Three (2016, Johnnie To)

Three is about a dirty cop (Louis Koo), a determined doctor (Zhao Wei), and an injured criminal (Wallace Chung). It’s not real time, but its present action is probably seven hours–in an under ninety minute runtime–so it’s close. Zhao is supposed to be getting more and more tired because she refuses to go home from work. Koo’s getting fed up, Chung should be suffering effects from the bullet lodged in his skull. There should be a lot of tension.

And there isn’t. Even when the script goes out of its way to foreshadow tense sequences, it’s never tense. Director To puts so little time into the performances, it’s impossible to emphasize even superficially with any of the cast. And it’s set in a hospital. There are sick people who should be likable. But To never puts anything into the characters. He’s all about this artificial sense of place. Three’s hospital isn’t nitty gritty or pragmatic and functional. It’s often CG. The ultra wide-angle shots, where the actors all stand around and pretend to be intense, hint at some possibility, but To’s either checked out or just doing a bad job.

The script isn’t good. It goes on and on to get to the big events, whether it’s a shootout or Chung revealing himself to be a genius against Koo’s less and less competent cop. Making Koo corrupt–and his entire character motivation built around it–is one of the lamer aspects of the script. It turns Koo’s character into something of a dope and gives Koo, as an actor, almost nothing to do. Chung’s better because the part–manic, superviolent, supersmart criminal–is better. Chung’s character is the trope too, which is just another problem with the script. Writers Yau Nai-hoi, Lau Ho-leung, and Mak Tin-shu are terrible with the character stuff. They’re not much better planning out the reveals, but they’re worse with the character stuff.

Yet, To’s good enough at keeping it moving he’s able to move Three over the more glaring problems. Zhao’s unlikable evil doctor–she’s not just an uncaring woman doctor, she’s also an overambitious country girl–is reduced to this absurd, derisive point. The script gives her bad material and then makes it worse. She functions in the film as the scapegoat. And because she’s an ambitious woman it’s even worse.

Watching Three, especially in the third act, really felt like watching something from the early nineties. The slow motion action sequences–which all have something flipping over in the air–and the weak music choices (and score). It wastes a compelling hook–they’re all trapped in a hospital after all–but keeps promising it eventually won’t waste it. Then it does. Watching the movie, you see it run out of steam. Everything catches up and drags it down.

Cheng Siu-Keung’s photography is occasionally great, occasionally not. It’s usually competent and able to keep up with To when it seems like he’s building to some kind of visual pace. He never gets to one. David Richardson’s editing is mundane but competent.

It’s a rather depressing seventy-five minutes; fifteen in is about where it’s clear Three isn’t going to work out. But it’s not clear until the very end just how disappointing it’s going to turn out. And To still does do some interesting things–those wide shots, for example–but it doesn’t matter. The rest of his work is either disinterested or just bad. Three’s a stinker.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Johnnie To; written by Yau Nai-hoi, Lau Ho-leung, and Mak Tin-shu; director of photography, Cheng Siu-keung; edited by David Richardson; music by Xavier Jamaux; production designer, Cheung Siu-hong; produced by To and Yau; released by Media Asia Film.

Starring Zhao Wei (Dr. Tong), Louis Koo (Chief Inspector Ken), Wallace Chung (Shun), Lo Hoi-pang (Chung), Cheung Siu-fai (Dr. Fok), and Lam Suet (Fatty).


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Never Say Goodbye (1946, James V. Kern)

The first thirty-nine percent of Never Say Goodbye is phenomenally paced. It could be a short movie, if there were a little tragedy through in. A little melodrama. Seven year-old Patti Brady is moving back in with mom Eleanor Parker after living six months with dad Errol Flynn. They’re divorced. Flynn’s a successful cheesecake pinup artist and a cad, Parker was his star model and a Fifth Avenue blue blood. But they still love each other, Brady just knows they do.

And, even just as light forties screwball, it’s pretty good. S.Z. Sakall is the loveably inept owner of their favorite restaurant, Flynn is charming, Parker is lovely. Brady’s kind of cute. Her performance is fine. She’s not too obnoxious. She’s good with the other actors, but less so when she’s got to do a scene on her own. Hattie McDaniel’s her nurse. McDaniel’s good. Everyone’s kind of good.

Only then the script jumps ahead two months. I.A.L. Diamond and director Kern, in the second two thirds of the film, basically just string together screwball sequences. Not bad ones, but not great ones. It doesn’t help Lucile Watson–as Parker’s disapproving mother–is no fun. She’s not bad, just no fun. Donald Woods is no good as Parker’s new suitor, even if he does get one of the good screwball sequences.

The last third is similar. Forrest Tucker shows up. McDaniel and Watson (and Woods) are all gone. There’s new screwball, but nothing particularly good; it’s the weakest section–Parker’s characterization completely changes and Brady becomes incidental.

A lot of it is Kern’s mediocre direction–he manages to mess up a sequence where Flynn is pretending to be a Bogart tough guy (voiced by Bogart himself)–and a lot of it is the script. Flynn’s character is generic. Parker’s is even more generic. They’re both charming but don’t really have any chemistry. They’re far better with Brady than one another, which really cuts into the film itself’s charm.

It’s a really boring movie too. It’s less than a hundred minutes, but once that first third is up? Never Say Goodbye never gets moving again.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by James V. Kern; screenplay by I.A.L. Diamond and Kern, adaptation by Lewis R. Foster, based on a story by Ben Barzman and Norma Barzman; director of photography, Arthur Edeson; edited by Folmar Blangsted; music by Friedrich Hollaender; produced by William Jacobs; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Errol Flynn (Phil), Eleanor Parker (Ellen), Patti Brady (Flip), S.Z. Sakall (Luigi), Hattie McDaniel (Cozy), Forrest Tucker (Cpl. Lonkowski), Donald Woods (Rex), Peggy Knudsen (Nancy Graham), Tom D’Andrea (Jack Gordon), and Lucile Watson (Mrs. Hamilton).


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Director | John Carpenter, Part 1: The Wonder Years

Between 1974 to 1981, John Carpenter directed five independent feature films–Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, and Escape from New York. Three of those first five films–Dark Star, Precinct 13, Escape–are phenomenal motion pictures and should have established Carpenter as a significant seventies American filmmaker. They did not. Only recently have Carpenter’s accomplishments gotten their due and it’s been a long road. Carpenter, with his casts and crews, innovated–sometimes big time (popularizing POV in Halloween or steadicam usage in Escape), sometimes small (Halloween’s emphasis on female characters)–and created low budget genre films with a far greater depth and ambition than most of their big budget contemporaries.

The able crew of DARK STAR.
The able crew of DARK STAR.

Carpenter’s first film, Dark Star, was a collaboration with fellow University of Southern California film student Dan O’Bannon. They co-wrote the screenplay; Carpenter produced, directed, scored; O’Bannon acted, edited, and did many of the special effects. The film, shot for around $60,000, tells the story of a spaceship on a dumb mission in deep space. It’s always absurd, sometimes touching. Instead of seeing 2001 stoned, Dark Star is “2001 with stoners.” Doofus astronauts who really don’t get along, usually in hilarious ways; they also aren’t equipped–intellectually–for dealing with their mission, which turns out to be their last. Mostly just because they’re so bad at their jobs.

Dark Star (1974). ★★★★. 2006 review
Dark Star (1974). ★★★★. 2006 review

What Dark Star doesn’t have in budget, Carpenter and O’Bannon compensate with ingenuity, whether for special effects or just set design. The film’s got a short present action, forcing the filmmakers to establish characters and settings quickly. And, while the script’s hilarious, it’s through O’Bannon’s editing and Carpenter’s directing Dark Star reaches its rather significant heights. It’s seems like the ending, where the film gets so touching, is all thanks to Carpenter. Of course, O’Bannon is also acting–in the film’s “biggest” role (or at least the one with the most memorable moments)–so he gets to be responsible for a little more of the film’s excellence. Dark Star is the best the (too small) sci-fi comedy genre has to offer, regardless of budget.

In space, no one can hear you scream.
In space, no one can hear you scream.

And the film gets no love, even though it’s had numerous home video releases, including DVD and blu-ray special editions. Unfortunately, the latest blu-ray edition does not contain the sixty-eight minute version of the film–Carpenter and O’Bannon’s cut–and instead includes only the padded out theatrical release. The film’s very “un-Carpenter” and very low budget for its concept, which probably–and tragically–hinders more interest. It never even got interest for its “hunt the alien” sequence, which O’Bannon basically repeated a few years later in, you know, Alien. Not even being a proto-Alien in parts can get Dark Star love.

Austin Stoker, Laurie Zimmer, and Darwin Joston  have had a rough night.
Austin Stoker, Laurie Zimmer, and Darwin Joston have had a rough night.

In addition to getting some love with his next film, Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter also established a number of his early output’s tropes–he’s shooting in Panavision, he’s got Charles Cyphers and Nancy Kyes in supporting roles, he’s working filmic miracles without a lot of money. Precinct 13 has a relatively simple story–a police precinct under siege from a gang–albeit with quite a bit of setup and a nice assorted cast to get through said siege. There’s competition, tragedy, romance, friendship, fear, and a lot of jaw-dropping action. Even more jaw-dropping considering the film’s low budget. Carpenter handles the editing himself (along with the music) and brings cinematographer Douglas Knapp along from Dark Star, but their visual collaboration here is leagues ahead of that film.

Austin Stoker and Darwin Joston star in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, directed by John Carpenter for Turtle Releasing.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). ★★★★. 2013 review

Unlike Dark Star, which felt like a collaboration between Carpenter and O’Bannon, Precinct 13 is all Carpenter. He’s outrageous, he’s subtle, he’s sensitive, he’s vicious. The script is lean, but full of material for the actors, even in the smallest roles. There’s a sterile precision in its wide Panavision frame, but still a good deal of warmth. I’ve seen the film almost a dozen times and there’s always something else to find in it. Carpenter’s assured and enthusiastic in his film with his name possessively above the title. And the cast is phenomenal.

The end of a quiet night.
The end of a quiet night.

Assault on Precinct 13–after apparently being forgotten for about twenty years–got a lot of home video attention in the late nineties. Not just LaserDisc, but also a letterboxed VHS so people could finally appreciate Carpenter and Knapp’s Panavision composition. After some lackluster DVD releases, the film finally has a nice blu-ray release; people now get to see Assault on Precinct 13 for the first time not just widescreen, but with a great transfer. And, to a certain extent, people are seeing it. It doesn’t have the recognition it deserves–Carpenter films rarely do–but it’s got a far better one than it once did.

The Babysitters Club.
The Babysitters Club.

Carpenter’s third film is still his biggest hit. The simple story of a confused young man visiting his hometown on Halloween. Sure, he’s an inhuman, murderous psychopath on a killing spree, but it’s still a pretty simple film. Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill split the film between Donald Pleasence (in his first of three memorable performances for Carpenter) hunting the psychopath–Pleasence was the boy’s questionably capable therapist–and three teenage girls who become the killer’s targets. Nancy Kyes is back–memorably, as always–as one of the targets, along with Jamie Lee Curtis (who would also work with Carpenter again until legitimate stardom) and P.J. Soles. Charles Cyphers is back. Besides being the first film where Carpenter worked with Hill (who also produced), it’s also his first film with Dean Cundey as cinematographer, kicking off a quintet of five stunning collaborations. Carpenter handles the music himself; it’s his most famous score.

Halloween (1978). ★★★. 2008 review
Halloween (1978). ★★★. 2008 review

As far as the film itself goes, I appreciate it. I do appreciate Halloween. I’m not a particularly big fan of the film, but I do appreciate it. It’s spectacularly made, but there’s just something off about it. As writers, Hill and Carpenter split tasks–she handled the teenage girls, he handled the manhunt. When the two plot lines come together, it gets messy and doesn’t end anywhere near as well as it should. But it’s a technical masterpiece, no doubt. Some excellent acting, some not so excellent acting. Great music, which does too much work. Halloween ends up being either too much of one thing or not enough of another.

The uncanny and the mundane.
The uncanny and the mundane.

For a long time, Halloween was Carpenter’s de facto most popular film. At least until the late nineties. It didn’t cease being his most popular film because of anything he did, rather because in the early days of DVD, Anchor Bay littered stores with various editions. Yes, they had a spectacular initial one, but then they kept double, triple, and quadruple dipping until it became a pain to find the right one. They might have even released it pan and scan, which is a travesty not just because it ruins Carpenter and Cundey’s composition, but because the film’s widescreen release was a big deal. Criterion released a special edition LaserDisc in the mid–1990s, with audio commentary, letterboxed, with the TV edition footage (which Anchor Bay later tracked down widescreen, something Criterion said didn’t exist) and Halloween got elevated to a better position. It wasn’t just the first in a slasher franchise. The double and triple-dipping has continued–exhaustively–into blu-ray. There’s finally a decent edition or two, but enthusiasm for the film has waned as audiences discovered there’s a lot more to John Carpenter than Halloween. There was probably also some franchise fatigue.

“It’s midnight and we’ve just started into the witching hour.”

Following Halloween’s financial success (it was the highest grossing independent film for a couple decades), Hill and Carpenter tried another horror film with The Fog. “There’s something in the fog,” the poster warns, with Jamie Lee Curtis trying to keep something monstrous outside. It’s a very big cast and Carpenter’s first use of well-known actors (outside Donald Pleasence anyway)–Janet Leigh, Hal Holbrook–plus John Houseman in a cameo. As far as returning actors, in addition to Curtis, Charles Cyphers and Nancy Kyes are back–along with a cameo from Darwin Joston (from Assault on Precinct 13). The cast also includes Adrienne Barbeau and Tom Aktins, who’d both work with Carpenter again. The Fog is a ghost story with graphic violence and monsters and people on the run from the ghosts, who live in–you guessed it–The Fog. Cundey’s back on cinematography, Carpenter’s back on score.

The Fog (1980). ★★½. 2009 review
The Fog (1980). ★★½. 2009 review

The Fog is a spectacular looking film. Even better looking than Halloween, with Cundey and Carpenter having a great time doing California seaside. There are some excellent special effects, there are some good performances, some fine moments in the script, some excellent sequences. It’s a technical champ. It’s also got the same serious dramatic problems when bringing all the pieces together. Just like in Halloween, Carpenter and Hill can’t quite transition things together neatly enough. The script gets too bumpy. But The Fog’s still gorgeous.

“Suddenly, out of the night, the fog rolled in. For a moment, they could see nothing, not a foot in front of them. Then, they saw a light.”

Even though The Fog got a special edition LaserDisc around the same time as the other early Carpenter films in the nineties, it’s never really caught on. Growing up, I always knew about it as another of Jamie Lee Curtis’s scream queen movies and not a significant one. There’s an excellent blu-ray for interested viewers, but the film doesn’t seem to get discovered often. Maybe its successes are too technical and not engaging enough. But it has gotten a far better reputation than it once had.

Call him Snake.
Call him Snake.

Carpenter’s last film from this period, before going Hollywood, is Escape from New York. It’s his last film with Hill for fifteen years (until the sequel) and it’s his last film with Jamie Lee Curtis’s involvement–she provides a voice over. It’s also his first film with Alan Howarth associating with him on the score. It’s also his first film with Larry J. Franco producing (Hill’s not on the script here, just coproducing); Franco and Carpenter would work together for the rest of the eighties. Charles Cyphers is back for a bit, along with Donald Pleasence (in something of “guest starring” role). Adrienne Barbeau gets the closest thing to a female lead. But the star–besides the exceptional visual effects–is Kurt Russell. He’s a renegade bank robber in the future who has to go into New York City–now a prison island run by various gangs–and rescue Pleasence (in the future, U.S. Presidents come from Worksop, UK). Along the way he runs into oddballs like Ernest Borgnine and Harry Dean Stanton, not to mention Isaac Hayes as the Duke of New York. Tom Atkins is back in a small part, playing second fiddle to Lee Van Cleef’s future cop. They’re the ones forcing Russell to do the rescue. Action, glorious action, ensues. All beautifully shot by Dean Cundey.

A scene from ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, directed by John Carpenter for Embassy Pictures.
Escape from New York (1981). ★★★★. 2011 review

Escape from New York is John Carpenter doing his biggest budget action movie and it’s phenomenal. The film moves at a great pace, with Carpenter hurtling Russell through the story. Escape only slows down once–and only for a few minutes–and then it races even faster towards its conclusion. Carpenter’s direction is inventive and deliberate; he knows when to restrain the film and when to let it go wild. And he does let it go wild. Only, with a lot of control. Wild, but with a lot of control. It’s the culmination of everything he’s been working on. Maybe not the humor of Dark Star, but everything else. It’s one of the great action movies.

EXT. WORLD TRADE CENTER -- NIGHT The plane comes down.  It hits hard.  Snake puts on the brakes, adds a grappling hook, and finally comes to a stop right at the edge.
EXT. WORLD TRADE CENTER — NIGHT
The plane comes down. It hits hard. Snake puts on the brakes, adds a
grappling hook, and finally comes to a stop right at the edge.

Back in the nineties, when New Line Home Video released Escape from New York on LaserDisc and on a special edition VHS, Carpenter’s career had hit the skids. He had just made a Chevy Chase comedy, but here was this fantastic movie with a nice new video release. A fantastic movie a lot of people hadn’t seen, at least not letterboxed. Escape from New York had that memorable poster–the Statue of Liberty crashed down in the middle of Manhattan–and had been a hit on release, but it didn’t have the best VHS life. At least not into the nineties. New Line really saved it and kicked off a reevaluation of Carpenter’s early work. Since that first release, the film has had some weak DVD releases (New Line either lost the license or gave it up) until finally getting a blu-ray from Shout! Factory. Now everyone can see Escape from New York. But it hasn’t really caught on again like it did back in the nineties. It’s overdue for another rediscovery.

The best John Carpenter film is The Thing, which was the film he made right after Escape from New York (when he went Hollywood). Unless you’re talking about best in terms of most inventive filmmaking, in which case it’s Assault on Precinct 13. Unless you’re talking about best in terms of most ambitious–and successful–filmmaking, in which case it’s Escape from New York. Unless you’re talking about best in terms of moment-to-moment entertainment, in which case it’s Dark Star. Carpenter might not get the respect and regard he deserves, but at least people can finally see how beautifully and exquisitely he made his first films.


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Logan (2017, James Mangold)

The strangest thing about Logan, at least in terms of the plotting, is how director Mangold is desperate to reference a film classic–one with a plot perfectly suited to what he’s purportedly trying to do with Logan–and he doesn’t follow it through. In any of the neat ways he could. Instead, he goes for obvious and superficial.

Mangold is not Logan’s worst enemy, however. He certainly doesn’t help matters, but the script–which he did cowrite–is the big problem. It’s entirely wrapped up in itself; Logan has a long list of contrivances (mostly with the ground situation but also with plot developments and revelations) and, for whatever reason, the script wants to get into all of them. And all the explanations are lame.

Even still, the film would be able to survive if it weren’t for a nightmare third act when the film tries to get away without a protagonist for a while. It’s called Logan, of course, so one would think it’d always be about Hugh Jackman’s aged mutant killing machine who just wants to chill out and live in hiding. He’s got a big secret to keep–one of the ground situation contrivances the film cops out on dealing with entirely–not just from the audience, but from his sidekicks too. See, in retirement from mutant killing machining, Jackman has become a limo driver. He works long hours and then goes home to Patrick Stewart and Stephen Merchant. Stewart’s sick and Merchant’s the live-in nurse and maid, basically. There’s more to it, but not enough. Because there’s never enough in Logan. Everything is supposed to be implied.

Jackman suffers the worst for all those implications. Mangold’s constantly letting other people take the scene in Logan, whether it’s Stewart (who doesn’t exactly steal the show, but only because the script fails him miserably too) or tough guy villain Boyd Holbrook or even pointless cameoing Eriq La Salle. The script demotes Jackman, Mangold does too.

Logan wants to be a lot of things. It wants to be a family bonding movie–not a family movie about bonding, but a movie about family bonding–it wants to be future commentary (Mangold’s weakly executed future setting is another of Logan’s many painfully obvious problems), it wants to be a tough action movie, it wants to be deep. It really, really, really, really wants to be deep. Mangold loves the symbolism here; sadly he can’t decide on how he wants to convey it, so it’s another thing Logan could’ve done and doesn’t.

Even so, Jackman and Stewart are showing up to do the work. They’re trying to deliver that really, really, really, really deep movie. Dafne Keen–as the young mutant Jackman and Stewart are protecting–is pretty good for most of the movie. When she runs into problems, it’s because the script veers into its crappiest.

It’s a lazy script. It’s a weak and lazy script; Mangold doesn’t have the chops to make it work. He’s never distracted, he’s never interested, he’s always detached, always professional. Logan completely lacks personality. The fight scenes are lame, especially when they should be great. Mangold’s got no rhythm to them. John Mathieson’s capably bland photography doesn’t help, neither does the editing–Michael McCusker and Dirk Westervelt are capably bland. Marco Beltrami’s score is one of his best and it too… bland. François Audouy’s production design–his vision of this mutant-free 2029–isn’t capably bland. It’s just weak.

Jackman’s got enough of a presence to get the film to the finish line. Unfortunately, there’s no one waiting there to finish the movie for him. And Stewart’s fun. Shame the script wasn’t there. Shame Mangold couldn’t bring it together. Logan wants to be anything but mediocre and it ends up being nothing but.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by James Mangold; screenplay by Scott Frank, Mangold, and Michael Green, based on a story by Mangold; director of photography, John Mathieson; edited by Michael McCusker and Dirk Westervelt; music by Marco Beltrami; production designer, François Audouy; produced by Simon Kinberg, Hutch Parker, and Lauren Shuler Donner; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Hugh Jackman (Logan), Patrick Stewart (Charles), Dafne Keen (Laura), Boyd Holbrook (Pierce), Stephen Merchant (Caliban), Elizabeth Rodriguez (Gabriela), and Richard E. Grant (Dr. Rice).


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