Laura Dern

The Good Time Girls (2017, Courtney Hoffman)

The most disconcerting thing about The Good Time Girls is the dialogue. The short opens with this solid, distinct narration from Laura Dern. Director (and writer) Hoffman goes for lyrical shots but not visuals; Autumn Durald’s photography isn’t dull so much as shallow… to the point you wonder if the filters were just set wrong in post-production. But Dern’s narration carries it. Right up until the action moves into the remote brothel.

Hoffman’s shots outside, even with contrary photography, are all precisely composed. Inside, not so much. Especially not since it opens with all the women sitting around listening to one sing a song on a banjo. And then Hoffman’s lack of performance direction starts to become clear. No one really looks like they’ve ever sat and listened to her play her banjo before. Pretty soon Q’orianka Kilcher takes a drag off a cigarette and it doesn’t seem like she’s ever smoked a cigarette before. All that attention to visual outside, it doesn’t come inside.

Turns out Dern and some of the girls are actually in the brothel to exact vengeance on some brothel regulars. The madam, Dana Gourrier (who gets terrible dialogue, but the performance is painful), is an accomplice but not invested in it.

Dern’s okay. Mostly. More when she’s acting opposite Garret Dillahunt, as the lead bad guy. Everyone else needs more direction. Even Alia Shawkat, who at first seems like she doesn’t, but then has this banter thing going on and it’s a fail. Extreme long shot banter.

Hoffman’s timing is off in just about every scene. Good Time Girls drags and is only about thirteen minutes of actual movie. There are long credits. Also the various visual homages to Westerns play incongruous. They distract, which is both good and bad. The film initially implies it’s going to be really dark, but then there are various relief valves throughout and it avoids verisimilitude for anachronistic comic relief.

Maybe if it all added up, the thin script, the exceptionally problematic interior direction, and the shaky performances wouldn’t matter. But it doesn’t. It just wastes Dern’s narration.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Courtney Hoffman; screenplay by Hoffman and Lucy Teitler, based on a story by Hoffman; director of photography, Autumn Durald; edited by Julie Garces; music by Will Patterson; production designer, Florencia Martin; produced by Jordana Mollick; released by Refinery29.

Starring Laura Dern (Clementine), Annalise Basso (Ellie), Alia Shawkat (Ruth), Q’orianka Kilcher (Myra), Dana Gourrier (Ada), and Garret Dillahunt (Rufus Black).


Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017, Rian Johnson)

The Last Jedi is a long two and a half hours. It’s an uneven split between Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, and John Boyega. Ridley’s off with Mark Hamill–but really having a FaceTime via the Force arc with Adam River–while Isaac is doing his damndest to get everyone killed because he doesn’t want to listen to women. Boyega starts with Isaac, then has a quest with Kelly Marie Tran. Boyega and Tran have the closest thing to character arcs. Isaac learns his lesson way too late and only because Carrie Fisher is so patient with him.

At the center of the film is not Ridley learning the ways of the Force from Hamill. Director Johnson avoids tackling that relationship, giving Hamill all his character development away from Ridley. It’s a waste of Hamill. There’s some effective homage with him, but nothing particularly sincere. Johnson–who wrote the script–seems to want nothing to do with the character.

As a result, most of Ridley’s time in the film is utterly wasted. Most meaning more than ninety-five percent. Her subplot with Driver doesn’t add up to anything. Especially since it gets resolved somewhere in the first of the film’s third acts. It basically has three of them.

Unlike the previous entry in Disney Star Wars, which repurposed the original Star Wars’s story beats, Last Jedi is a mix of Empire and Return of the Jedi, just reorganized. There’s enough content they could’ve split the movie in two and gotten more dramatic oompf out of it.

The stuff with Boyega and Tran completely lacks any subtlety and still ends up being the most effective of the film’s plot lines. Even though Johnson has a really hard time establishing Boyega at the start of the film, eventually the chemistry between the actors overcomes the rocky opening. Benicio Del Toro is the name cameo in that plot line and he’s fun. He’s painfully obvious, but he’s fun.

Meanwhile Isaac goes from ignoring Fisher’s orders to ignoring Laura Dern’s. The movie shafts Dern, redeeming her in a reveal and then it’s pretty much time for her to go. Fisher’s back. Johnson sidelines Fisher after giving her the film’s best “Force” sequence. There’s some visually interesting Dark Side stuff with Ridley–a throwback to Empire–but it ends up narratively inert like everything else Johnson does with Ridley. For all the film’s talk of heroes and legends, Johnson’s incredibly uncomfortable spending any time with them. You can only deconstruct Star Wars so much. In Last Jedi, Johnson wastes a bunch of time trying to do so.

Besides just being long and meandering because Johnson’s verbose, the film also severely lacks danger. Most of the film has the Rebel fleet running from the Empire–sorry, First Order, but damn do the interiors of the Star Destroyers look amazing just like in the seventies. The Rebels are almost out of fuel and can’t warp so the Empire is just shooting at them. The good guys’ shields can take it but not forever and they can’t actually escape.

If Johnson were able to direct for tension, it could be great. Instead, it’s just a way to winnow down the cast. Pointlessly so. Johnson does all right making the frequent death scenes momentarily tragic, but they don’t have any resonance. Last Jedi doesn’t want to have anything to do with resonating.

None of the acting is bad except Domhnall Gleeson. He and Driver bicker as they try to out-suck-up to their boss, the CGI “big bad” (voiced by Andy Serkis). Gleeson’s wholly incompetent at his job and whiny. Driver’s at least got the Dark Side and broody beats whiny. And Driver acts like Johnson’s giving him an actual character arc. Besides Ridley and Hamill, Johnson fails Driver most.

Great music from John Williams this outing. Excellent, entirely unexciting special effects. The battle scenes are similarly competent but uninspired; despite all his dawdling and dwelling, Johnson’s hasty with his action direction. Steve Yedlin’s photography is crisp but somehow bland. Editor Bob Ducsay and Johnson try to maintain the original trilogy’s wipes but without looking as dated. It’s not successful. The scenes are all a little too long, even if it’s by a few frames. Johnson is anti-brevity.

Making it’s even worse he shafts the entire cast on character arcs. The movie’s two and a half hours long. There ought to be more than enough time for the seven principal characters….

At least The Last Jedi isn’t a vanity project, though maybe it’d be better if it were. It’d mean Johnson had some personality. And he doesn’t.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Rian Johnson; screenplay by Rian Johnson, based on characters created by George Lucas; director of photography, Steve Yedlin; edited by Bob Ducsay; music by John Williams; production designer, Rick Heinrichs; produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Ram Bergman; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Daisy Ridley (Rey), Mark Hamill (Luke), Adam Driver (Kylo), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), Kelly Marie Tran (Rose), Carrie Fisher (Leia), Laura Dern (Holdo), Andy Serkis (Snoke), Domhnall Gleeson (Hux), and Benicio Del Toro (DJ).


A Perfect World (1993, Clint Eastwood)

A Perfect World runs almost two hours and twenty minutes (it does with end credits). The last act of the film is a seventeen or so minute showdown in real time. Until that point in the film, John Lee Hancock’s script flirts with occasional sequences in real time, but there’s a lot of summary, a lot of missed time. The present action of the film is a couple days–Kevin Costner has broken out of jail, ends up with an eight year-old boy as a hostage (T.J. Lowther), and is trying to get out of Texas. Clint Eastwood, acting, plays the Texas Ranger after him. There’s a great attention to detail, particularly for the time period, and with the filmmaking; A Perfect World is a great example of a film being good while still boring.

Hancock’s script desperately wants to compare and contrast the various characters–Eastwood had run ins with younger Costner, Costner had a bad dad, Lowther has a bad dad, it goes on and on. Laura Dern is around to be sexually threatened–the film takes place in 1963, after all–and to counsel Eastwood. Unfortunately, most of that counseling comes when Eastwood’s Rangers are literally broken down off the highway.

Meanwhile, Costner and Lowther have a rather touching adventure. There’s great period music, rich performances from just about anyone–even evil escaped convict Keith Szarabajka is pretty good and he’s not doing much of anything. Leo Burmester doesn’t get enough to do, however. Once things come together for the inevitable showdown, which Eastwood and Hancock don’t set up well enough–one would think Eastwood’s chasing Costner across a county, not the state–there get to be hints of what A Perfect World could have done. It just takes too long to get there and not through interesting enough adventures.

Costner’s too much of an enigma to be the lead, Lowther could be but he isn’t. Same goes for Dern (or Eastwood even). It isn’t a matter of Hancock’s script being all over the place, it’s about the script not being there enough and Eastwood being able to cover it as a director. Jack N. Green’s photography is gorgeous, Joel Cox and Ron Spang’s editing is spry; A Perfect World is a spectacularly well-made, often spectacularly acted film, just not spectacular overall. But it’s still really darn good.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Clint Eastwood; written by John Lee Hancock; director of photography, Jack N. Green; edited by Joel Cox and Ron Spang; music by Lennie Niehaus; production designer, Henry Bumstead; produced by Eastwood, Mark Johnson and David Valdes; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Kevin Costner (Butch), T.J. Lowther (Phillip), Clint Eastwood (Red Garnett), Laura Dern (Sally Gerber), Keith Szarabajka (Terry Pugh), Bradley Whitford (Bobby Lee), Leo Burmester (Tom Adler) and Jennifer Griffin (Gladys Perry).


The Master (2012, Paul Thomas Anderson)

It would be wrong to call The Master a self-indulgent masterpiece, as it’s not a masterpiece (except maybe for Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s photography and Mark Bridges’s costumes… oh, and the sound design) but it’s also not self-indulgent. Anderson shows no personality until the end credits, when he sends shouts out to family members. Well, I guess that inclusion does qualify as self-indulgent (or worse).

The Master actually isn’t easy to talk about. There’s a purple elephant in the room as far as a twist and I don’t want to give it away. Not to say I want anyone else to suffer through the film–and especially not the end credits–but it’d just be mean. I will say Anderson does blatantly rip off a rather famous line from Midnight Run. It’s for one of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s scenes. Their scenes are usually pretty good. Hoffman’s absolutely wonderful in the film. His performance doesn’t make up for the rest of it, but he does distract from it.

As for Phoenix, it’s hard to say. Anderson’s got him limping, got him walking around with a distinctive hands-on-his-hips look, got him talking with a jaw injury… And I haven’t even mentioned Phoenix looking forty-five but playing a guy in his mid-to-late twenties.

Amy Adams has the next biggest part. She’s so affected, Phoenix looks like he’s giving a natural performance.

The Master‘s a bloated mess of self-important, faux profundity.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; director of photography, Mihai Malaimare Jr.; edited by Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty; music by Jonny Greenwood; production designers, David Crank and Jack Fisk; produced by Anderson, Megan Ellison, Daniel Lupi and JoAnne Sellar; released by The Weinstein Company.

Starring Joaquin Phoenix (Freddie Quell), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Lancaster Dodd), Amy Adams (Peggy Dodd), Laura Dern (Helen Sullivan), Ambyr Childers (Elizabeth Dodd), Jesse Plemons (Val Dodd), Rami Malek (Clark), Lena Endre (Mrs. Solstad), Madisen Beaty (Doris Solstad) and Kevin J. O’Connor (Bill William).


Jurassic Park III (2001, Joe Johnston)

Jurassic Park III is about a third of a movie. Even though it runs ninety minutes (minus however many minutes in end credits), there aren’t any characters and the running time is mostly spent on the action beats of a better movie. Instead of being a movie about genetically engineered dinosaurs left to their own devices and intruded upon, it’s a monster movie. And it’s a pretty boring one at that.

Johnston occasionally has moments of directorial flare, but few of them have to do with the action sequences. For the most part, the dinosaur action looks cheap and poorly conceived. I was shocked to read the film actually filmed in Hawaii. The terrible composite shots suggest it’s a soundstage creation.

It’s more a sequel to the second entry and references to the first seem inappropriate, regardless of Sam Neill and Laura Dern’s presences. None of the characters are likable—why do all these Jurassic Park movies need annoying kids? Trevor Morgan isn’t bad, but he’s useless. Unfortunately, many of the adults are useless; Alessandro Nivola is probably the prime example.

Why Johnston casted John Diehl and Bruce A. Young and wasted them is beyond me.

Neill’s not terrible, but he’s barely in it so who cares… I guess Téa Leoni gives the film’s “best” performance. Her or Dern in her cameo. And it’s hard to hate a film with Taylor Nichols in a bit part.

But why hire Don Davis, who composes fine scores, just to rearrange John Williams?

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Johnston; screenplay by Peter Buchman, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, based on characters created by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Shelly Johnson; edited by Robert Dalva; music by Don Davis; production designer, Ed Verreaux; produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Larry J. Franco; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Sam Neill (Dr. Alan Grant), William H. Macy (Paul Kirby), Téa Leoni (Amanda Kirby), Alessandro Nivola (Billy Brennan), Trevor Morgan (Erik Kirby), Michael Jeter (Mr. Udesky), John Diehl (Cooper), Bruce A. Young (M.B. Nash), Taylor Nichols (Mark Degler), Mark Harelik (Ben Hildebrand), Julio Oscar Mechoso (Enrique Cardoso) and Laura Dern (Dr. Ellie Sattler).


Jurassic Park (1993, Steven Spielberg)

Two big things I noticed about Jurassic Park. First, it’s still a superior use of CG. It really shows how digital effects do not get better with technology or budget or whatever; being used by a good filmmaker makes all the difference.

And Spielberg does a fine job with Jurassic Park. It’s an incredibly impersonal film, which the second thing I noticed really showcases. Sam Neill’s protagonist is so shallow, even Bob Peck’s character—who gets no back story—comes off deeper. Some of the problem is with Neill’s performance. He can’t keep his American accent—in fact, at the beginning it seems like he’s supposed to be Australian, but then he starts suppressing it, only to then let it come through. Laura Dern’s character is even more shallow, but she manages to make the character work with her performance. Neill gets better towards the end, when he finally stops whining about not liking kids.

Once the film gets going, it has a fantastic pace. Spielberg’s direction is strongest here in that regard—he knows how to make the film work and does; he also knows how to get good performances out of almost all the cast. Neill isn’t really his fault.

Besides Peck, Jeff Goldblum, Martin Ferrero and Samuel L. Jackson are standouts. Richard Attenborough teeters between endearing and good. He sells his most important scene.

The John Williams score is excellent, the Dean Cundey photography is good (but not singular).

Jurassic Park’s a fine, pseudo-smart popcorn movie.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Michael Crichton and David Koepp, based on the novel by Crichton; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Rick Carter; produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Gerald R. Molen; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Sam Neill (Dr. Alan Grant), Laura Dern (Dr. Ellie Sattler), Jeff Goldblum (Dr. Ian Malcolm), Richard Attenborough (John Hammond), Bob Peck (Robert Muldoon), Martin Ferrero (Donald Gennaro), Joseph Mazzello (Tim Murphy), Ariana Richards (Lex Murphy), Samuel L. Jackson (Ray Arnold), B.D. Wong (Henry Wu) and Wayne Knight (Dennis Nedry).


Teachers (1984, Arthur Hiller)

It must have been Bette Midler’s former manager, Aaron Russo (Teachers‘s producer), who somehow confused Arthur Hiller as the creative force behind The Hospital. Teachers is very much like The Hospital, but in its stoic protagonist, the stoic protagonist’s ultimate choice in the end, and the strange hijinks. However, as is clearly evidenced by JoBeth Williams’s strange, too flat to be absurdist nudist jaunt, Hiller is not a social commentator. He’s the guy who’d go on to direct Carpool and National Lampoon’s Pucked.

Hiller isn’t the biggest problem with Teachers. The film could survive his competent and unimaginative direction–Hiller seems to have influenced not just every modern sitcom director, but also Jon Favreau, who’s a similarly torpid director. The problem is the script. I don’t know if W.R. McKinney used to be a teacher (it seems likely for press purposes, regardless of uncredited script doctors), but he’s a terrible writer. He’s got severe problems with dialogue and his plotting is awkward. Some of his details are good–he’s got some funny stuff. But mostly he’s awful.

What makes Teachers work is the acting. Nick Nolte runs the whole thing. He’s got a big monologue–poorly written–and Nolte, even with Hiller’s lame direction and Don Zimmerman’s incapable editing, makes it work. He makes it superior.

Much of the supporting cast is good–Judd Hirsch is good as the sellout (rebel teacher turned assistant principal), Allen Garfield as the befuddled but well-meaning teacher, Richard Mulligan (in one of McKinney’s stupidest moves), Morgan Freeman, William Schallert. Williams is okay in her inessential and unlikely role. Ralph Macchio–idiotic costume aside–runs hot and cold. Lee Grant and Laura Dern are terrible, particularly Grant, who has no excuse (Teachers was one of Dern’s first films and her character is, to be fair, atrociously written).

But the Aaron Russo-produced white guy soundtrack–Bob Seger, Joe Cocker, ZZ Top–takes center stage, big shock (the advertisement for the soundtrack is the second end credits card, right after Russo’s credit for producing it too). The soundtrack’s poorly handled, like no one told Hiller it’d be there; not to mention the sound levels being confusing (is the music playing for the characters during Nolte and Williams’s date, or just for the moviegoer).

Teachers has–until the very end–a certain optimism going for it. It loses it then, when the script–shock of shocks–crumbles under its own ridiculousness. A better director could have helped, but not without an artistically-minded (versus soundtrack album sales minded) producer and a great rewrite. Still, seeing Hirsch in a film makes it worthwhile to some degree. And Nolte does have some fantastic moments.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Arthur Hiller; screenplay by W.R. McKinney; director of photography, David M. Walsh; edited by Don Zimmerman; production designer, Richard Macdonald; produced by Aaron Russo; released by United Artists.

Starring Nick Nolte (Alex Jurel), JoBeth Williams (Lisa Hammond), Judd Hirsch (Roger Rubell), Ralph Macchio (Eddie Pilikian), Allen Garfield (Carl Rosenberg), Lee Grant (Dr. Donna Burke), Richard Mulligan (Herbert Gower), Royal Dano (Ditto Stiles), William Schallert (Horn), Art Metrano (Troy), Laura Dern (Diane), Crispin Glover (Danny), Morgan Freeman (Lewis), Madeleine Sherwood (Grace) and Steven Hill (Sloan).


Scroll to Top