Lionsgate

Fast Color (2018, Julia Hart)

Fast Color spends most its runtime saying it’s not a superhero movie—it’s just about people who happen to have superpowers—only for the third act to play like a low budget X-Men outing. And it’s not just the not-battle-in-the-streets battle-in-the-street resolution, it’s also how lead Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s character arc becomes all about her superpowers and not her returning to her abandoned home, abandoned mother (Lorraine Toussaint), and abandoned tween daughter (Saniyya Sidney). It’s also not about how Mbatha-Raw’s gotten sober—drugs help keep her out-of-control powers in check—or how the world hasn’t had rain in the last seven or eight years. There’s a lot going on in the world of Fast Color and director Hart does a great job showing its more mundane side—utilizing the limited budget well—but engaging with the superhero movie tropes after promising to avoid them… it doesn’t undue the work of the film through most of its runtime, but it does leave the potential unrealized.

For instance, just when Mbatha-Raw and Sidney could be really connecting, the film concentrates on the superpowers. And it doesn’t even go all the way with the superpowers. It doesn’t just not show them, it doesn’t show their effect on anyone, so it’s like they’re not even there. Sorry, Fast Color’s finish is about the only disappointing thing in the film (as it compounds the problems with Toussaint’s part). Hence the harping.

The film opens with Mbatha-Raw on the run. She’s got some kind of earthquake power, which she can’t control at all but she at least tries to mitigate the damage. Water is an expensive item because of the lack of rain fall, but there’s still booze, eggs, electricity, all sorts of things just no smartphones. The whole no more rain subplot is fine but doesn’t add anything to the film. It mostly ends up serving as a budget limiter; so fine. But just fine.

Pretty soon we discover nerdy government scientist Christopher Denham is after Mbatha-Raw but also she’s gotten to her hometown, which he doesn’t realize. So she goes to mom Toussaint’s farm, even though Mbatha-Raw’s never met Sidney and Sidney doesn’t have any expectation of ever meeting Mbatha-Raw and then Toussaint makes Mbatha-Raw sleep out in the barn because her powers are so out-of-control. The film never directly addresses how Mbatha-Raw’s terrible life, on the run but also before, instead focusing on what she can do to improve her footprint, which is fine because it centers itself around Sidney’s well-being. Mbatha-Raw’s motivations and thoughts play out in her expressions versus actions or dialogue. She’s haunted by flashback sequences too. Mbatha-Raw gives an excellent lead performance but her part isn’t really enough the lead as far as the plot goes.

Most of the film is about what’s going to happen without raising much expectation. David Strathairn plays the local sheriff who’s also on Mbatha-Raw’s trail, trying not to let Denham and the feds take his case. Given how much the film ends up leveraging Strathairn, at the expense of other characters (and their actors), it’d have been nice if Strathairn weren’t involved in one of Fast Colors big secrets. The film has a lot of big secrets—well, either secrets or lies, because Toussaint wants to keep Sidney sheltered. See, Toussaint and Sidney also have powers, but they’re not as potentially damaging or affecting as Mbatha-Raw’s. When Mbatha-Raw bonds with Sidney, it’s over the powers, which is weird but the acting’s good—Sidney’s phenomenal—so Color can do whatever it wants as long as it stays focused on the characters.

The end abandons that focus and… the film suffers.

Technically, the film’s outstanding. Save the occasionally too DV night time photography. Many of photographer Michael Fimognari’s night time shots are fantastic, but when there’s a lot of movement on the screen… it looks off. Martin Pensa’s editing is good, Rob Simonsen’s music is good, Hart’s direction is good… Fast Color’s got all the pieces—well, okay, not Denham (who’s way too eh)—the script just doesn’t quite get them assembled right at the end.

The film gives Mbatha-Raw a solid lead, Sidney an okay supporting showcase (Sidney could handle more), and Toussaint a disappointing one. The film utilizes her but doesn’t showcase her, which really hurts in the third act.

Fast Color’s successful without exactly being a success.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Julia Hart; written by Hart and Jordan Horowitz; director of photography, Michael Fimognari; edited by Martin Pensa; music by Rob Simonsen; production designer, Gae S. Buckley; produced by Horowitz, Mickey Liddell, and Pete Shilaimon; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Ruth), Lorraine Toussaint (Bo), Saniyya Sidney (Lila), Christopher Denham (Bill), and David Strathairn (Ellis).


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Rambo: Last Blood (2019, Adrian Grunberg)

Sitting and reflecting on Rambo: Last Blood and the franchise’s thirty-seven year legacy, the best idea of the fixing the film is probably just to have Sylvester Stallone do a bunch of shots training horses. He seems really good with them. And he doesn’t seem really good at anything in Last Blood. It’s a far less physical Rambo for Stallone, who seems far less interested in being a septuagenarian action star than quickly turning around corners after the villains end up in his traps. There’s one big physical action sequence for Stallone though; he seems able enough. Just the script doesn’t offer any good action possibilities and director Grunberg is incompetent.

Last Blood is a film with limited possibilities. It’s not like Rambo is a great part with a lot of potential. He’s a pretty generic Stallone protagonist here. He’s still got PTSD, which Last Blood showcases with hilariously bad flashback newsreel footage because no one in the film’s post-production departments care about their dignity. Maybe they all used pseudonyms. Doesn’t matter, because the flashback footage goes away, along with when Stallone gets visual flashes when he’s out being Rambo (in a Mexican night club), and then never shows up after a doctor warns he’s got a concussion. Because Last Blood isn’t just bad—it’s boringly bad. Grunberg’s really, really, really bad. Stallone and Matthew Cirulnick’s script is frequently dumb, then dumber. Lots of bad things happen because Stallone doesn’t operate with forethought. So when he eventually plans how his enemies are going to attack him so he can set traps to ensnare them… well, he didn’t have that ability for forethought earlier.

The movie’s real simple. Stallone’s living on his childhood ranch, training horses, with fellow old person housekeeper Adriana Barraza and her granddaughter, Yvette Monreal. Stallone’s “Uncle John Rambo” and just wishes Monreal would spend her life training horses with him instead of going off to college. She’s really smart, even though her father left the family after the mom died. Oh, and he was physically abusive. Apparently to a dying wife (Last Blood has a lot of problems with its timeline; again, the script’s dumb). Barraza and Stallone ought to be cute together. With a sitcom intern doing a script polish and someone who could competently direct a soap opera, there would be potential with the setup. But it would take someone to write a character for Stallone to play; after thirty-seven years of Rambo as a caricature, what if we got a real character in the last movie?

We’ll never know because Last Blood’s Rambo is pretty thin. He’s also terrible at monologues. In trying to prove there’s room for a septuagenarian Rambo, Last Blood shows why there’s not. Then again, maybe if Grunberg weren’t so terrible, the movie would be better.

Anyway.

Things go wrong when Monreal goes to find her dad, ignoring Stallone and Barraza’s advice. Monreal could be good; Grunberg doesn’t know how to direct his actors and she needs direction, but she’s at least sympathetic. Sympathy isn’t exactly weakness in Last Blood, but it’s pointless. Politically, Last Blood is interestingly hands off. The wall is a failure, but because it’s a fool’s errand. As far as bad hombres… well, Last Blood makes the case every single woman living in Mexico should be granted asylum. There are also some other odd spots, like when Stallone wishes he never became Rambo and hadn’t enlisted. Also when he tells Monreal everyone in the world’s bad and she’s sheltered and she needs to not go to Mexico to find her dad but, it’s okay if she does, because her uncle has a very particular set of skills he has acquired over a very long career.

And Monreal goes through a lot. With considerable dignity since Grunberg’s so crappy. Last Blood’s never scary. Not even when good people are in danger. Sometimes because of how Grunberg and not good editors Carsten Kurpanek and Todd E. Miller cut the scene, sometimes because of how Stallone and Cirulnick’s write the scene, sometimes just because Grunberg can’t figure out how to do an establishing shot. Technically, Last Blood is rather crappy. The editors, Grunberg, Brian Tyler’s score is godawful; but it’s Brendan Galvin’s photography. Galvin’s not good. Grunberg’s awful but he’s awful with bad cinematography. It’s a mundane ugly but it’s an ugly.

Because Last Blood, Stallone seems to think, is a Western. Based on the script, based on his performance, it’s a Western. Set in Arizona. And Mexico. And Stallone has a farm house and trains horses and on and on. It ought to be simple to do some Western. Grunberg can’t. Because he’s awful.

There’s also the whole thing with Stallone building an intricate tunnel system and living in it, going up to hang out with Barraza, Monreal, and the horses, but otherwise he lives in the tunnel system under his family farm, which ought to be an uncomfortable statement on Vietnam vets, but isn’t because Last Blood’s got jack to do with Stallone as Rambo as veteran. It’s really, really, really weird.

The other thing about doing a Last Rambo? Stallone’s always been interesting because he’s grown as filmmaker, his ambitions have changed, matured, developed. Last Blood doesn’t come off like a passion project or a personal ambition. Even though, after the first batch of end credits roll, you do have to wonder if Stallone tinkered with the end, which is what got Kirk Douglas to walk on the first movie, or if they always planned on a stupid twist. It’s hard to say, because so much of it is stupid. Also… doesn’t matter.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Adrian Grunberg; screenplay by Matthew Cirulnick and Sylvester Stallone, based on a story by Dan Gordon and Stallone and on the character created by David Morrell; director of photography, Brendan Galvin; edited by Carsten Kurpanek and Todd E. Miller; music by Brian Tyler; production designer, Franco-Giacomo Carbone; produced by Avi Lerner, Yariv Lerner, Kevin King Templeton, and Les Weldon; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (John), Yvette Monreal (Gabrielle), Adriana Barraza (Maria), Óscar Jaenada (Victor Martinez), Sergio Peris-Mencheta (Hugo Martínez), Fenessa Pineda (Jizzel), and Paz Vega (Carmen Delgado).


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).


Dredd (2012, Pete Travis)

Dredd is a good time. Sure, it features exceptional ultraviolence, but director Travis finds a gimmick–the drug “Slo-Mo” slows time for its user–to make the violence appear almost academic. One wonders how they did the special effects for the sequence. Travis also never glorifies the bad guys, which is interesting for what’s sort of a superhero movie. I say “sort of” because Dredd’s more like an episode of a really good future cop show. Its present action is short; it’s a procedural.

Besides Travis’s direction–and Karl Urban’s performance as the lead–Alex Garland’s script is the major factor in the film’s success. Even when Urban’s alone in a scene, even if the shot’s from his point of view, Dredd always gives him a lot of distance. Even though he narrates the expository prologue, the viewer isn’t supposed to identify with him. The viewer’s occasionally supposed to identify with the bad guys, always with his rookie partner (Olivia Thirlby), but never with Urban. Having an indifferent protagonist work in an action movie might be Dredd’s greatest success.

Also lending to the episodic nature are the villains. Wood Harris has what almost amounts to a cameo appearance–though he’s on screen for a lot of the first half, he’s silent–and Lena Headey’s great as the big villain.

Good music from Paul Leonard-Morgan, good photography from Anthony Dod Mantle.

Dredd never tries to be ambitious; it over succeeds. Much better than the other way around.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Pete Travis; screenplay by Alex Garland, based on characters created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra; director of photography, Anthony Dod Mantle; edited by Mark Eckersley; music by Paul Leonard-Morgan; production designer, Mark Digby; produced by Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich and Alex Garland; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Karl Urban (Judge Dredd), Olivia Thirlby (Anderson), Lena Headey (Ma-Ma), Wood Harris (Kay), Langley Kirkwood (Judge Lex), Junior Singo (Amos), Luke Tyler (Freel), Jason Cope (Zwirner), Domhnall Gleeson (Clan Techie), Warrick Grier (Caleb) and Rakie Ayola (Chief Judge).


The Expendables 2 (2012, Simon West)

The Expendables 2 plays a lot like an eighties “G.I. Joe” toy commercial. The vehicles all fire missiles and have detachable smaller vehicles. As opposed to having absurdly named characters with silly themes (there’s no “ninja Expendable”), the characters instead have silly names and amusing personalities. The script, from Sylvester Stallone and Richard Wenk, throws realism out the window, gets way too meta for its own good (the Terminator jokes for Arnold Schwarzenegger are immediately tiresome), but a lot of the character work is good.

The best performances are from the returning principals–Stallone, Jason Statham, Randy Couture, Terry Crews and Dolph Lundgren. While Stallone only has one good scene–opposite new (and female) Expendable Nan Yu–and Statham’s just reliable, Couture, Crews and Lundgren are hilarious. Their little asides, while absurd, often make the movie.

As for the rest… Schwarzenegger is terrible, Chuck Norris is an unbelievably bad actor (one imagines Lee Strasberg turning in his grave at every line), Jean-Claude Van Damme’s villainous (doubly, since his name is “Vilain”) but disposable and Bruce Willis is okay if slightly embarrassed.

In supporting roles, Liam Hemsworth’s awful as another new Expendable but Scott Adkins’s decent as bad guy.

Shelly Johnson’s cinematography is weak, as is Bryan Tyler’s music, but a lot of Expendables 2 is passable. Even if it does heavily rip off Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Simon West’s action is intense but cartoonish, which also describes the entire project.

Better plotting would’ve helped a bunch.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Simon West; screenplay by Richard Wenk and Sylvester Stallone, based on a story by Ken Kaufman, David Agosto and Wenk and characters created by Dave Callaham; director of photography, Shelly Johnson; edited by Todd E. Miller; music by Brian Tyler; production designer, Paul Cross; produced by Danny Lerner, Les Weldon, Basil Iwanyk, John Thompson, Avi Lerner and Kevin King Templeton; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (Barney Ross), Jason Statham (Lee Christmas), Jet Li (Yin Yang), Dolph Lundgren (Gunner Jensen), Chuck Norris (Booker), Jean-Claude Van Damme (Vilain), Bruce Willis (Church), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Trench), Terry Crews (Hale Caesar), Randy Couture (Toll Road), Liam Hemsworth (Billy the Kid), Scott Adkins (Hector), Nan Yu (Maggie), Amanda Ooms (Pilar) and Charisma Carpenter (Lacy).


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