film along.

After a promising first act, Creation settles into that “ghost” story. Amiel and Collee tease out details of West’s death in the present while flashing back, at first, to unrelated family bonding scenes. The flashbacks eventually get confusing because Bettany’s makeup for Darwin age forty-nine is bald with stringy hair, very pasty skin, a paunch. The film skips back seven and eight years to the West flashbacks–those seven actual years in between Darwin’s daughter’s death and the Species’s completion are apparently empty of worthy story material. Darwin age forty-two makeup is bald with stringy hair, mildly pasty skin, general nineteenth century upper class flab. It’s not hard to tell them apart, but only because Bettany’s good. But in terms of filmmaking–Amiel’s direction, Jess Hall’s flat photography–well, it’s good they have Bettany.

Also because it’s an entirely thankless part. Collee’s script is deceptively worse than first impression. It’s not bland biopic stuff, it’s bland biopic stuff without any characters. Amiel, whose direction is never better than mediocre (outside the special effects sequences of animal decomposition and so on), he at least tries occasionally. He really likes his close-ups. So the actors can spout either ominous lines (because of hiding daughter West’s fate in flashback) or exposition.

While Bettany’s got it bad, he at least gets to walk around in his make-up. Connelly is left to take care of the kids and give disapproving looks when Bettany doesn’t take his “war on God” seriously. And Connelly never really gets a role. She ends up with one poorly written, well-acted scene. It’s exceptionally impressive filmmaking from Amiel, Hall, and editor Melanie Oliver. It’s this entirely manipulative, cheap, soapy scene and it still works. Because Bettany and Connelly. Connelly gets some character motivation at what might as well be the end of the movie. There’s still more movie and it’s bad, but that moment is when Creation could’ve got out in the black.

But it doesn’t. Because Amiel and Collee are entirely artless with Creation. They want all to benefits of melodramatic contrivances without ever embracing those contrivances. There’s also the issue of how the film characterizes the religious. Caricaturizes. Connelly and Jeremy Northam (extended cameoing as the village clergy) are inappropriately villainized. But meaning they need to be villainized differently. There’s no dramatic fodder in it as is.

Bettany’s good. Not great. Better than decent or fine. West is decent. Connelly is problematic; the part’s crap. Northam’s cameo is too thin. Ditto Toby Jones. He’s bombastic though. Energy is a lot in Creation, as the film stops producing any once the second act hits. Benedict Cumberbatch is good. He tries.

If there’s a great film about the final year of Darwin writing Species, Creation sure ain’t it. Amiel’s just too bland a director to save the film from the script. It could’ve at least maintained mediocre, but as it becomes more and more clear how bad Collee’s plotting and pacing is going to get… well, mediocre’s way out of reach.

The awful Christopher Young score doesn’t help either.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jon Amiel; screenplay by John Collee, based on a story by Amiel and Collee and a book by Randal Keynes; director of photography, Jess Hall; edited by Melanie Oliver; music by Christopher Young; production designer, Laurence Dorman; produced by Jeremy Thomas; released by Icon Film Distribution.

Starring Paul Bettany (Charles Darwin), Jennifer Connelly (Emma Darwin), Martha West (Annie Darwin), Jeremy Northam (Reverend Innes), Benedict Cumberbatch (Joseph Hooker), Jim Carter (Parslow), Bill Paterson (Dr. Gully), and Toby Jones (Thomas Huxley).


Labyrinth (1986, Jim Henson)

Every so often, Labyrinth plays like an episode of “Fraggle Rock” with special guest star David Bowie. Oddly, the film starts Bowie heavy but pretty soon he’s just popping in to remind the viewer he’s still around. His performance is terrible; his singing sequences are fine, especially how capably he acts with all the puppets.

It’s important too, because there’s nothing to Labyrinth without the puppets. Henson knows how to direct the puppets and his company knows how to make living creatures with them. It’s a shame none of this attention went into the story, which apes The Wizard of Oz more than a little.

Except Jennifer Connelly’s lead is unlikable for a long, long time. There are all sorts of hints at how her adventure in the magical goblin land relates to her real life, but the metaphors are undercooked. The film’s goal is more about showcasing what Henson and company can do.

And they can do quite a bit. Labyrinth is absolutely gorgeous. While the Alex Thomson photography doesn’t especially impress, John Grover’s editing is amazing.

Connelly is likable enough–eventually–but she doesn’t really have a character to play. Labyrinth doesn’t even spend time making the fantasy world seem real, which becomes clearer and clearer. Henson just needed to slow down and enjoy himself. Or maybe he really didn’t want to do anything with human actors.

Problems aside, there are some truly wondrous creature creations in the film and it goes by fast. Just way too fast.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jim Henson; screenplay by Terry Jones, based on a story by Dennis Lee and Henson; director of photography, Alex Thomson; edited by John Grover; music by Trevor Jones; production designer, Elliot Scott; produced by Eric Rattray; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring David Bowie (Jareth the Goblin King), Jennifer Connelly (Sarah), Toby Froud (Toby), Shelley Thompson (Stepmother), Christopher Malcolm (Father), Natalie Finland (Fairy), Shari Weiser & Brian Henson (Hoggle), Ron Mueck & Rob Mills (Ludo) and Dave Goelz & David Alan Barclay (Didymus).


The Hot Spot (1990, Dennis Hopper)

One of the most important things about a film noir is the ending. It has to be perfect. It doesn’t matter what comes before, the ending just has to be right. The Hot Spot is a film noir. It’s not a neo-noir. There’s an important distinction. Hopper seems very aware of that distinction; everything he does in the film engages it. But The Hot Spot‘s in color and the frame isn’t academy ratio–when it comes down to it, these differences are showier than the more obvious ones. What Hopper does is present a hard-boiled film noir with everything explicit–it’s not just the sex, it’s the violence. Neither are implied or hinted at–Hopper shows them both in detail. By the first violent scene, that angle completely overshadows the graphic sex. It’s so violent, it’s like he’s going too far (but it’s only fair, given how far he took the sex).

Oh, the ending. I kind of forgot about it (I wish I could).

The Hot Spot‘s ending is a dismal failure. The film’s shockingly good until the end. I never thought I’d be comparing Don Johnson to Robert Mitchum (before I even read the script was written, in 1962, for Mitchum), but he’s like Robert Mitchum here. His delivery of the dialogue is perfect. He’s got a real lack of affect–his eyes don’t emote–and it plays perfectly here. Watching his seemingly soulless character fill with hopes and dreams… it’s wonderful. Too bad about the end.

What happens at the end–and The Hot Spot takes a hit with its final pseudo-scene. A real big hit. Before, it’s already impaired, but the last shot is just rubbish. Anyway, what happens is simple. Dennis Hopper seems to think Virginia Madsen is giving a good performance and she should have more material. Madsen’s performance–and her Texan accent–is laughable. If it weren’t for Jennifer Connelly’s laughable performance (and Texan accent), it’d be stunning. It’s like Hopper casted both women based on their willingness to do nude scenes. Connelly’s character spends a lot of time being quiet and demure, so that awful accent isn’t popping up all the time. Madsen can’t shut up. Yap, yap, yap. It’s embarrassing to both Johnson and the film.

The end falls apart because Hopper relies on Madsen. I have no idea how it would have played with a good actor in her role–because, by the third act, it’s impossible to imagine anything but the horror of Madsen’s performance. It’s excruciating.

Hopper’s direction is excellent. Ueli Steiger’s photography is good (Wende Phifer Mate’s editing is lacking). The supporting cast–Charles Martin Smith especially–is great… Barry Corbin, Jerry Hardin. Only William Sadler (mostly because of his bad accent) is weak.

Until the last fifteen minutes, The Hot Spot was a veritable joy to watch. The ending’s such a misfire, it’s hard to believe no one said anything about it while they were filming. Like a rigger looked up from plugging in some lights and said, “This is terrible.”

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Dennis Hopper; screenplay by Nona Tyson and Charles Wiliams, based on a novel by Williams; director of photography, Ueli Steiger; edited by Wende Phifer Mate; music by Jack Nitzsche; production designer, Cary White; produced by Paul Lewis; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Don Johnson (Harry Madox), Virginia Madsen (Dolly Harshaw), Jennifer Connelly (Gloria Harper), Charles Martin Smith (Lon Gulick), William Sadler (Frank Sutton), Jerry Hardin (George Harshaw), Barry Corbin (Sheriff), Leon Rippy (Deputy Tate), Jack Nance (Julian Ward), Virgil Frye (Deputy Buck) and John Hawker (Uncle Mort).


Dark City (1998, Alex Proyas), the director’s cut

I’m not sure if anything actually goes wrong with Dark City. There’s the significant music problem (Trevor Jones’s score seems more appropriate for a car commercial; it’s missing any subtext or delicacy), but there’s nothing else wrong. The acting is all fantastic–Richard O’Brien gives the best performance, making his evil alien human–and Alex Proyas composes fantastic shots.

The action-packed ending does seem a little off, both in terms of story and direction, I suppose. Proyas seems to be making a loud action picture instead of the quiet, peculiar one he was making a few minutes before. He’s got to visualize super-telepathy and it comes off poorly. Dark City‘s probably filled with references to other films–the one I noticed during the majority of the film was Metropolis, but the end mimics the Krypton destruction from Superman. The tone really doesn’t fit.

But where I wish Proyas had taken more time was with the characters. The last line implies the whole film’s been about characters, but it wasn’t. One of the major reveals (in this director’s cut, anyway… in the original version, there aren’t any reveals) makes the characters having great importance, overall, problematic if not impossible. And the end sort of ignores that condition, even though the end only exists because of that condition.

It’s very confusing… as is the problem of food in the film. No one seems to eat.

Proyas opens Dark City as a Panavision, vividly lighted film noir (or tries to) but there’s clearly something off. He loves the style though, as his introduction of Jennifer Connelly demonstrates. She’s a lounge singer and he goes through great lengths to bring that scene–an absolutely useless one, narratively–in as well as he can. But its narrative superfluousness is almost immediately apparent (Connelly subsequently has a real scene); tight as he is with his direction–until that last fight scene–Proyas is exceptionally loose with the script. He concentrates on the unimportant. There’s one particular scene–O’Brien and Rufus Sewell–where O’Brien tells Sewell his secret and it’s such a bad, expositional, needless line, I sat bewildered for the next thirty seconds.

The film’s very romantic–Sewell and Connelly, William Hurt’s solitary noir detective–but Proyas’s handling of the material is cynical. He’s not interested in the human component, except in minute doses. Sometimes, like O’Brien’s frequent ones, it works. Most times it simply isn’t enough.

Like I said before, all the acting’s good, with Sewell an excellent leading man, Connelly even better when she’s in the lead (but it doesn’t last long, only until Sewell can assume the protagonist role), and Hurt steady. Hurt’s performance is a fully competent, completely assured turn… but he seems the wrong choice for it. Of course he can do the performance, but it’s William Hurt–he can do a lot more. When it’s him and Connelly for the first third, it’s real good. Kiefer Sutherland’s fine as the mad scientist too. But towards the end he sort of becomes the lead character for a while and that approach might have been a better one for Proyas to take.

I haven’t seen Dark City for eight or nine years–about twenty minutes in, I remembered the original DVD was an early reference disc–and I’m not sure I watched it more than once initially. Its epical plot concerns itself so much with providing an intriguing journey–not to mention the visual sumptuousness–there’s something missing in terms of emotional engagement. The acting makes up for some of that absence, but given how often the script works intentionally and directly against such an engagement… it can only do so much.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alex Proyas; screenplay by Proyas, Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer, based on a story by Proyas; director of photography, Dariusz Wolski; edited by Dov Hoenig; music by Trevor Jones; production designers, George Liddle and Patrick Tatopoulos; produced by Andrew Mason and Proyas; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Rufus Sewell (John Murdoch), William Hurt (Inspector Frank Bumstead), Kiefer Sutherland (Dr. Daniel P. Schreber), Jennifer Connelly (Emma Murdoch), Richard O’Brien (Mr. Hand), Ian Richardson (Mr. Book), Bruce Spence (Mr. Wall), Colin Friels (Det. Eddie Walenski), John Bluthal (Karl Harris), Mitchell Butel (Officer Husselbeck), Melissa George (May) and Frank Gallacher (Chief Insp. Stromboli).


The Rocketeer (1991, Joe Johnston)

Joe Johnston never getting recognition for The Rocketeer astounds me. Johnston creates a perfect adventure film, a now neglected and abused genre. Additionally, Johnston never fetishizes the historical setting. The late 1930s, Nazis as villains setting is practically its own genre at this point (strange how after a half decade, there are so few choices of undeniable evil for storytellers to use–well, at least ones white Americans would care about), but The Rocketeer never lets it get goofy. Johnston lets other, familiar trappings of the era (at least as it’s celebrated in film)–the radio, the friends at the cafe–take precedent. The Rocketeer puts more stock in California oranges than the more sensational possibilities.

And this emphasis is in a film featuring the FBI teaming up with the mob to shoot it out with Nazis in the middle of Los Angeles.

Past Johnston, the beauty of The Rocketeer is in the script, which is odd, given the screenwriters’ other work. The film starts gradually, with a beautiful flight sequence (James Horner’s score, again highly derivative of his other scores, is essential and wonderful). Having Alan Arkin helps, the script’s still responsible for immediately establishing the characters. Only during the first forty-five minutes of the film is it unsure… it’s good, but it isn’t fantastic. The big problem is the attention given to Jennifer Connelly. She’s the girlfriend and she’s kind of there. The Rocketeer makes an odd choice of introducing she and Bill Campbell’s relationship to the viewer when it’s on shaky ground. And the viewer doesn’t know it’s on shaky ground.

And here again is where The Rocketeer is strange. That instability agitates the plot until all the elements meet–not a revolutionary process, but in The Rocketeer it isn’t about set pieces, it isn’t about melodrama, it’s about actual human concern. The film’s enthralled by the idea people care about each other and it’s infectious.

Eventually, Connelly becomes a leading lady. I was entirely unimpressed with her as the film started and the exact opposite when it ended. It’s kind of a cheat, since the viewer gets to see her become that lead. Connelly’s transition kicks off the film’s third act, which is the finest adventure film act I can think of. It’s absolutely perfect, doesn’t make a single wrong move.

Campbell’s good in the lead–making the goofball dreamer real while still endearing him. He and Connelly are great together (better as the narrative progresses and a sequel with them as leads would have been lovely). Arkin’s fantastic, he and Campbell have some great scenes. Terry O’Quinn’s also good as Howard Hughes. Where Campbell really succeeds, coming in a practical nobody with some (supporting) TV experience, is maintaining himself as the lead when he’s got to contend with Timothy Dalton. As the villain, Dalton’s incredible. In anything else, he would walk away with the picture.

Dalton gets a lot of help from the script–there’s stuff in here I couldn’t believe I was hearing under a Disney Pictures banner. The script’s got some great dialogue and a lot of Disney-unfriendly one-liners. Dalton gets almost all of them. But the script’s also got a lot of discrete sensitivity and some wonderful little details.

I was concerned with The Rocketeer, not having seen it in ten years and the film’s online supporters waning in recent years. Even with the strong filmmaking, the narrative seemed troubled. It never occurred to me it might just be a real script.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Johnston; screenplay by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, story by Bilson, De Meo and William Dear, based on the comic book by Dave Stevens; director of photography, Hiro Narita; edited by Arthur Schmidt; music by James Horner; production designer, Jim Bissell; produced by Lawrence Gordon, Charles Gordon and Lloyd Levin; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Bill Campbell (Cliff), Jennifer Connelly (Jenny), Alan Arkin (Peevy), Timothy Dalton (Neville Sinclair), Paul Sorvino (Eddie Valentine), Terry O’Quinn (Howard Hughes), Ed Lauter (Fitch), James Handy (Wolinski), Tiny Ron (Lothar), Jon Polito (Otis Bigelow), Eddie Jones (Malcolm the Mechanic), William Sanderson (Skeets), Don Pugsley (Goose), Nada Despotovich (Irma) and Margo Martindale (Millie).


Hulk (2003, Ang Lee)

Hulk had a huge box office drop-off after its opening weekend–wow, almost seventy percent. It’s actually somewhat lucky, because I’d have thought people would have gotten up and walked out of the theater. The Hulk doesn’t show up until about an hour into the movie and doesn’t do anything interesting for another half hour after the first appearance. There’s a lot of angst in the first couple Hulk appearances, before it finally gets to him fighting tanks and such. The tank fights and the helicopter fights and the Hulk jumping all over the place–those scenes Ang Lee does all right with. The Hulk doesn’t look “real” in any of the close-ups, but given how unbelievable the acting is from the principals… ILM’s Hulk by far gives the film’s best performance.

The worst performance is–just because it’s so absurdly easy–Josh Lucas. I don’t remember him from anything else, but his big business scientist seems to be an homage to… Himmler, maybe. The actor is bad, nothing else. For all the pseudo-angst Lee and James Schamus drown Hulk in, they don’t mind one of their principal characters being shallower than a piece of newsprint. I think they even gave Lucas extra blue eyes, though I’m not sure why… It’s a horrific performance, but the terrible writing contributes.

The other two–primary–terrible performances are Jennifer Connelly and Eric Bana. Bana hurts the most, since he’s the ostensible lead (it’s really Nick Nolte). Either Bana was on tranquilizers the whole time or mastering getting rid of his Australian accent also removed all animation. Connelly–for the first half–acts with her hair. Once they change the style, though, look out. She’s incapable of doing anything realistically. A big problem with Hulk seems to be casting actors who think the project is crap. Both Bana and Connelly are abjectly disinterested in their performances.

Sam Elliot’s also bad, but that one’s not particularly surprising.

Once again, Nick Nolte shows off just what he can do with a wacky, crazed role and turns in the film’s most sympathetic character.

Lee’s stylistic choices are car wreck interesting. For example, what were the producers thinking trusting Lee with a $140 million budget (glib answer, they weren’t). Lee can’t handle the money, but the other choices he makes–the split screens meant to imitate comic book panels (doesn’t work) or using comic sans as the movie’s font (that one should get one ejected from the DGA, if not incarcerated). But at the beginning, when Lee’s zooming in on all sorts of molecules and lab animals and doing all sorts of dumb fades, Hulk actually works as a super-budget b-movie from the 1950s (the dangers of nuclear power and all). It’s interesting to look at, interesting to experience. Of course, once the Hulk shows up, Lee flushes all that stylization (but sticks to his multi-screen thing, which seems more inspired by security cameras than comic books).

Hulk is a disaster, as the lack of a definite article should suggest, but it’s a disaster caused by incompetence. How hard is it to mess up a big green guy breaking stuff? Very easy, apparently.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ang Lee; written by John Turman, Michael France and James Schamus, based on a story by Schamus and the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Frederick Elmes; edited by Tim Squyres; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Rick Heinrichs; produced by Gale Anne Hurd, Avi Arad, Schamus and Larry J. Franco; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Eric Bana (Bruce Banner), Jennifer Connelly (Betty Ross), Sam Elliott (Ross), Josh Lucas (Talbot) and Nick Nolte (Father).


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