John Malkovich

Space Force (2020)

Unloved and Misunderstood

“Space Force” | Season one, 10 episodes | Netflix, 2020

While comedic sitcoms usually take a while to find their footing on the way to a successful vehicle, the creators of “Space Force” seem to be striding the fence here in their pursuit of a balance between comedy and darker social satire. Steve Carnell and Greg Daniels have literally packed each 30 min episode with enough material to stretch it to an hour, but that would effect the flow too much, so “Space Force” conforms to the half hour format in hopes of finding an audience with the average limited attention span for comedies these days.

Carnell plays the general in charge of Space Force, Trump’s latest invention to keep his simple take on reality and romantic notion of what armed forces should be now. Now I should state that Trump is never mentioned by name, nor are really any references here specific, but alert sycophants should pick it up they’re talking about here and now. While some of these jokes are simple and obvious, “Space Force” is loaded with quieter, subtler, textural elements that belie more than just your typical half hour sitcom.

First, casting John Malkovich as his civilian counterpart, is a perfect compliment/foil for Carell’s by the numbers, stiff, obedient military character. They really don’t plow against one another in the typical protagonist/antagonist relationship, but rather compliment each other in their cooperation and clashes, bringing for a genuinely unique approach to what one would be expecting from such a relationship. The setting of “Space Force,” with its pseudo sci-fi action genre, makes the most of the thirty minute drive toward a conclusion with lots of tidbits that you have to look for to appreciate totally. It’s not necessarily about the absurd reality of its situation, but the reactions and motivations of its characters here that keep you interested. The nuances of their relationships, coinciding with the genuinely human dictates of what they’re about drive your interest.

It has plenty of humor, but no laugh tracks here, you either are paying attention and getting the jibes, or you’re not, which is ok. The serious manner depicting its characters gives it a feel of caring and understanding, not two dimensional characters in service of the unusual two plot story carried to a neat conclusion, but gives it an outlier feel.

Also present in this dramedy are some solid use of bit casting, giving its humor weight and double take seriousness for a two edged sword type of approach. While it’s finding its way, Space Force never goes the easy route in its ten episodes (except for perhaps the one featuring a competition between two warring military factions to control Space Force). Also wildly unusual are Carell’s relationships with his wife (Lisa Kudrow, of all actors, who was thrown in jail for life after the first episode for a reason we still don’t know), his complicated, uncomfortable yet very funny scenes with a female head contractor at the base, and his abrasive, yet acceptable ones with his rival heads of the other branches of the armed services of whom Space Force is consuming larger monetary budgets than theirs. Jimmy Yang, quietly and carefully understated as Malkovich’s head assistant, and Tawny Hewsome, as Carell’s aide de camp in a spectrum of roles, are fleshed out nicely, and add greatly to overall recipe. Perhaps Diana Silvers, as his put upon daughter, is still in its developmental infancy stage, is the least satisfying, but since she plays it straight and isn’t out of place I’ll forgive this.

The stories of “Space Force” aren’t just about the ridiculousness of the current world and of the current Washington administration, or even the semi fantasy world the characters live in. While it’s finding its feet in its first ten episodes while trying something different, it succeeds more often than not, and I genuinely hope to see a second to witness whether they succeed. A personal experiment for Carell and Daniels, one that deserves to find an audience and reach its conclusion.

Jonah Hex (2010, Jimmy Hayward)

If you ever find yourself not believing in the idea that White people of wanting talent can fail upward, watch Jonah Hex. Every one of the principals from the film worked again when, based on the film as evidence, maybe John Malkovich should’ve gotten another job. Sure, Josh Brolin isn’t terrible in the lead, but it’s not like he acts enough you’d think there’s something to him as a talent. Michael Fassbender and Megan Fox are just plain bad, though Fassbender’s failing at a part, Fox isn’t even acting a part enough to fail at it. Of course, she is sympathetic because Hex really likes victimizing Fox, the only woman in the cast with a speaking part.

At least, with multiple scenes and a speaking part.

The film runs an indeterminable seventy-five minutes (eighty with end credits); it feels closer to a couple hours just because it’s so boring in its badness. The only times Hex gins up any energy is when it’s being surprisingly bad in some way or another, like when Black man in 1876 Lance Reddick has to tell Brolin he knows he wasn’t racist when he was a Confederate soldier, he just didn’t like following orders.

Hex is a heritage not hate bunch of nonsense from 2010. It’s a very lazy film and could have just as easily not had the sexism, the racial optics, some ableism, and given everyone less work and based on everything else in the picture, they’d have embraced it, but screenwriters Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor had some very definite places they wanted to go with the film. Ick places.

It’s a stunningly bad lead turn from Brolin. Yes, it’s clear director Hayward has no idea to direct actors—or even whether or not he should be directing them; I swear in a couple scenes it looks like Fox is glancing off screen for some kind of guidance. Or editors Kent Beyda, Daniel P. Hanley, Tom Lewis, and Fernando Villena just do bad work. Yes, all four of them for a seventy-five minute movie. Hex reuses at least three minutes of the same footage, bringing the “original” footage runtime down to seventy-two, then throw in another couple for the opening animated sequence, which Brolin narrates and recaps what happens between the prologue and the present action, and you’re down to seventy.

And for a seventy minute “intense Western action” adaptation of a comic book… Jonah Hex is still surprisingly bad. Incompetent might be the best word, but no worries, both producers failed up.

The only reasonable performance is Malkovich, who gets through it without any exertion or ambition, but without any failings either. He’s perfectly fine as a Confederate general who fakes his death so he can come back and firebomb the U.S.A.’s first centennial celebration with a steampunk super weapon. Sadly it’s about the only steampunk thing in the film, outside some explosive crossbow guns Reddick makes for Brolin; steampunk might at least be interesting.

Hayward’s a terrible director. He’s not good at action, either with explosions, guns, horses, fists, knives, or whatever else. Jonah Hex makes you realize what truly bad ideas Hollywood producers have about what makes something good.

Maybe the only thing I’m grateful about with Hex—other than the runtime—is not recognizing Michael Shannon, who seems to have a cameo and I do remember seeing someone who looks a little like him but thinking it was Neal McDonough. Wes Bentley’s quite recognizable and quite bad. One has to wonder what Malkovich thinks of acting opposite people who can’t make bad material palatable.

Will Arnett and John Gallagher Jr. have small parts I hope they talked to their agents about recommending.

Jonah Hex is a crappy movie and not in any interesting ways.

Oh, and Aidan Quinn. Poor, poor Aidan Quinn. He too hopefully had a long talk with his agent.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jimmy Hayward; screenplay by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, based on a story by William Farmer, Neveldine, and Taylor, and the DC Comics character created by John Albano and Tony DeZuniga; director of photography, Mitchell Amundsen; edited by Kent Beyda, Daniel P. Hanley, Tom Lewis, and Fernando Villena; music by Marco Beltrami and Mastodon; production designer, Tom Meyer; costume designer, Michael Wilkinson; produced by Akiva Goldsman and Andrew Lazar; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Josh Brolin (Jonah Hex), John Malkovich (Quentin Turnbull), Michael Fassbender (Burke), Megan Fox (Lilah), Will Arnett (Lieutenant Grass), John Gallagher Jr. (Lieutenant Evan), Lance Reddick (Smith), Wes Bentley (Adleman Lusk), Tom Wopat (Colonel Slocum), Michael Shannon (Doc Cross Williams), and Aidan Quinn as the President of the United States.


Johnny English (2003, Peter Howitt)

Johnny English runs just under ninety minutes, which is one of the film’s secret weapons–nothing ever goes on too long, not the good stuff, not the bad stuff, not the mediocre stuff. There’s not a lot of bad stuff–more varying degrees of mediocre; when things then get better, when things finally pay off, it’s a cause for celebration. When Johnny English gets funny, it gets funny.

The film is a Rowan Atkinson vehicle masquerading as an incredibly safe James Bond spoof. Atkinson is a British Security Service office worker who gets promoted to number one agent. Because, through his incompetence, everyone else has been killed. Somehow his boss, Tim Pigott-Smith, never holds Atkinson accountable for the very inept and dangerous things he’s done, instead railing on him for the things where Atkinson is actually right.

Like how French private prison-owning billionaire John Malkovich is a bad guy.

Malkovich is another of English’s secret weapons, because he doesn’t play his part like a Bond villain. He plays it like a goofy Malkovich comedy part. He’s never outrageous or campy–unfortunately–but he’s always got enough energy to make the scenes work. Atkinson never gets to be showy. Malkovich gets to be showy. He’s the only one who gets to be showy.

Bringing us to the other–and probably last–secret weapon: Ben Miller. He plays Atkinson’s subordinate. Miller is the spy office peon who should be the secret agent. There’s a lengthy period where Miller’s not in the film and Atkinson is playing sidekick to real secret agent Natalie Imbruglia and Malkovich isn’t really in the movie and it gets long. There are also too many poop jokes. Because without Miller and Malkovich around, English has to go into the literal potty to get some humor going.

Because Imbruglia doesn’t bring anything. It’s not a great part and she’s not terrible, but she’s got no presence and less personality. Her comic timing–at least in her timing as it reacts to Atkinson–is fine though.

Atkinson has some great physical comedy in English. Nowhere near enough, but the movie wouldn’t really know what to do with any more. Director Howitt does an adequate, uninspired job. He doesn’t get in the way of the good jokes and he doesn’t make the bad ones any worse. So he wouldn’t know what to do with more physical comedy. Howitt’s impatient, while everyone else seems completely comfortable not being rushed. Not ninety minutes but also not rushed. The film’s self-awareness about its limitations increases its charm.

Anyway, back to Atkinson. He’s good. He’s hilarious at times. His straight man performance as the stupid secret agent is most impressive–at least during the expository scenes–in how seriously Atkinson takes the part. He’s going for it’s funny because he’s so serious. When other actors aren’t as serious about their parts as Atkinson, it hurts. Imbruglia, for example. Miller gets it, Malkovich gets it. Pigott-Smith not really.

Of course, the writing tends to be thin. Pigott-Smith not transcending the caricature isn’t entire his fault.

Howitt’s lack of enthusiasm for directing his actors–he showcases the comedy, focusing tightly on the comedy, not the actors essaying it–doesn’t help either.

Technically the film’s fine. Nothing stands out, good or bad. The music isn’t overtly “Bond,” which is kind of nice, and the Robbie Williams theme song is fun.

Thanks to Atkinson (and the professionally executed production), it’d be difficult for Johnny English to fail too hard. It’s both a surprisingly pleasant comedy and a not insignificant disappointment. With Atkinson, Miller, and Malkovich, it seems like it could be better. However, it’s not clear if it should be any better.

Additionally… if you’re going to have Prunella Scales play the Queen, give her at least one joke. What should be an inspired comedic casting is instead an end credits curio.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Howitt; written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and William Davies; director of photography, Remi Adefarasin; edited by Robin Sales; music by Ed Shearmur; production designer, Chris Seagers; produced by Eric Fellner, Mark Huffam, and Lucette Legot; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Rowan Atkinson (Johnny English), John Malkovich (Pascal Sauvage), Natalie Imbruglia (Lorna Campbell), Ben Miller (Bough), Tim Pigott-Smith (Pegasus), Oliver Ford Davies (Archbishop of Canterbury), and Kevin McNally (Prime Minister).


Shadow of the Vampire (2000, E. Elias Merhige)

Shadow of the Vampire opens with some title cards explaining the setup. Well, it opens with some title cards explaining the setup after what feels like nine minute opening titles. In reality… it’s six. Vampire ostensibly runs ninety-five minutes.

Anyway. The title cards setup the making of Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s highly influential 1922 vampire film. The cards end saying Nosferatu is going to establish Murnau as one of “the greatest directors of all time,” which would imply Vampire’s going to be very positive about Nosferatu and Murnau.

Not so much as it turns out. John Malkovich plays Murnau. The movie presents him as a pretentious dick, which you’d think Malkovich could easily play, but not so much. Steven Katz’s script is particularly wanting in the Murnau characterization department. Besides a visit to a sex club and drug use, there’s nothing to Malkovich’s character. He gets the least character development of anyone in the film. Except Eddie Izzard, who gets ingloriously chucked at some point. Anyway. Murnau’s direction is always played for laughs in one way or another. Sometimes it’s in how Izzard (as the human lead in Nosferatu) acts, sometimes it’s in how Malkovich directs, but there’s always a bit of a joke. Sometimes there’s a lot of one. Shadow of the Vampire has some good laughs.

But Vampire’s not a biopic or non-fiction. It’s about how Malkovich has hired a real vampire (Willem Dafoe) to play the vampire in the movie. Two big problems. One, Dafoe’s a vampire who wants to kill people. Two, he’s not an actor. There’s some real funny stuff with Dafoe. It’s just not particularly good funny stuff. Vampire’s not a comedy. Director Merhige manages to get into the third act without ever fully committing to a tone. He eventually does pick one and, wow, it’s a bad choice.

But Dafoe. Let’s just get it out of the way. He’s phenomenal. His performance gets the humor in the situation, but never at the expense of being scary. Katz and Merhige never take advantage of that aspect of Dafoe’s performance–the spontaneity of it. Because they’re not doing particularly good work.

At no point does Vampire show much potential. Malkovich is chemistry-free with everyone, which is a problem when it comes to leading lady (barely in the movie, completely “harpy,” ultimate damsel-in-distress Catherine McCormack) who he’s apparently been intimate with. Kinky sex implication intimate. He uses it to control McCormack. But she’s barely in the movie–three scenes, maybe four.

He’s also no good with Udo Kier as Nosferatu’s producer, or Cary Elwes as the ladies man cameraman. Or Izzard, but he and Malkovich don’t actually share the screen much. Malkovich is usually directing Izzard in Nosferatu, not acting opposite him. Malkovich also doesn’t have any chemistry with Aden Gillett, who plays the Nosferatu screenwriter. Gillett’s got no purpose except suspect Dafoe and play well opposite Kier. So Merhige does get these actors need to play well off one another, he just doesn’t do anything to facilitate it. Kier and Gillett have one of the film’s best scenes, if not the best. They bond with Dafoe.

So while often amusing–and quick-paced, at the expense of logic and character development and narrative gestures–Vampire doesn’t have much heft. Then it tries to get some and it doesn’t work out. At all.

The third act’s a bust, with Merhige, Katz, and Malkovich the prime offenders. But mostly Katz. There’s nothing you can do with the third act as written. Then Malkovich, then Merhige. Merhige needed to figure out how to cover for Malkovich’s broad performance.

Kier and Elwes are all right. Same goes for McCormack and Izzard. After Dafoe, Gillett gives the best performance. No one gets enough to do, not even Dafoe. Kind of especially not Dafoe.

Technically it’s a little dull, but still colorful. Lou Bogue’s photography doesn’t do crisp. Chris Wyatt’s editing is good. He knows how to cut for the comedy. Dan Jones’s music isn’t memorable.

Merhige’s composition is a little too tight, his narrative impulses aren’t good–somehow he still keeps a nice, brisk pace–he’s indifferent to actors’ performances. Lots, but nothing to really suggest how bad the movie’s going to close.

It’s worth seeing for Dafoe’s performance. And maybe Malkovich’s if you don’t like him. Vampire pretends Malkovich is giving a great performance–one where he has chemistry with Dafoe and whatnot–but Malkovich doesn’t even put in enough effort to pretend anything similar. It’s a problem.

Vampire’s got too many problems.

BOMB

CREDITS

Directed by E. Elias Merhige; written by Steven Katz; director of photography, Lou Bogue; edited by Chris Wyatt; music by Dan Jones; production designer, Assheton Gorton; produced by Nicolas Cage and Jeff Levine; released by Lions Gate Films.

Starring John Malkovich (Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau), Willem Dafoe (Max Schreck), Udo Kier (Albin Grau), Eddie Izzard (Gustav von Wangenheim), Aden Gillett (Henrik Galeen), Cary Elwes (Fritz Arno Wagner), Ronan Vibert (Wolfgang Müller), and Catherine McCormack (Greta Schröder).


Making Mr. Right (1987, Susan Seidelman)

Making Mr. Right feels a little incomplete. It’s not entirely unexpected as Floyd Byars and Laurie Frank’s script plays loose with subplots–even after the film forecasts its basic structure, it loses track of a lot, and some essential scenes happen offscreen. The subsequent reveals in the narrative (to other characters and the audience) never play for enough surprise value to cover the missing moments.

One has to wonder what got cut.

Director Seidelman keeps things moving over the absences, having structured the picture into two separate parts in the first act. Ann Magnuson runs an ad agency, has a crappy congressman for a boyfriend and client (a delightfully bland Ben Masters); she’s also got a somewhat annoying family and friend situation intruding. Then she gets a contract to promote an android in time to get Congress to continue funding. John Malkovich is the android and the inventor.

The film keeps Magnuson’s life bisected. Even when Malkovich, in either of his roles, crosses over into Magnuson’s personal life–her misadventures with the android, even out on the town, are work stuff–but even when Malkovich is present in the personal life, Seidelman and editor Andrew Mondshein keep it somewhat separate. For example, Malkovich doesn’t really have any scenes with Magnuson and anyone else (outside Masters); but he’s present in some of the scenes. It’s just not somewhere Seidelman takes the film.

And it gets to be a problem in the third act when all of a sudden Malkovich has got a character arc of his own. As the android. The human inventor Malkovich has a second act subplot where Laurie Metcalf is trying to put a ring on it, which just ends up jumpstart Malkovich the android’s character development only to abruptly end it. Making Mr. Right runs almost 100 minutes and feels like a good twenty minutes are missing.

One of the film’s complete subplots–which the film contrives to intersect with the main plot to end the second act–involves Magnuson’s friend Glenne Headly. Headly’s having marriage problems and bunks up with Magnuson, ostensibly to give Magnuson someone to play off at home but the Headly subplot’s too good and overshadows Magnuson’s romance-induced ennui. Headly’s married to soap opera star Hart Bochner–who initially shows up onscreen in his cheesy soap with absurd hair–and Seidelman gets a lot out of having Headly around. Magnuson never gets to be silly, just frantic and stressed. Headly gets to have some fun.

Making Mr. Right is all about its actors–Magnuson, Malkovich, Headly–with Seidelman striving to facilitate as best she can. Malkovich and Magnuson both get some degree of physical comedy and they’re great at it. Malkovich plays the android with more soul than the inventor. The inventor part Malkovich does stiff and deadpan. The android is absurd and sincere. There are some scenes between Malkovich’s two characters–Magnuson drives past a theater showing The Parent Trap–but the film avoids them. Malkovich is only able to get one of his parts out of caricature as a result. He chooses well, but with some more time, who knows what Malkovich and Seidelman could get done.

Magnuson has a similar situation of underutilization, also because of the script. After all the intricate setup, Byars and Frank don’t keep subplots moving in the background. At least, not enough of them to compensate for the changes in the film’s narrative flow.

Making Mr. Right is a solid comedy. Great performances, some great scenes; overall, it’s a moderate success. But with a better third act, thanks to Magnuson, Malkovich, and Seidelman, it could’ve gone further.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Susan Seidelman; written by Floyd Byars and Laurie Frank; director of photography, Edward Lachman; edited by Andrew Mondshein; music by Chaz Jankel; production designer, Barbara Ling; produced by Joel Tuber and Mike Wise; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Ann Magnuson (Frankie Stone), John Malkovich (Dr. Jeff Peters / Ulysses), Glenne Headly (Trish), Ben Masters (Steve Marcus), Polly Bergen (Estelle Stone), Harsh Nayyar (Dr. Ramdas), Laurie Metcalf (Sandy), and Hart Bochner (Don).


Jennifer Eight (1992, Bruce Robinson)

Jennifer Eight ought to be a lot more tolerable, but writer-director Robinson hinges everything on Andy Garcia being likable. Garcia starts out all right, but he can’t sell–or doesn’t even try to sell–his police detective (or crime lab technician, it’s unclear). Garcia becomes obsessed with a case. It’s his first case at a new job, surrounded by new colleagues. They all think he’s annoying and irrational.

And neither Garcia’s performance, nor Robinson’s script, gives anyone any reason to think otherwise. Robinson just pretends Garcia is going to sell it and he doesn’t.

The film is full of character actors giving good performances–Lance Henriksen, Kevin Conway, Bob Gunton, Kathy Baker, Graham Beckel. Working actors who bring something to thinly written roles. The outliers are Garcia, leading lady Uma Thurman (as a blind witness he inexplicably romances–they have zero chemistry) and John Malkovich. Thurman’s good too, lack of chemistry aside.

But Garcia doesn’t just bring something to the role. Robinson gives the character all sorts of ticks–playing with his lighter, sniffing liquor since he doesn’t drink anymore–and they all seem intended to distract from Garcia not being able to sell any of the part. He’s not convincing as an obsessed detective, not convincing as a love interest for Thurman. It’d be a mess if there was any enthusiasm.

Sadly, there’s some good production work–great photography from Conrad L. Hall, a nice score from Christopher Young–and not bad composition from Robinson.

It’s just lame.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Bruce Robinson; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Conrad Buff IV; music by Christopher Young; production designer, Richard Macdonald; produced by Gary Lucchesi and David Wimbury; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Andy Garcia (John Berlin), Uma Thurman (Helena), Lance Henriksen (Freddy Ross), Kathy Baker (Margie Ross), Kevin Conway (Citrine), Graham Beckel (John Taylor), Lenny von Dohlen (Blattis), Bob Gunton (Goodridge), Paul Bates (Venables), Perry Lang (Travis), Bryan Larkin (Bobby Rose), Nicholas Love (Bisley), Michael O’Neill (Serato) and John Malkovich (St. Anne).


Red 2 (2013, Dean Parisot)

Red 2 is a lot of fun. It’s so much fun, in fact, most of its problems are never obvious during the actual film, only on later reflection.

The film opens quickly–Bruce Willis and Mary-Louise Parker going shopping seems to be very fast, but turns out to be one of the slowest sections of the movie–and never stops. Towards the finish, the film hits a lot of unexpected twists and every pause eventually becomes suspect. Director Parisot and writers Jon and Erich Hoeber are stunningly confident in the film, its script and primarily its cast.

Red 2 wouldn’t work without two components… its female actors, Helen Mirren and Parker. Even though the cast is respectable, Mirren makes the thing regal. And Parker brings humanity to the film, which often plays its sexagenarian ultra-violence for laughs. They’re the glue of the film.

Parisot and the Hoeber brothers actually trust the viewer quite a bit throughout. John Malkovich and Willis have a lot of friendship establishing scenes at the front, then less and less as the picture moves on. But the later scenes rely on the viewer’s recall.

Malkovich is utterly fantastic. His background ticks alone make the film worth seeing.

Willis’s role is easy and he’s good; he and Parker have a lovely chemistry.

Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta Jones are adequate as far as the cast additions; Lee Byung-hun is the strongest.

Red 2 has some not insignificant problems, but it’s a definite, assured success.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Dean Parisot; screenplay by Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber, based on characters created by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner; director of photography, Enrique Chediak; edited by Don Zimmerman; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Jim Clay; produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Mark Vahradian; released by Summit Entertainment.

Starring Bruce Willis (Frank), John Malkovich (Marvin), Mary-Louise Parker (Sarah), Helen Mirren (Victoria), Anthony Hopkins (Bailey), Lee Byung-hun (Han Cho Bai), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Katja), Neal McDonough (Jack Horton), David Thewlis (The Frog), Garrick Hagon (Davis), Tim Pigott-Smith (Director Philips) and Brian Cox (Ivan).


Con Air (1997, Simon West), the extended edition

I loathed Con Air back when I first saw it. I’ve only seen it that one time, opening night thirteen years ago. And many of my complaints at the time still hold true–Nicolas Cage is awful, John Cusack is awful (worse, his jokes fall flat), Simon West is a terrible director (but thirteen years later he’s not as bad as the mainstream directors who’ve followed) and the music is bad. All those complaints do hold true. The writing’s really bad in parts too, mostly as how it relates to Cage and his wife. Monica Potter plays the wife.

But it’s a whole lot of fun to watch John Malkovich go crazy as a poorly written bad guy. Malkovich is so good chewing up the scenery here, I realized him never getting to play Lex Luthor is one of the great Hollywood tragedies. I don’t know if he had fun here, but it sure seems like it.

The supporting cast is mostly impeccable–I haven’t seen one of these Bruckheimer super-cast movies in a while–except Colm Meaney. Meaney is awful.

But Ving Rhames, Mykelti Williamson, Rachel Ticotin and M.C. Gainey? They’re all amazing. Or Steve Buscemi, charged with making a Dahmer-like serial killer likable? Buscemi practically makes the movie on his own.

One of the other big failures is the CG and the composite shots. And the hair. Cage’s extensions look ridiculous and Cusack looks like he refused to cut his hair so they greased it back.

It’s diverting Hollywood junk food.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Simon West; written by Scott Rosenberg; director of photography, David Tattersall; edited by Chris Lebenzon, Steve Mirkovich and Glen Scantlebury; music by Mark Mancina and Trevor Rabin; produced by Jerry Bruckheimer; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Nicolas Cage (Cameron Poe), John Cusack (U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin), John Malkovich (Cyrus ‘The Virus’ Grissom), Ving Rhames (Nathan ‘Diamond Dog’ Jones), Nick Chinlund (William ‘Billy Bedlam’ Bedford), Steve Buscemi (Garland ‘The Marietta Mangler’ Greene), Colm Meaney (DEA Agent Duncan Malloy), Rachel Ticotin (Guard Sally Bishop), Dave Chappelle (Joe ‘Pinball’ Parker), Mykelti Williamson (Mike ‘Baby-O’ O’Dell), Danny Trejo (Johnny ‘Johnny-23’ Baca), M.C. Gainey (Swamp Thing), Steve Eastin (Guard Falzon), Renoly Santiago (Ramon ‘Sally-Can’t Dance’ Martinez) and Monica Potter (Tricia Poe).


Red (2010, Robert Schwentke)

I was unhesitant to enjoy Red. It’s one of those ensemble feel-good pieces (like Sneakers or Ocean’s Eleven), but it’s not a particularly upbeat feel-good piece. But I was rather hesitant to approach it as a good movie. But it is a good movie. It’s smartly written, beautifully acted (Red’s casting is superior)… and impersonally directed. I’ve never seen any of Schwentke’s other films, but he’s a TV director inexplicably directing cinema. He’d be a fine TV director, he’s just not a filmmaker.

But Schwentke aside, there’s nothing not to recommend the film. However, I do think Bruce Willis going bald the last ten years makes it a little more difficult to take his balding as some sign of aging.

Red’s principal cast–Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren and John Malkovich–is all exceptionally solid. It’s interesting to see Mirren in this kind of role (though she does it perfectly) and Malkovich is delightful in a role he easily could have played spoofing himself, but doesn’t. Freeman’s the mentor (to Willis) and Parker’s forty-something single woman has shades of Joan Wilder (in the best possible way).

The “supporting” cast consists of Karl Urban, Brian Cox, James Remar, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ernest Borgnine and Richard Dreyfuss. Whoever casted this film is a genius–if it was Schwentke, I’m a lot more enthusiastic.

Willis is most impressive in how well he works in an ensemble, never his greatest strength.

Red probably could do with a sequel. White?

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Schwentke; screenplay by Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber, based on the comic book by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner; director of photography, Florian Ballhaus; edited by Thom Noble; music by Christophe Beck; production design by Alec Hammond; produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Mark Vahradian; released by Summit Entertainment.

Starring Bruce Willis (Frank Moses), Morgan Freeman (Joe Matheson), John Malkovich (Marvin Boggs), Helen Mirren (Victoria), Karl Urban (William Cooper), Mary-Louise Parker (Sarah Ross), Brian Cox (Ivan Simonov), Julian McMahon (Robert Stanton), Rebecca Pidgeon (Cynthia Wilkes), Ernest Borgnine (Henry, the Records Keeper), James Remar (Gabriel Singer) and Richard Dreyfuss (Alexander Dunning).


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).


Scroll to Top