Willem Dafoe

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985, William Friedkin)

If you’ve ever started watching To Live and Die in L.A. and turned it off because it’s terrible or just heard of it and thought you should see it, let me say… there’s no reason to see it. Or sit through it. Not even morbid curiosity. Or unless you want to see John Pankow’s butt. Director Friedkin does seem to be trying to start a macho male nudity thing with L.A.—including… umm… Little William L. Petersen, but he also does some homophobia in other parts. Not anti-lesbian though. Friedkin’s pro-objectification there.

Also… some vague racism. By some I mean every time someone who isn’t White is around. But all of it—even the dingus—is C-level L.A. shenanigans. They leave far less impression, for example, than the incredible stupidity of Secret Service agents Petersen and Pankow. Though at one point Pankow identifies himself as a Treasury Agent. L.A.’s based on a novel—by co-screenwriter Gerald Petievich—and for some reason I’d assume Petievich would’ve at least looked up the difference. Not Friedkin (the other screenwriter). Friedkin doesn’t even seem aware real guns weigh more than the rubber guns his actors strut around with.

To Live and Die in L.A., when you toss aside whatever is going on with bad guy counterfeiter Willem Dafoe, is about how adrenalin junkie, dirty Secret Service agent Petersen corrupts straight-edge Pankow, teaching him how to blackmail, exploit, and rape comely ex-cons (Darlanne Fluegel gets all the sympathy for being in this one), strut around in tight jeans (though Pankow doesn’t go with two to three inch lifts like Petersen) and shirts unbuttoned to two above the navel, and… I don’t know, act tough or something.

The scary part of L.A. isn’t the idiotic, toxic masculinity is good, actually, sentiment—Friedkin must’ve read some amazing male empowerment books in the eighties—but the idea it’s an accurate representation of the Secret Service. Though, wait, didn’t they get busted for something stupid and… oh. Yeah.

Okay, so it’s probably legit.

Otherwise the movie would be famous for the agency suing them for how they were portrayed. Because they’re idiots. Like, even if you’ve only watched “CHiPs,” you have a better idea of how to run an investigation than this group of dimwits.

The movie starts with a suicide bomber going after Reagan. The stupidest suicide bomber in the world, who comes up with a rappelling thing when he has enough explosive to just take out the hotel or whatever. Once the bomber fails—in an Islamophobic portrayal out of a GOP campaign ad—we get the Secret Service guys getting hammered and Petersen showing off his base jumping.

Every man wants to be a macho, macho man… you know what, L.A. set to Village People instead of Wang Chung (yes, really, it’s got a Wang Chung “score” and, no, it’s not good). But then Petersen’s partner, Michael Greene, three days from retirement, goes off to the middle of nowhere to investigate a counterfeiter who turns out to be Dafoe. Dafoe gets the drop on him because Greene’s an idiot too and so Petersen swears vengeance.

The best performance in the film is probably… Dafoe? Of the leads, anyway. Petersen and Pankow are risible, like they’re doing a spoof of themselves and don’t know it. Dean Stockwell’s kind of okay but then not, which is too bad because he starts better than he finishes. Fluegel’s not good, just sympathetic because she’s so exploited. Robert Downey’s terrible in a stunt cameo. John Turturro… I mean, you can tell he might be good someday but certainly not here. Debra Feuer, despite having the most potentially interesting story, isn’t any good as Dafoe’s muse.

Some of the Robby Müller photography is good. Some of it is not. They go handheld a lot, which would be a questionable choice if there weren’t so many just plain terrible choices Müller and Friedkin make. M. Scott Smith’s editing… is not bad. It’s not good, but it certainly seems like it’d be bad given Friedkin’s vibe here. It’s not. It’s tolerable. So much in L.A. is intolerable—like Lilly Kilvert’s production design and Linda M. Bass’s costumes—the tolerable parts shine.

To Live and Die in L.A. is an excruciatingly bad two hours. It’s hilariously pretentious and full of itself, but it’s got no laugh value; the joke is on whoever’s watching it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by William Friedkin; screenplay by Friedkin and Gerald Petievich, based on the novel by Petievich; director of photography, Robby Müller; edited by M. Scott Smith; music by Wang Chung; production designer, Lilly Kilvert; costume designer, Linda M. Bass; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Petersen (Chance), Willem Dafoe (Eric Masters), John Pankow (John Vukovich), Darlanne Fluegel (Ruth Lanier), John Turturro (Carl Cody), Dean Stockwell (Bob Grimes), Debra Feuer (Bianca Torres), Steve James (Jeff Rice), Robert Downey Sr. (Thomas Bateman), Christopher Allport (Max Waxman), and Michael Greene (Jim Hart).


The Boondock Saints (1999, Troy Duffy)

What’s so incredible about Boondock Saints is how David Della Rocco’s atrocious performance distracts from lots of other terrible things going on in the film. At least when Della Rocco is onscreen. When he’s off… well, then the omnipresent deficiencies proudly scream their presences.

Della Rocco gets all of the film’s racist jokes and I think all of the misogynistic ones, unless there’s some sexist jokes during the Willem Dafoe sequences. Dafoe’s an apparently self-loathing gay FBI agent—you can just hear writer and director Duffy telling someone it’s not homophobic because the character’s gay so it can’t be—and the performance is weird combination of horrifying and exhilarating. Dafoe plays it to the nth degree; sadly because Duffy’s a terrible writer and terrible director, none of it’s successful but the scene where Dafoe acts out an action movie scene is the closest to “good” Boondock ever gets. If only it weren’t so stupid.

Identifying when, how, and why Dafoe’s scenes are offensive is fodder for a doctoral thesis. Not even getting to the transphobia.

Boondock Saints tells the story of brothers Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus. They don’t have the most successful Irish accents but aren’t actually particularly bad… because the roles are absolute nothing parts. They discover they’re really good at killing gangsters and go Frank Castle, only with godawful banter and lousy action scenes. Dafoe’s ostensibly on their trail but he’s having a crisis of conscience because he deep down thinks they’re right.

Della Rocco is their low level gangster friend who ends up joining their crusade but without any of the moral imperative. He just wants to kill people. And hit women.

Though given the film introduces Flanery and Reedus beating up a female coworker because, hey, they’re Irish guys and why can’t she take a joke, it’s Saint Paddy’s Day. Or something.

I understand Boondock Saints is low budget, but they really didn’t think to get any actual news footage of Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations in Boston? Like, the scene of it in the movie is seven or eight guys at the bar in an otherwise empty establishment.

Anyway. Most of Della Rocco’s most offensive stuff is in his solo scenes or at least solo shots, like Flanery and Reedus’s agents were like, maybe don’t be in the room with him and Ron Jeremy deciding how to be the most racist or the shot where he assaults a woman. There’s also this thing, which has less to do with Della Rocco and more to do with Duffy, about how Della Rocco’s girlfriend is a druggie… who’d do anything for a “dime bag” (of weed). Because… those pot addict women really are… something.

Like everything in Boondocks any thinking about it is overthinking.

Technically, the least incompetent feature is probably… the editing. It’s not well-edited and the action sequence editing is silly, but Bill DeRonde’s cutting isn’t noticeably bad. Duffy’s composition is lousy but Adam Kane’s photography still manages to make it worse. The lighting is bad. Jeff Danna’s music is bad. Robert de Vico’s production design and Mary E. McLeod’s costumes, they’re bad. But the cutting’s okay. It doesn’t make an impression, which is the best you can hope for with this one.

Performances… I mean, Dafoe’s doing a tour de force no doubt, but it’s not one worth seeing. Even if it weren’t problematic, it’s still not worth suffering the bad direction and script. Flanery and Reedus seem to get better as the film progress, which is more Della Rocco being in it more and being so amateurish. Billy Connolly’s cameo is… the nearest the film gets to actually funny. David Ferry and Brian Mahoney might actually give the most solid performances as a couple local detectives. Otherwise the cops are all bad.

The gangsters are all bad.

Everything’s bad. And never in interesting ways. Because interesting would be too much for Duffy and Boondock Saints.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Troy Duffy; director of photography, Adam Kane; edited by Bill DeRonde; music by Jeff Danna; production designer, Robert de Vico; costume designer, Mary E. McLeod; produced by Chris Brinker, Robert N. Fried, Elie Samaha, and Lloyd Segan; released by Indican Pictures.

Starring Willem Dafoe (Paul Smecker), Sean Patrick Flanery (Connor MacManus), Norman Reedus (Murphy MacManus), David Della Rocco (Rocco), David Ferry (Detective Dolly), Brian Mahoney (Detective Duffy), Bob Marley (Detective Greenly), Carlo Rota (Yakavetta), and Billy Connolly (Il Duce).


John Wick (2014, Chad Stahelski)

John Wick is all right. It feels like if it’d been made in the nineties, it’d have been revolutionary. Instead, it uses all the revolutionary and not revolutionary film techniques since the nineties to make the ultimate in mainstream heavy metal neo-pulp, with a twist of seventies exploitation for good measure. It succeeds because of lead Keanu Reeves, who’s got the best pleasant angry face and does enough of his stunts—and director Stahelski knows how to showcase Reeves during those stunts—to keep the viewer engaged with his unstoppable killing machine as he moves through the video game of a story.

The film opens with Reeves seemingly fatally wounded, nothing left to do but watch a video of him and Bridget Moynahan on a beach. Cue flashback montage showing how Reeves and Moynahan were happily together (married we find out, post-montage), then she dies (from a long-term fatal illness), then she (posthumously) gets Reeves an adorable little puppy to keep him company. To this point, we haven’t seen Reeves do any action hero stuff. In fact, it feels like the film’s doing a riff on tearjerkers, only tongue in cheek.

Only then Russian mob weasel Alfie Allen steals Reeves’s car and kills the puppy so Reeves is going to get payback. The film’s first act is a lot better written than anything else, even when it feels like video game cutscenes. And John Leguizamo’s first act cameo as the first guy from the old life Reeves meets up with. Turns out Allen is son of Reeves’s former employer, Michael Nyqvist, who owes his empire to Reeves. Great performance from Nyqvist. Not a great part, unfortunately, but a great performance nonetheless.

The rest of the film, outside the detailed world-building with hotels in a Flatiron Building stand-in where all the assassins stay and it’s off limits for contracts and everyone pays each other in single gold coins and Reeves gets power-up pills because it’s kind of just Super Mario Bros. John Wick’s never very complicated. It’s got a lot of guns (without being too gun porn-y, Stahelski’s about the action not the details), a lot of bit characters, and a lot of thorough action scenes courtesy Stahelski, producer and apparently uncredited co-director David Leitch, cinematographer Jonathan Sela, but really editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir. Ronaldsdóttir, almost as much as Reeves, makes John Wick. Even when the movie’s too loud for too long—the heavy metal action thing is no joke, they have a new Marilyn Manson song for John Wick. The film’s incredibly committed to itself. Even when it gets a little much. Stahelski’s good at the action scenes but they’re not technically innovative, they’re just excellent. The film’s a series of successfully established techniques, in action, in storytelling, smartly arranged, given life by a perfectly stone-faced Reeves and an exceptional editor.

The supporting cast has some excellent extended cameos—Ian McShane, Willem Dafoe. Lance Reddick… fine, but not excellent because it’s a crap cameo. Adrianne Palicki is better than you’d think in her extended cameo as unscrupulous fellow assassin but she’s not particularly good. She’s fine. The only one not fine is Dean Winters, as Nyqvist’s chief flunky; he serves no purpose in the film other than to take up space. Someone could make something amusing out of it, Winters does not. And Allen’s decent as the standard failed son of great mobster but he ends up with nothing to do. Except somehow be the only person Reeves can’t manage to hit.

Finally, if you are going to give John Wick a watch, I feel I need to warn you about the subtitles. The film stylizes its subtitles in some truly obnoxious ways. The worst thing isn’t even the visual appearance—I mean, of course it is but the absurd visual appearance just draws attention to the pointlessness of the dialogue. If he’s not writing monologues for the guest stars, writer Derek Kolstad’s got no idea what to say. When it’s Reeves, who doesn’t have to say anything (in fact, most of his dialogue is eventually just him repeating back statements from his adversaries), it’s fine. When it’s guest stars monologuing, it’s fine. When it’s the bad guys talking about Reeves coming to kill them and what they need to do?

It’s nonsense.

In the end, Wick’s nonsense and its successes basically even out. It’s definitely a successful action movie, but maybe not a significant one… because it’s just built on previous films’ significant successes. Wick riffs on a number of them, just with the technology and ability to execute them flawlessly, but without any character and without any risk.

So thank goodness for Reeves and Ronaldsdóttir. And Nyqvist.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Chad Stahelski; written by Derek Kolstad; director of photography, Jonathan Sela;edited by Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir; music by Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard; production designer, Dan Leigh; costume designer, Luca Mosca; produced by Basil Iwanyk, David Leitch, Eva Longoria, and Mike Witherill; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Michael Nyqvist (Viggo Tarasov), Alfie Allen (Iosef Tarasov), Willem Dafoe (Marcus), Dean Winters (Avi), Adrianne Palicki (Ms. Perkins), Omer Barnea (Gregori), Toby Leonard Moore (Victor), Daniel Bernhardt (Kirill), Bridget Moynahan (Helen), John Leguizamo (Aurelio), Ian McShane (Winston), Bridget Regan (Addy), and Lance Reddick (Charon).


Aquaman (2018, James Wan)

Just because you can get Patrick Wilson to say “Call me, Oceanmaster!” over and over again with a straight face doesn’t necessarily mean you should have Patrick Wilson say “Call me, Oceanmaster!” over and over again.

Unless director James Wan was just trying to get my wife to laugh uproariously. Every time. Because every time it’s so absurdly dumb the only reasonable response is to laugh. Uproariously.

Kind of like Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s B-villain. Not only is Abdul-Mateen terrible, not only is the writing of the character risible, his arc is one of a buffoon. He’s Elmer Fudd. Not even with a pseudo-tragic storyline does he get any depth. He’s just Elmer Fudd with some pseudo-tragedy.

Abdul-Mateen probably gives the worst performance. His only serious competition is Nicole Kidman, who plays Aqua-mom. She’s supposed to be the next queen of Atlantis but runs away to Maine and shacks up with Temeura Morrison, as Aqua-dad. Their abbreviated love affair–which tries to make up for the actors abject lack of chemistry with hilarious CGI de-aging on Morrison–results in Momoa. Well, not Momoa yet, but a series of bad kid actors playing Aqua-boy. Eventually it’s Momoa.

He narrates the opening. Poorly, but it’s poorly written. Wilson’s exposition about why he wants to be called “Oceanmaster” is actually better written than a lot of the film’s exposition. The only person who manages to get Aquaman’s expository dialogue out with any success is Amber Heard. She’s Momoa’s love interest and a princess of Atlantis who wants to stop Wilson from waging war on the surface world. Even though he’s probably right? Though Atlantis seems like a barbaric place. Ancient Rome with technology. Kind of. The movie doesn’t spend a lot of time there. Just enough for a CGI chase sequence involving undersea vehicles.

The CGI is impressive though. A lot of Aquaman‘s CGI is impressive. Not the de-aging stuff. Or when it’s for the action scenes involving the actors; Wan directs fight scenes like it’s a video game on fast forward. At once point he does first person shooter, at another he toggles between two characters’ simultaneous action scenes. The latter is very nearly effective, if it weren’t so poorly photographed. At some point–very early on–in Aquaman, it becomes clear cinematographer Don Burgess and Wan don’t care at all about the lighting matching when they’re shooting the actors on green screen. The composites are universally terrible. It usually doesn’t affect the action too much, except when Aquaman is in its Indiana Jones phase with Momoa and Heard globe-trotting to find an ancient super-powered trident.

Wait, I was actually complimenting the CGI, wasn’t I? Yeah, the extreme long shots with the undersea action–all CGI, obviously–looks great. Wan does those shots well. He doesn’t so establishing shots well and he doesn’t acknowledge any physicality–like, really, what does cinematographer Burgess do on this movie, he doesn’t even stop Wan from shooting through where a wall ought to be–but the undersea CGI stuff can be cool. And competent, which is a nice change from when there are the lousy composites or the crappy action scenes or the writing.

Momoa can’t really lead a movie, but it doesn’t matter because David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall’s script is so bad no one could lead Aquaman. Momoa’s fine. What are you going to do with this script. The romantic stuff between him and Heard is absurd, but who cares. It’s nowhere near as bad as, I don’t know, Abdul-Mateen or Kidman and Morrison and, well, you’re rooting for Amber Heard. She works hard in this movie, trying to carry Momoa both in character and as an actor in scenes. Heard pretends her character in Aquaman is serious, which no one else in the movie does… except maybe Willem Dafoe (only because you can never tell if he’s being tongue-in-cheek) and Dolph Lundgren. Lundgren’s Heard’s father and Wilson’s war ally. He’s not good–it’s a crap role–but he takes it seriously.

Momoa doesn’t take his part seriously, which is a good move since his whole character arc relies on something the movie doesn’t clearly inform the audience about even though they should’ve known about it from the beginning. Wilson either. They’re half-brothers fighting for the throne. They ought to have some chemistry.

They have zilch. Partially because Wan doesn’t direct them for it, partially because the script really wants to subject the audience to Abdul-Mateen.

Rupert Gregson-Williams’s music occasionally gets really loud and cartoonishly action-y. It’s at those moments Aquaman ostensibly has its most potential for outlandish action. Wan never delivers. Not even during his CGI chase scenes, which are abbreviated, or his “elaborate” fight scenes. Aquaman runs almost two and a half hours, has a present action of a few days, yet is almost entirely in summary. Sure, Johnson-McGoldrick and Beall write godawful scenes, but Wan doesn’t do anything to slow that pace.

When Gregson-Williams’s score isn’t writing checks the movie can’t cash, it’s pretty tepid and generic. Still has more personality than Burgess’s photography. Aquaman does better underwater; Bill Brzeski’s production design goes to pot whenever the action surfaces. Though, again, it’s where Burgess’s photography is worst. So it’s a lose-lose.

Could Aquaman be worse? Undoubtedly. Should Aquaman be better? Sure? There’s no reason it ought to be so bad. Or so dumb. Or predictable. Or so obvious.

Though, again, if it weren’t so obvious, could Momoa lead the picture….

But it definitely shouldn’t be so bad. It shouldn’t be so technically inept. Its actors–save Kidman–deserve a script better than what Johnson-McGoldrick and Beall contribute; you wouldn’t play with your action figures with their dialogue. It’s too plastic.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by James Wan; screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, based on a story by Geoff Johns, Wan, and Beall and the DC Comics character created by Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris; director of photography, Don Burgess; edited by Kirk M. Morri; music by Rupert Gregson-Williams; production designer, Bill Brzeski; produced by Peter Safran and Rob Cowan; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Jason Momoa (Arthur), Amber Heard (Mera), Patrick Wilson (King Orm), Willem Dafoe (Vulko), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Manta), Temuera Morrison (Tom Curry), Dolph Lundgren (King Nereus), and Nicole Kidman (Atlanna).


The Florida Project (2017, Sean Baker)

The Florida Project turns out to be a lot about perspective. Director Baker establishes three different perspectives–six-year-old Brooklynn Prince, her mom (Bria Vinaite), and the manager of the motel where they live (William Dafoe). The film takes place over a summer, as Prince makes new friends and loses old ones. The kids have numerous adventures, occasionally sweet, sometimes rude, sometimes dangerous, often funny. Vinaite has recently lost her job as a stripper when the movie starts, something which Baker only addresses from Prince’s perspective. Because it doesn’t seem important to Prince’s story.

And for most of the film, it isn’t. Most of Florida Project is split between Prince and company’s adventures and how much trouble they cause for Dafoe. But it’s not too much trouble because Dafoe’s really a big softy. He’s caring and compassionate and trapped in a cage of his own making. He’s trying to do what’s right.

Each of Prince’s friends has a somewhat different living situation as far as parents or guardians go, but they all live in the same motel or nearby. Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch do great with getting in the exposition about how it works, living in motels (i.e. occupancy laws, dining, rent). There’s a lot of visual emphasis on the green paradise of a setting. Baker and photographer Alexis Zabe set these characters, with their often dangerous problems, against this idyllic backdrop.

It’s gorgeous but leads to another problem of perspective; do they characters acknowledge the beauty around them? For a while it seems like Dafoe might. Unfortunately, as the film enters its second half and focuses more on Vinaite and Prince together, its treatment of Dafoe changes. It’s no longer watching him–from Prince’s perspective–but giving him a scene here or there, just to keep him present. He even gets an utterly uncooked subplot involving Caleb Landry Jones. For two scenes. With no pay-off. Or even affect on Dafoe’s arc.

The second half turns out to be rife with character revelations, as Vinaite’s friendship with fellow mom Mela Murder turns out to be a bait and switch as far as plot progression expectations. It’s too bad, as Murder made Vinaite a lot less obnoxious (not in a bad way though) in her plotline. Instead, Vinaite and Prince’s plotlines pretty much join–Prince’s adventures, while more visually glorious, becoming subplot–and it’s mostly a reveal of Vinaite. Turns out by sticking with Prince, Baker was really skirting away from a lot of truth about mom Vinaite. Prince never figures it out, which then changes the narrative distance as far as she and the friends go. And it turns out Dafoe’s unreliable too.

None of it’s bad. Baker isn’t sneaky or tricky in the filmmaking. The scenes are always right on. They just maybe aren’t the right scenes for where the movie ends up going. A lack of information is built into how the movie works–it’s from a six-year-old’s perspective, sometimes including height–and the composition, the photography, the editing, and Lorne Balfe’s music captivate throughout. Baker just doesn’t mix in the the captivating and epical action well. Especially not since he has this final intellectual reveal he really could’ve worked in sooner and gotten greater effect.

Because, of course, it turns out even though the movie sticks with Prince, she’s got her own relevation offscreen things going on.

So Florida Project is lyrical until it’s epical. It does better with the lyrical because it hasn’t been doing the work to be epical. Beautiful filmmaking can only cover so much.

Lots of great acting. Dafoe’s phenomenal, even if he never gets a pay-off. Though no one gets a pay-off; maybe Vinaite. But even hers is problematic. She’s good. She’d probably be better if Baker defined the character better in the first act. Instead of having development, she has character revelation. A minor tweak of focus would’ve helped a bunch.

The kids are awesome. Prince, Christopher Rivera, Valeria Cotto, Aiden Malik. Rivera plays Murder’s son and is best friend #1. Cotto becomes best friend #2. Malik is sort of background. Baker knows how to direct the kids to get some amazing moments. Even when they’re just goofing off.

In the supporting roles, Murder is good but eventually undercooked. She’s not reliable either. Josie Olivo is great in a smaller part as Cotto’s grandmother and maybe the closest thing to a good role model Vinaite encounters.

The film’s a technical marvel. Interiors, exteriors, long shots, close-ups, Zabe’s photography is always perfect. Same goes for Baker’s cutting. Balfe’s score is perfect.

The Florida Project is nearly great. Instead, it’s almost great. With some exceptional performances, direction, and technical aspects.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Sean Baker; written by Baker and Chris Bergoch; director of photography, Alexis Zabe; music by Lorne Balfe; production designer, Stephonik Youth; produced by Baker, Bergoch, Kevin Chinoy, Andrew Duncan, Alex Saks, Francesca Silvestri, Shih-Ching Tsou; released by A24.

Starring Brooklynn Prince (Moonee), Bria Vinaite (Halley), Willem Dafoe (Bobby), Valeria Cotto (Jancey), Christopher Rivera (Scooty), Mela Murder (Ashley), Aiden Malik (Dicky), Caleb Landry Jones (Jack), Josie Olivo (Stacy).


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).


Mr. Bean’s Holiday (2007, Steve Bendelack)

From start to finish, Mr. Bean’s Holiday proves a constant delight. Hamish McColl and Robin Driscoll’s plot is simple–send Rowan Atkinson’s constantly aloof and impossibly unlucky Mr. Bean to France on a holiday. There’s an immediate scene establishing the travel route and then Atkinson gets in trouble at every point along the way.

He eventually gains a young sidekick in Max Baldry, a nemesis in Willem Dafoe and a lady friend in Emma de Caunes. Of course, Atkinson doesn’t talk much and Baldry speaks Russian and de Caunes speaks French. So no one can understand each other, except when Dafoe’s screaming (in English). There’s a whole connection with Cannes Film Festival, but it never feels too forced; the way the film introduces Dafoe (as a pretentious director) is brilliant. The script sets it up passively in one set piece, then brings it up later. It’s such a memorable establishing scene, however, it needs time to fully ripen.

Part of the story involves Atkinson videotaping everything on a camcorder. Director Bendelack nicely mixes the footage in, sometimes utilizing the camcorder footage to further the main plot. It’s a great device for the film, particularly since the camcorder is the plot catalyst.

Beautiful photography from Baz Irvine and a great score from Howard Goodall, don’t want to forget those.

The three principal costars are great–Dafoe, de Caunes, Baldry–and they have great chemistry with the phenomenal Atkinson.

Aside from some slight pacing issues, Holiday is masterful comedy. It’s short, simple and near perfect.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Steve Bendelack; screenplay by Hamish McColl and Robin Driscoll, based on a story by Simon McBurney and a character created by Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis; director of photography, Baz Irvine; edited by Tony Cranstoun; music by Howard Goodall; production designer, Michael Carlin; produced by Peter Bennett-Jones, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), Emma de Caunes (Sabine), Max Baldry (Stepan), Willem Dafoe (Carson Clay), Jean Rochefort (Maitre’D), Karel Roden (Emil) and Steve Pemberton (Vicar).


The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, Martin Scorsese)

The Last Temptation of Christ opens with a passage presumably from the introduction to the novel, as it’s the novel’s writer talking about his own feelings. It’s an odd choice, since it somehow removes the drive for the picture from the filmmakers and puts it on someone else.

It’s a very intentional move from Scorsese; Last Temptation is full of very intentional moves. While the film did have a relatively low budget, it still has an amazing crew–Michael Ballhaus’s photography is masterful and Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is sublime (particularly for the first half).

Scorsese and Ballhaus open with muted colors. Willem Dafoe’s narration has to carry the fantastical elements until the journey of self-discovery picks up and color finally leaks in. The supporting cast–Harvey Keitel in particular–also lend to the mundane feeling. Keitel might be playing Judas, but he’s also the stand-in for the viewer. The approach works.

The film has two major transitions. First is when Dafoe and company get to Jerusalem the first time. Instead of journeying about, Last Temptation becomes all about getting to the crucifixion. That change probably isn’t anyone’s fault… at some point it has to be about getting to the cross. Still, Scorsese could have paced it better.

Then the cross itself, when Scorsese respectfully apes 2001. The end does save the picture, but there’s definite rough road.

Great music from Peter Gabriel, excellent lead performance from Dafoe, strong supporting turns.

Even with its problems, Last Temptation’s mostly magnificent.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Scorsese; screenplay by Paul Schrader, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; music by Peter Gabriel; production designer, John Beard; produced by Barbara De Fina; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Willem Dafoe (Jesus), Harvey Keitel (Judas), Barbara Hershey (Mary Magdalene), Verna Bloom (Mary, Mother of Jesus), Andre Gregory (John The Baptist), Gary Basaraba (Andrew, Apostle), Victor Argo (Peter, Apostle), Michael Been (John, Apostle), Paul Herman (Phillip, Apostle), John Lurie (James, Apostle), Alan Rosenberg (Thomas, Apostle), Leo Burmester (Nathaniel, Apostle), Peggy Gormley (Martha, Sister of Lazarus), Randy Danson (Mary, Sister of Lazarus), Tomas Arana (Lazarus), Roberts Blossom (Aged Master), Barry Miller (Jeroboam), Harry Dean Stanton (Saul), David Bowie (Pontius Pilate) and Juliette Caton (The Angel).


White Sands (1992, Roger Donaldson)

It’s not hard to identify the problem with White Sands. Daniel Pyne’s script is terrible. His characters often act without motivation and the double and triple crosses he writes into the plot never have any pay-off. It doesn’t help director Donaldson sees himself–and not incorrectly to a point–doing a desert noir in the vein of Touch of Evil. But Sands is too big for a desert noir and Donaldson doesn’t have any tricks, except good Panavision composition, once the desert element runs out.

There are a lot of good performances in the film–Donaldson casted a lot of fine character actors–but Willem Dafoe is an ineffective lead. A lot of that deficiency is the script’s fault, but Dafoe doesn’t bring any implied depth. It’s a casting misfire (bad guy Mickey Rourke, who’s quite good, would have been a better lead).

Samuel L. Jackson, M. Emmet Walsh, Miguel Sandoval, John P. Ryan and Fred Dalton Thompson all provide texture to the supporting cast. Walsh isn’t doing anything new and Jackson gets off to a rocky start, but they’re fine. The only other misfire is Maura Tierney, who’s absurd.

As Dafoe’s erstwhile romantic interest, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is okay. If the script were better and gave her a real part (she doesn’t even show up until a half hour in), she’d do better.

There’s excellent photography from Peter Menzies Jr. and Patrick O’Hearn’s score often makes Sands seem like a better film.

With a rewrite, it would’ve been.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Roger Donaldson; written by Daniel Pyne; director of photography, Peter Menzies Jr.; edited by Nicholas Beauman; music by Patrick O’Hearn; production designer, John Graysmark; produced by Scott Rudin and William Sackheim; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Willem Dafoe (Ray Dolezal), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Lane Bodine), Mickey Rourke (Gorman Lennox), Samuel L. Jackson (Greg Meeker), Miguel Sandoval (FBI Agent Ruiz), M. Emmet Walsh (Bert Gibson), James Rebhorn (FBI Agent Flynn), John Lafayette (FBI Agent Demott), Maura Tierney (Noreen), Alexander Nicksay (Ben Dolezal), John P. Ryan (Arms Dealer), Fred Dalton Thompson (Arms Dealer) and Mimi Rogers (Molly Dolezal).


Spider-Man 3 (2007, Sam Raimi)

After having two decent Danny Elfman scores similar to his two Batman scores, Raimi brought in composer Christopher Young, who does a terrible job, sure, but also mimics the (non-Elfman) score to Batman Forever. The music in this film makes the ears bleed.

In theory, following the great financial and critical success of Spider-Man 2, Raimi should have been able to do whatever he wanted with this entry. And maybe he did. But if he did, his truest intent for a Spider-Man movie was to make an unbearable one.

It’s real bad. The only thing the film has going for it is James Franco. It ought to have Thomas Haden Church in the plus column too, but the handling of his character is exceptionally bad. Haden Church barely gets any screen time and the film ends without resolving whether his innocent, sickly daughter is going to die or not.

Topher Grace’s villain, the evil Spider-Man, is exceptionally lame. Have I already used exceptionally in this response? I’ll use it again. Just awful, awful writing. Grace is almost mediocre, but can’t essay the character properly; he instills too much sitcom charm.

Tobey Maguire apparently didn’t even bother getting in shape for this one. Raimi gives him an evil mop haircut at one point, for his evil scenes, so the viewer knows he’s bad.

J.K. Simmons is good and Elizabeth Banks finally gets some decent lines.

So it’s not a completely awful film, just extremely close to one.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Raimi; screenplay by Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent, from the screen story by Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi and based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; director of photography, Bill Pope; edited by Bob Murawski; music by Christopher Young and Danny Elfman; production designers, Neil Spisak and J. Michael Riva; produced by Laura Ziskin, Avi Arad and Grant Curtis; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tobey Maguire (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane Watson), James Franco (Harry Osborn), Thomas Haden Church (Flint Marko/Sandman), Topher Grace (Eddie Brock), Bryce Dallas Howard (Gwen Stacy), James Cromwell (Captain Stacy), Rosemary Harris (Aunt May), J.K. Simmons (J. Jonah Jameson), Theresa Russell (Emma Marko), Dylan Baker (Dr. Curt Connors), Bill Nunn (Robbie Robertson), Elizabeth Banks (Miss Brant), Ted Raimi (Hoffman), Perla Haney-Jardine (Penny Marko), Willem Dafoe (Green Goblin/Norman Osborn), Cliff Robertson (Ben Parker) and Bruce Campbell (Maître d’).


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