Lionsgate

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).


All Is Lost (2013, J.C. Chandor)

All Is Lost is the harrowing tale of an unnamed man (Robert Redford) on his damaged yacht in the Indian Ocean. The film runs 106 minutes. It’s harrowing for all of them. Director Chandor knows how to harrow.

The film has a mundane reality about it. Redford has no back story, no character development, almost no “character” at all. The film opens with a mildly damaging voiceover from Redford; he’s doing a combination apology and goodbye. There’s no indication of who he’s addressing–wife, child, maybe he’s a CEO who sailed off on his yacht after Bernie Madoffing, it doesn’t matter. All Is Lost is about Redford’s struggle during a constantly harrowing experience, with failure more and more certain with each passing moment.

But the opening voiceover informs how the viewer perceives Redford and his actions. Well, except when Chandor’s just dirt cheap about it. Redford risks his life (more than usual) to save a package, opens to reveal a gift, then takes a long pause to consider whether he wants to read the note. Chandor dangles revelation and rescue in front of the viewer throughout. But Redford can’t see it, because then he couldn’t be stoic. And Redford’s stoicism is impressive.

Anyway, one damage is how the voiceover affects viewer interpretation of Redford’s behavior. He has maybe six lines of dialogue after his opening voiceover; five of them are on the radio and the sixth is a single word. The other damage is how that opening voiceover fits into the narrative. Voicever, film title card, then a title card setting the film back eight days. Presumably, Redford’s not going to make the recording for eight days. So what’s going to happen in between?

Lots of harrowing boating things, starting with Redford’s yacht colliding with a shipping container while Redford’s asleep below deck. Bad things frequently happen in the film when Redford’s asleep. He’s either a heavy sleeper or a slow waker.

Once the shipping container situation is resolved, which takes most of the “first act,” other disasters befall Redford and he has to try to figure his way out of them. Chandor does a fantastic job making Redford’s actions make sense. Redford’s not talking, most viewers aren’t going to understand his seamanship activites. Chandor’s juggling quite a bit. Redford’s strong performance makes it all work. While Chandor’s composition is good–though occasionally too fixated on the pretty–and Pete Beaudreau’s editing is phenomenal, Redford’s bringing the humanity. He never voices his fears or anything else, which is frustrating since the opening voiceover is very talky; Redford’s just doing it with his psychical perfomance, his expressions, how he moves around the yacht interiors and exteriors.

Going into the second act, the film downshifts. Summary storytelling is over for a while. Redford’s broken yacht is about to get hit by a huge storm. Is he going to survive? Is something else going to go terribly wrong?

And it does. And then something else. And something else. Redford’s sprinting through a micro-disaster movie (which actually might best describe All Is Lost), which changes the pace of the film quite a bit. Then Chandor changes it again around halfway through.

Redford can weather a lot of the pacing issues. Only because the film asks so little of him after a certain point. The more difficult Redford’s reality becomes, the more Chandor pulls away, only to dangle the narrative red herring again. But the movie’s in a far different place and Chandor and Redford have already had some successes. Red herrings can’t bring it home.

Though the herring is so well-prepared, it ends up righting the yacht enough to recover a bit.

Good music from Alex Ebert. Frank G. DeMarco’s photography is fine. The film goes for realism most of the time and DeMarco delivers it. Beaudreau’s editing is the technical standout.

All Is Lost has a great performance from Robert Redford. He just can’t save the ship–Chandor’s style and narrative clash throughout the film, without ever sustaining the right rhythm.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by J.C. Chandor; director of photography, Frank G. DeMarco; edited by Pete Beaudreau; music by Alex Ebert; production designer, John Goldsmith; produced by Neal Dodson, Anna Gerb, Justin Nappi, and Teddy Schwarzman; released by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions.

Starring Robert Redford.


Saw (2004, James Wan)

I’m disappointed in Saw; I didn’t think I could possibly have any expectations for the movie where Farm Boy has to cut off his foot. I also didn’t know it wasn’t Danny Glover locked in the room with Cary Elwes. I wish Danny Glover had been locked in the room. He’s not. He’s a cop. And he’s terrible.

Danny Glover gives a terrible performance as a cop. Embarrassingly bad. It’s uncomfortable watching him a lot of the time, because it just feels wrong. Writer and leading man Leigh Whannell writes in movie trailer speak. Everything’s a soundbite. Not even caricatures, much less characterization. Saw’s just a bunch of actors reciting terrible dialogue without any direction from Wan. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s sad. It’s sad with Glover.

Elwes is just funny. For the first half of the movie, he’s got a husky low voice to hide his accent. Farm Boy has been acting since he was seventeen years old, but apparently on Saw, he forgot how to believably get rid of his English accent. Then the English accent comes through, then Elwes adds husky to the English accent. The third act is Elwes wailing a lot, usually without any continuity between his wailing accents.

Whannell, as a writer and an actor, is terrible. Still, he’s not unlikable. He’s not sympathetic, which is a problem because he’s being held captive in a terrible, poop-filled bathroom with a dead body and the Dread Pirate Roberts trying really hard to be so serious he might be a surgeon. But he’s also not unlikable. He’s just giving a bad performance in a terribly written part.

Ken Leung’s bad as Glover’s partner, but the writing is worse. Michael Emerson weathers his involvement a little better than his costars. Monica Potter’s fine in her scenes, which usually involve Saw threatening ten year-old Makenzie Vega with horrific death. Saw’s comfortable being craven.

If director Wan had any personality, and Armstrong’s photography weren’t so flat and Kevin Greutert’s editing weren’t so imprecise, Saw might be some kind of horror exploitation camp. But it’s not camp. It’s got all the set pieces for exploitation, but Whannell’s ponderous script and Wan’s bland visualizing shove the film into the serial killer sub-genre. Except there’s not really anything about the serial killer’s method, so it’s not an easy fit. It ought to be a psychological thriller–real time, Elwes and Whannel deciding their fates. Instead, there are a bunch of pointless flashbacks.

Because Saw can’t slow down. The one thing Wan and Whannell seem to get is the need for momentum. The film drops the audience in without any setup, so Wan’s got to make every jump scare prove the pitch’s worth. And he’s got a couple good jump scares. They’re like the only good things in the film, but it’s not nothing.

Saw sputters out in the third act. The tension is gone as the film just becomes a string of plot revelations. A lot of the film is Whannell’s fault as writer, but most of it’s on Wan. He doesn’t have any enthusiasm to his composition and he doesn’t have any interest in his actors. One or the other might’ve helped Saw.

Within reason, of course; it’s still got Cary Elwes’s risibly atrocious performance.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by James Wan; screenplay by Leigh Whannell, based on story by Wan and Whannell; director of photography, David A. Armstrong; edited by Kevin Greutert; music by Charlie Clouser; production designer, Julie Berghoff; produced by Mark Burg, Gregg Hoffman, and Oren Koules; released by Lions Gate Films.

Starring Cary Elwes (Dr. Lawrence Gordon), Leigh Whannell (Adam), Danny Glover (Detective David Tapp), Monica Potter (Alison Gordon), Ken Leung (Detective Steven Sing), Michael Emerson (Zep Hindle), Makenzie Vega (Diana Gordon), and Shawnee Smith (Amanda).


But I’m a Cheerleader (1999, Jamie Babbit)

But I’m a Cheerleader is too short. It runs eighty-five minutes, which would be fine if the narrative fit into director Babbit’s affected, aspirationally camp style. But Brian Peterson’s script is front heavy. And Jules Labarthe’s cinematography is too flat. Rachel Kamerman’s production design is loud, but Labarthe shoots it too shallow. He’s also not great at lighting actors between shots. Even if he were, Cecily Rhett wouldn’t be good at cutting those shots.

Cheerleader is utterly sincere, which is great, but Babbit and Peterson don’t take the film through that sincerity as it develops. After a deliberately paced two-thirds, all of a sudden Cheerleader is in a rush to finish. The script has taken a traditional romantic comedy direction–down to a deus ex conclusion so spared down it utterly lacks the needed spectacle. Peterson’s script doesn’t lay the groundwork for it until the second half, which is a whole other problem. The film doesn’t flow well.

It wouldn’t help if Cheerleader accomplished affected camp. It doesn’t need to be camp. It accomplishes something else entirely, this amazing relationship between Natasha Lyonne and Clea DuVall, which turns out to be the point of the script. Only it doesn’t seem like it was always the point of the script, because the original point of the script was Lyonne’s character development; her personal growth arc gives way to traditional rom-com stuff.

Lyonne’s a high school cheerleader who finds herself whisked away to a “brainwash the gay away” camp. Parents Bud Cort and Mink Stole are upset previously prim, proper, and Protestant Lyonne now wants to eat tofu. And then there’s her Melissa Etheridge poster. So they call RuPaul (out of drag and quite funny) to consult. He’s an “ex-gay” who works at the camp (run by Cathy Moriarty).

But Lyonne doesn’t think she’s gay. So there’s character development on that plotline. And there’s development on her plotline with her parents. And there’s development on her plotline with DuVall, the semi-goth rich girl who isn’t trying to get rid of her gay, just learn how to hide it. The last plotline doesn’t just tie into Lyonne’s own sexuality plotline, but also her parents plotline and her life and values in general. In the midst of the affected camp, with Lyonne looking like a sixties cheerleader doll, she and DuVall have these terribly lighted, terribly edited, wonderful moments.

Lyonne’s fine in the lead. She gets better as her character becomes more proactive, but DuVall’s spellbinding. She’s (maybe) the object of Lyonne’s affection and Babbit does a great job presenting her and developing her from Lyonne’s perspective. While it’s not camp or affected and often feels like a different movie, their chemistry makes Cheerleader quite special for a while.

Then comes Peterson’s disastrous third act. It happens gradually too, almost forecasting itself. There’s just no way for Babbit and Peterson to get the film across the finish line in the eighty-five minutes so they grab what they can and wrap it up quick. Peterson throws out distractions in almost every scene–which can be cute, like ex-ex-gays Wesley Mann and Richard Moll bickering–but don’t end up doing anything. It’s filler, because the film’s lost Lyonne’s character development. She’s a protagonist with a stalled arc.

Moriarty’s all right. The script stops giving her anything extra after the first act setup and, given the outrageously pink (and overtly homoerotic) mansion interiors, Moriarty should have a lot extra. Instead, she just has son Eddie Cibrian, who’s a buff temptation for all the gay boys at the camp. There’s a big supporting cast of “campers” and they’re all fine. Melanie Lynskey gets more to do than most, she’s good.

Babbit wants to have the freedoms of affectation while retaining sincerity. Only Cheerleader doesn’t get to sincerity through affectation, it’s something Babbit and Peterson just drop into the affectation and try to make room. It doesn’t work, which is a shame, because DuVall and Lyonne deserve a better film. Babbit seems like she wants to deliver one too.

But I’m a Cheerleader is cute and fun. And sweet. But it could’ve been something much better.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jamie Babbit; screenplay by Brian Peterson, based on a story by Babbit; director of photography, Jules Labarthe; edited by Cecily Rhett; music by Pat Irwin; production designer, Rachel Kamerman; produced by Andrea Sperling and Leanna Creel; released by Lions Gate Entertainment.

Starring Natasha Lyonne (Megan), Clea DuVall (Graham), Cathy Moriarty (Mary Brown), Melanie Lynskey (Hilary), RuPaul (Mike), Bud Cort (Peter), Mink Stole (Nancy), Dante Basco (Dolph), and Eddie Cibrian (Rock).


Café Society (2016, Woody Allen)

Woody Allen opens Café Society himself, with a voiceover. It’s a deeper voice mix than usual for Allen–who doesn’t appear in the film–and even though he’s doing expository narration, there’s an intentional distance in that deeper voice. Allen’s not the star of the film. In some ways, even lead Jesse Eisenberg isn’t the star. It’s the 1930s, he’s a young man from New York trying to break into Hollywood. He works for his successful uncle (Steve Carell in a genially morose performance), he romances Kristen Stewart. Things don’t go as planned, of course, which sets Eisenberg on an unexpected path.

The narrative toys with the idea of being an epical look at this young go-getter’s rise and fall, but Allen’s not interested in it. He likes the characters too much and the film loiters around them. Maybe there’s some dramatic narrative going on off-screen–if Allen and Corey Stoll, as Eisenberg’s gangster brother, ever wanted to do a picture about Jewish mobsters, Society shows the two of them would excel at that collaboration. The main story does follow Eisenberg, with these short interludes with the rest of his family and then Stewart, but the gangland ones with Stoll are just phenomenal.

Eventually, it’s Eisenberg who gets those interludes and not everyone else. There’s just too much good material for his family–Jeannie Berlin as the mom, Ken Stott as the dad, brother Stoll, sister Sari Lennick and her husband Stephen Kunken. It’s a movie set in Old Hollywood, gorgeously and glamorously photographed by Vittorio Storaro with beautiful attention to period detail (especially Stewart’s costumes) and all Allen wants to do is get back to New York. Hollywood, for Eisenberg, Allen and Café Society in general, is too false a dream.

Great performances from pretty much everyone and very good ones from everyone else. Eisenberg’s character doesn’t get an epic story arc, but his performance does get to mature throughout. Society is often very funny. Even when it’s sad, it’s still pretty funny. Allen’s clearly enjoying the production. Problematically, his narrative doesn’t emphasize the things he and editor Alisa Lepselter end up focusing on. Lepselter saves the third act. There’s lovely work from Stewart and Eisenberg as it winds down, but Lepselter is the one who puts it all together.

Stewart’s great, Eisenberg’s good–though his family steals his thunder (particularly Berlin and Stott)–Parker Posey is fantastic in a smaller but showy part. It’s an extremely solid motion picture, exquisitely visualized. It might have helped if it had gone on longer; it only runs ninety-six minutes, which isn’t enough for all the great performances Allen gets from his cast.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Woody Allen; director of photography, Vittorio Storaro; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production designer, Santo Loquasto; produced by Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum and Edward Walson; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Jesse Eisenberg (Bobby), Kristen Stewart (Vonnie), Steve Carell (Phil Stern), Blake Lively (Veronica), Parker Posey (Rad Taylor), Jeannie Berlin (Rose Dorfman), Ken Stott (Marty Dorfman), Sari Lennick (Evelyn), Stephen Kunken (Leonard) and Corey Stoll (Ben Dorfman).


Highlander: The Source (2007, Brett Leonard)

I wish there were nice things to say about Highlander: The Source. I wish every statement didn’t have to have a qualifier. For example, Adrian Paul is almost fine. He’s got a badly written part but he’s game for it. Same goes for Peter Wingfield, who’s a little less almost fine. He’s bad but his part is even worse written. And so on through the supporting cast. Until you get to Jim Byrnes, who’s just bad.

But The Source has a very specific audience in mind. It’s for people who loved the “Highlander” TV show so much they don’t care about the movie being bad. The film doesn’t ask for anything except to be engaged on those terms. It’s a franchise popular enough to get investors but not buyers. In terms of film industry history, “Highlander” is actually somewhat relevant. It helped prime the world for fantasy and sci-fi properties to be successful, while not successful itself. It fell on its sword.

Stephen Kelvin Watkins and Mark Bradley’s script takes itself way too seriously for The Source to be any fun. Director Leonard doesn’t have his moments because, even though he knows how to compose a Panavision frame at least somewhat competently, he’s shooting on crappy video and cinematographer Steve Arnold can’t shoot it. There’s lots of poorly matched digital backdrops in The Source. It’s knowingly incompetent, begging for an incomplete mark versus a fail; a technical cop out.

I wanted to be so enthused about The Source I was going to post an intentionally misguided response, something about it taking place in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Highlander 2 or having to do with the other planet but it’s not worth it. In the end, I’m just glad Thekla Reuten didn’t get too embarrassed by her lame part. Reuten’s pretty good for a lot of her performance and then the third act just flushes her part.

Not many people should see The Source. I’ve seen every one of the Highlander movies and I shouldn’t have seen The Source. I’ll bet people who worked on The Source never even watched The Source. It’s a feature length fan film made on the budget of a television commercial. It just happens to be produced by the rights owners. The Source isn’t about being accessible or generally rewarding. It’s not even about being good. But it’s also not worth any more words.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Brett Leonard; screenplay by Stephen Kelvin Watkins and Mark Bradley, based on a story by Bradley and characters created by Gregory Widen; director of photography, Steve Arnold; edited by Chris Blunden and Les Healey; music by George Kallis; production designer, Tom Brown; produced by William N. Panzer and Peter S. Davis; released by Lions Gate Films.

Starring Adrian Paul (Duncan MacLeod), Thekla Reuten (Anna Teshemka), Peter Wingfield (Methos), Thom Fell (Cardinal Giovanni), Stephen Wight (Reggie Weller), Stephen Rahman Hughes (Zai Jie), Cristian Solimeno (The Guardian), Patrice Naiambana (The Elder) and Jim Byrnes (Joe Dawson).


The Expendables (2010, Sylvester Stallone), the director’s cut

Ah, the utterly useless director’s cut. Thank you, DVD.

Having only seen The Expendables once, I’m not entirely sure what Stallone added for this version. The opening titles seem long and awkward (there’s now a montage introducing the team, which is even sillier since most of them disappear for the majority of the run time) and the big action scene has new music. Neither addition makes any significant difference, though there do seem to be some additional moments with the cast and the cast is what makes The Expendables work.

Most of the film’s performances are good. Nearly all of them actually, which is startling given much of the cast is traditionally laughable. Even the wrestlers are all right, though having Steve Austin knock out a woman probably makes him a lot more menacing. Randy Couture has a fun, against type monologue and Gary Daniels is good in his little part.

But the film’s best performance is, shockingly, Dolph Lundgren. Lundgren’s drug-addled behemoth is constantly frightening, but also somewhat touching and amusing. Jet Li’s appealing. Eric Roberts and Jason Statham, no surprise, are both excellent.

Stallone, other than showing off his retirement age physique, doesn’t do much. But he’s fine.

Mickey Rourke is amazing. He does more to make The Expendables “real” than anything else. Though even he wouldn’t be able to combat Jeffrey L. Kimball’s incompetent photography.

The only bad performance is David Zayas, who’s awful.

The Expendables is sometimes too long, but the acting makes it worthwhile.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sylvester Stallone; screenplay by Dave Callaham and Stallone, based on a story by Callaham; director of photography, Jeffrey L. Kimball; edited by Ken Blackwell and Paul Harb; music by Brian Tyler; production designer, Franco-Giacomo Carbone; produced by Avi Lerner, John Thompson and Kevin King Templeton; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (Barney Ross), Jason Statham (Lee Christmas), Jet Li (Yin Yang), Dolph Lundgren (Gunner Jensen), Eric Roberts (James Munroe), Randy Couture (Toll Road), Steve Austin (Paine), David Zayas (General Garza), Giselle Itié (Sandra), Charisma Carpenter (Lacy), Gary Daniels (the Brit), Terry Crews (Hale Caesar) and Mickey Rourke (Tool).


The Lincoln Lawyer (2011, Brad Furman)

The Lincoln Lawyer is—in addition to being, besides the cast, a great pilot for a cable series—a standard legal thriller. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a new one of these, probably because there are so many decent old ones to go through. Nothing in the film is a particular revelation, which might explain my lack of enthusiasm.

Star Matthew McConaughey is a basically good defense attorney who believes in justice. No surprises in his character. McConaughey essays the role fine.

Marisa Tomei’s his ex-wife (they’re still seeing each other) and an assistant district attorney. Tomei’s fine too.

Actually, wait. Josh Lucas stands out. As McConaughey’s opposing counsel, with more ambition than brains (and aware of it), he does a great job. Oh, and Michael Paré. He’s great.

The supporting cast is decent. No one excels—it’s a legal thriller, why bother? Ryan Phillippe, William H. Macy, John Leguizamo, Michael Peña, Laurence Mason, Frances Fisher—They’re excellent actors; they all give fine performances. But they’re just pieces in the wheel, not particularly important. The twists and turns are what’s important in Lincoln Lawyer and, like I said, it’s strictly television material.

One problem is John Romano’s script. I imagine he faithfully adapts the bestseller source material, but he doesn’t bring anything special or filmic to it. It’s a legal thriller. Why bother?

Director Furman has some decent composition, but he can’t bring personality to the L.A. setting.

It should probably be watched—and appreciated—on TV.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Brad Furman; screenplay by John Romano, based on the novel by Michael Connelly; director of photography, Lukas Ettlin; edited by Jeff McEvoy; music by Cliff Martinez; production designer, Charisse Cardenas; produced by Sidney Kimmel, Gary Lucchesi, Tom Rosenberg, Scott Steindorff and Richard S. Wright; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Matthew McConaughey (Mick Haller), Marisa Tomei (Maggie McPherson), Ryan Phillippe (Louis Roulet), William H. Macy (Frank Levin), Laurence Mason (Earl), Josh Lucas (Ted Minton), John Leguizamo (Val Valenzuela), Michael Peña (Jesus Martinez), Bob Gunton (Cecil Dobbs), Frances Fisher (Mary Windsor), Bryan Cranston (Detective Lankford), Michaela Conlin (Detective Sobel) and Michael Paré (Detective Kurlen).


O (2001, Tim Blake Nelson)

The actor playing Josh Hartnett’s mother (and Martin Sheen’s wife) doesn’t get a credit in O. She doesn’t have any lines, doesn’t really make any noise, just looks down at the dinner table during a scene. But she’s a perfect example of how Nelson paints subtlety and sadness into the film’s canvas. She’s mentioned once more later, in this very deliberate scene showcasing Sheen’s emotional abuse of Hartnett. O has a lot of teenagers–in a boarding school–acting adult, but this scene with Hartnett and Sheen (Sheen barely has a visual presence and Hartnett has only one line), reveals these “grown-up” teenagers as the children.

While second-billed, Hartnett is the film’s protagonist. The point of Othello, as a character, is how uninteresting he is when compared to Iago. That observation should not discount Mekhi Phifer’s performance as the Othello analog, however. Phifer’s transformation into a jealous lover is all played onscreen in O… Hartnett’s just a psychopath who finally gets to express himself. Othello has to be a tragedy; even when Phifer lashes out, he maintains sympathy. Some of it works because Hartnett’s a great villain, but most is because of Nelson’s careful direction.

Julia Stiles, as Desdemona, doesn’t have the range Hartnett and Phifer do, but she’s quite good. Her death scene’s extraordinary.

Also essential, in a small role, is Rain Phoenix.

Nelson, cinematographer Russell Lee Fine and composer Jeff Danna create an amazing film. Nelson puts the responsibility for its success on Hartnett; Hartnett excels.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Tim Blake Nelson; screenplay by Brad Kaaya, based on a play by William Shakespeare; director of photography, Russell Lee Fine; edited by Kate Sanford; music by Jeff Danna; production designer, Dina Goldman; produced by Daniel Fried, Eric Gitter and Anthony Rhulen; released by Lions Gate Films.

Starring Josh Hartnett (Hugo Goulding), Mekhi Phifer (Odin James), Julia Stiles (Desi Brable), Andrew Keegan (Michael Cassio), Rain Phoenix (Emily), Elden Henson (Roger Calhoun), Martin Sheen (Coach Duke Goulding) and John Heard (Dean Bob Brable).


The Winning Season (2009, James C. Strouse)

The Winning Season mentions Hoosiers at one point, which is good. It’s set in Indiana, it’s a basketball movie about an underdog team… there needs to be a Hoosiers reference. But it’s not Hoosiers with a girls basketball team, because it’s not really about the games.

Strouse’s approach is traditional. Take a lovable alcoholic misanthropic schmuck–Sam Rockwell–and let him redeem himself throughout the running time of the film as he discovers he’s capable of being a positive in someone else’s life. In this case, a girls basketball team.

What The Winning Season has going for it is a director who knows how to direct conversation scenes (the games are never vibrant–but it’d be out of place here), a really good script (the girls are a little tame off court, except Rooney Mara, who’s shacking up with a forty-something shoe salesman) and Rockwell. It’s maybe not Rockwell’s most dynamic, searching performance, but it’s Rockwell with a good script. It’s amazing acting.

He gets a lot of support from the supporting cast. None of the basketball team girls are bad. Meaghan Witri and Emily Rios are probably the best besides Mara, who gets lucky have the most drama. Emma Roberts is okay, nothing more. She’s affable.

Rob Corddry is really good here. I usually find him annoying, not here. It’s just a solid performance. Really nice work here from Margo Martindale too.

It’s a surprisingly good film. Having Rockwell helps a lot, but Strouse does an excellent job.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by James C. Strouse; director of photography, Frank G. DeMarco; edited by Joe Klotz; music by Ed Shearmur; production designer, Stephen Beatrice; produced by Kara Baker, Galt Niederhoffer, Celine Rattray, Daniela Taplin Lundberg and Gia Walsh; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Sam Rockwell (Bill), Emma Roberts (Abby), Rob Corddry (Terry), Emily Rios (Kathy), Rooney Mara (Wendy), Jessica Hecht (Stacey), Connor Paolo (Damon), Meaghan Witri (Tamra), Melanie Hinkle (Mindy), Shana Dowdeswell (Molly), Vanessa Gordillo (Flor), Shareeka Epps (Lisa) and Margo Martindale (Donna).


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