Thunder Road (2018, Jim Cummings)

Writer, director, and star Cummings has really long takes in Thunder Road. Usually of himself. The film opens with Cummings breaking down giving the eulogy at his mother’s funeral service, which kicks off his life going downhill. Not his mother dying, but the funeral service breakdown. Cummings already isn’t a good public speaker and he’s emotionally distraught and there’s dancing involved. Mom was a dancer. His small city responds by turning him into a viral joke.

Good thing Cummings isn’t very tech savvy.

The film runs ninety minutes. Cummings’s plunge takes up the first hour. He hits bottom and sort of treads water until it’s time for the big finale. Road has a very short third act, which is simultaneously fine—there’s only so much of Cummings’s constant personal failures one can endure—and not what the film needs. It’s what Cummings, star, needs; there’s nothing else Cummings, director, can do on the budget. Any further personal meltdowns would require explosions. But the ending also reveals just how little Cummings, writer, has actually done with the story. None of the other characters are fleshed out. Cummings, director, has great instincts for directing his cast and for how to edit their performances (he edits with Brian Vannucci) to imply depth but never development. It’s all about Cummings’s character. Hence the long takes.

And Cummings’s performance is phenomenal. It eclipses everything else. And probably would if Cummings gave anyone else anything to do.

Nican Robinson gets a bit. He’s Cummings’s partner. See, Cummings is an incredibly unlikely cop and Robinson has to take care of him once the grieving process destroys Cummings. Or does it? It’s never believable Cummings is a decorated police officer much less a still employed one. His temperament is all off. He shows concern for someone else once in the movie—Jacqueline Doke’s a teenage girl out with boys she shouldn’t be out with—but otherwise he’s an egomaniac. Of course, everyone he knows is a shit. The treatment he gets for his breakdown at his mom’s funeral makes every single person in the film unlikable.

Of course, Cummings’s immediately previous relationship with his mom is never explained. Neither is how he ended up married to harpy caricature Jocelyn DeBoer, who has successfully turned fourth grade daughter Kendal Farr against Cummings. Of course they both disappear after a while, which seems like it might be budgetary. Like, even though DeBoer has left Cummings for her divorce attorney, she doesn’t show up in court to see Cummings break down there. Because if there’s a location, Cummings is going to have some kind of breakdown in it.

Some of the issue is the narrative distance. Because Thunder Road is somehow not a character study. Not with the size of the deus ex machina Cummings employs at the end. And the only reason he’s able to get away with it is because of his performance. Otherwise it’d flop.

Cummings’s script is great when it comes to the monologues. His monologues, Robinson gets something close to one… well, no one else. But Cummings’s monologues are great. And the writing for the supporting cast is good too. The script gives them more material than Cummings’s direction lets them have. Everyone’s got to be looking at Cummings at all times.

Thunder Road started as a short film and would probably work better as one. Or a mini-series. The ninety minute film skips over way too much without Cummings able to justify the brevity. He does a lot with his budget, but Thunder Road feels pretty incomplete.

Really nice photography from Lowell A. Meyer. Pretty good soundtrack selections. Cummings’s composition is fine; it’s all about the length of the take and how he and Vannucci cut it.

Besides Robinson, the most personality in the supporting cast comes from Shelley Calene-Black as Cummings’s lawyer in one scene and Chelsea Edmundson as his de facto estranged sister. Edmundson is just thrown in to fill out the runtime but she makes an impression. Farr is fine as the kid. Even though she’s a little shit. And DeBoer’s an adequate harpy ex-wife caricature. It’d be nice if Farr and DeBoer got real characters. But they don’t. Because Thunder Road is all about Cummings.

Cummings’s character is also a bit of a dope, which makes everything about his situation hard to believe. At one point he wrecks his house but it’s hard to imagine how he was able not to destroy it in the previous year he’s been there.

The breakdown at the funeral never feels like an inciting incident but regular behavior from Cummings, which sort of sums up the whole problem. These characters only exist when onscreen, including Cummings.

Good direction, great monologues, and exceptional lead performance though. Thunder Road just never transcends its constraints; worse, Cummings never even tries to transcend them.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jim Cummings; director of photography, Lowell A. Meyer; edited by Cummings and Brian Vannucci; production designer, Charlie Textor; produced by Natalie Metzger, Zack Parker, and Benjamin Wiessner; released by Vanishing Angle.

Starring Jim Cummings (Officer Jim Arnaud), Nican Robinson (Officer Nate Lewis), Kendal Farr (Crystal Arnaud), Jocelyn DeBoer (Rosalind Arnaud), Ammie Masterson (Celia Lewis), Shelley Calene-Black (Donna), and Chelsea Edmundson (Morgan Arnaud).


This post is part of the The “Cops” Blog-A-Thon hosted by J-Dub of Dubism.

RECENTLY

Advertisements

Eighth Grade (2018, Bo Burnham)

With a single exception, no one expounds onscreen in Eighth Grade. There’s obviously some implied offscreen exposition, but once lead Elsie Fisher stops recording for her updated-daily YouTube channel, director (and writer) Burnham sets the narrative distance and keeps it. Fisher’s got her on-YouTube exposition, which we both see and hear in voiceover as Burnham juxtaposes words and deeds; otherwise, she doesn’t offer any insight. Or, if she does, Burnham doesn’t want to show it. Eighth Grade is a character study, just one where Burnham wants to keep a very respectful distance to the subject. We’re going to be seeing Fisher go through her week and the moments we get to share are mostly ones where she’s processing things going on around her or trying to figure out how to engage with those things.

It’s a big week for Fisher—the last week of eighth grade. The film opens with her winning “most quiet” student or something to that effect. She’s got a single parent, painfully uncool dad Josh Hamilton. It takes Burnham a long time to get to talking about Mom, which turns out to be just the right move because that eventual exposition (the single one) ends up informing back on so much before the film heads into the third act. It’s awesome. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The film has a number of big events in Fisher’s week, strung together by YouTube videos and scenes at school. First up is a pool birthday party, which Hamilton basically forces Fisher to attend. Fisher doesn’t want to go because she doesn’t like birthday kid Catherine Oliviere, who doesn’t like Fisher either but her mom made her invite Fisher. The pool party scene is uncomfortable as Grade gets. The film gets dangerous and serious, but it never gets quite as uncomfortable. Because it goes on forever. And we already know Fisher doesn’t want to go and never would without Hamilton pressuring her. Grade oozes tension from its pores—Burnham’s got three things going on with it. First, he’s doing a character study. Second, that character study has a set present action and a series of events to hit. Third and most important, he’s trying to do those two things from Fisher’s… emotionality. Not point of view events, but her emotional experience of events. The tension is part of that emotional experience. Fisher’s shy. There’s no way she’s not going to be socially awkward with Hamilton as a dad. But even though she’s shy and socially awkward she desperately wants to not be those things, as her YouTube monologues reveal. She’s profoundly unhappy without understanding why or what to do about it, but with a lot of information about what she’s supposed to be doing about it.

The next big event is when Fisher goes to the high school to shadow senior Emily Robinson, who—unlike the kids at Fisher’s middle school—thinks Fisher is awesome. And Fisher perceives it as an expectation to meet, without really understanding what Robinson’s saying. Robinson also doesn’t really understand what she’s saying. Eighth Grade’s characters frequently lack the vocabulary to express their thoughts and feelings. Fisher and Robinson because even though they have the capacity for self-reflection, they’re kids. Hamilton can’t do it because he’s a goof, he’s just not exactly the goof you expect him to be.

The third event is Fisher going to hang out that night with Robinson and her friends at the mall. Hamilton screws it up for Fisher and the night is a mess.

The events don’t correspond to acts, they’re just the set pieces outside Fisher’s house and the school. In addition to the film taking place the last week before eighth grade graduation, there’s also this subplot about Fisher getting back the time capsule she made in sixth grade for her eighth grade self. Burnham writes that one something beautiful, but—as with anything else—it’s all about Fisher’s performance. The complexities of her situation she cannot describe or even properly acknowledge. Because she’s a kid. She’s just got to experience, essay; frame after frame.

Burnham’s somewhat loose with the film’s target audience—there are enough cues for adults, but not too many it drags. Doing a character study of tween from a detached but tight third person perspective on the lead? It’s a lot.

Eighth Grade is a success because of Fisher’s performance. It’s natural without being loose. Every moment in the film feels intentional, every expression on Fisher’s face deliberate. After all, we’ve often only got Fisher’s expressions to move a scene along. She doesn’t talk a lot; when she does, her dialogue feels like punctuation for an already conveyed expression.

The film’s mostly Fisher and Hamilton. He’s good. Fisher’s exceptional. Robinson’s good; Luke Prael (as Fisher’s crush) is hilarious. Burnham does an extraordinary job directing the performances. The way he and editor Jennifer Lilly cut the film together is fantastic. Also fantastic are Sam Lisenco’s production design, Andrew Wehde’s photography, Anna Meredith’s music. Outstandingly executed film.

Eighth Grade is great.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Bo Burnham; director of photography, Andrew Wehde; edited by Jennifer Lilly; music by Anna Meredith; production designer, Sam Lisenco; produced by Eli Bush, Scott Rudin, Christopher Storer, and Lila Yacoub; released by A24.

Starring Elsie Fisher (Kayla Day), Josh Hamilton (Mark Day), Emily Robinson (Olivia), Jake Ryan (Gabe), Daniel Zolghadri (Riley), Fred Hechinger (Trevor), Imani Lewis (Aniyah), Luke Prael (Aiden), and Catherine Oliviere (Kennedy).



Sum Up | F⁴: Five Favorite Fifties Films

  • E: What am I watching? It just started, and I don’t know what’s happening.
  • B: It’s symbolic.
  • E: Yeah? Who’s that guy?
  • B: That’s Death walking on the beach.
  • E: I’ve been to Atlantic City a hundred times, and I’ve never seen Death walk on the beach.

From Diner (1982); written by Barry Levinson; set in 1959.


Growing up, I always had a negative impression of the 1950s (as far as film was concerned–it wasn’t until later I got a negative impression of reality in the 1950s). Anyway, that negative impression of fifties films has changed over the years, starting when I realized Hitchcock was making movies in the fifties, then Kubrick, then Kurosawa. Then I started seeing Hollywood movies from the fifties in my late teens, when I discovered Eleanor Parker, and I revised my opinion. The fifties have a lot of good stuff, even Hollywood.

So the early sixties must be the weak era.

I still catch myself being vaguely down on the fifties. Even as some directors rose to prominence, lots of the elder statesmen started churning it out, which is true of any era. Now, when a film from the 1950s provokes a derisive thought, I mentally walk it back and remind myself… the fifties aren’t just all right, they’re rather great.

And not just because it’s when Bergman got going strong.

Preparing this post I went through the Stop Button responses of the best fifties movies. I came up with thirty-five (though the number is since thirty-six, I hadn’t written about Stalag 17 when I made that list); then I thought maybe I could write about my childhood fifties favorites. Because even though I had a negative impression of fifties cinema, many of my favorite monster movies were from that decade. So the list could’ve included Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mole People, the Raymond Burr version of Godzilla, and so on.

But then I decided to try to do the list straight. With the only asterisk being East of Eden. I haven’t seen it recently enough to include it with the others, but it might be on here instead of something else, it might not be.

Descending by year, the final list of five favorite fifties films.

  • Touch of Evil (1958)
  • Paths of Glory (1957)
  • The Searchers (1956)
  • Seven Samurai (1954)
  • Detective Story (1951)

Call it a “desert island but with electricity to watch movies” list or a fifties beginner list, these five films hit most of the quadrants of the fifties cinema. Hollywood melodramas aren’t represented in whole, but definitely in part—all five films contain similar elements, while some of them also feature similarities to fifties Bergman. Not so much in content, subject, or tone, but feel. There’s a decided lack of humor; Mose Harper and his rocking chair are about it. Still, These five films “feel” like a fifties film should feel. At least to be an exemplar.

Touch of Evil French poster

Touch of Evil. When I saw Touch of Evil in the theater (for the 1998 re-edit), I had already seen the film before. I might have even owned it on LaserDisc at that point. I didn’t exactly grow up with Touch of Evil, but I did spend my teens revering it. Even cutting it to shreds, the studio couldn’t excise the film of its greatness. I might have first seen it in 1992 or so, after The Player. I remember learning about complicated opening tracking shots around that time.

I’d definitely seen it by the time Get Shorty came out in 1995 because I’ve been laughing at that “Charlton Heston play Mexican” line since the first time I saw Shorty.

The only time I’ve watched the film since starting The Stop Button, I watched the original theatrical version, which came out in a DVD set with the 1998 cut and also the “preview cut.” I meant to watch all three of them, but still haven’t gotten around to it.

I watched it in one of my undergrad film classes—actually, there are two more coming up I watched in those classes—which would’ve been after the 1998 re-cut but before that version was on video. So it must have been the theatrical version. I really got to understand how the performances worked, how the script worked. I also got to see it with a better understanding of Welles.

Paths of Glory poster by Tona Stella

Paths of Glory. I might have discovered Paths of Glory from my dad’s Criterion LaserDisc. One summer in high school, I went through most of his LaserDisc collection—the ones I knew nothing about—while staying up until four in the morning and then sleeping until noon. Or my dad might have just watched it with me when he got it.

I can’t remember.

I definitely was a big fan by the time I went to college, where I’d see it in one of those film classes, but also think about the film in the context of my World War I history classes. Paths of Glory is still, probably, my favorite Kubrick film. I like to say Barry Lyndon to be difficult, but for “bang for the (runtime) buck,” it’s definitely Paths of Glory. And, if Kirk Douglas is to be believed, he’s the reason Kubrick didn’t sell out with Glory. How different American cinema would’ve been had it not been for Douglas wanting to have an unhappy ending.

Glory was one of those films I watched to learn how to pick a film apart, how to understand structure. I had to write an essay on it, after all. I needed to understand how Kubrick used George Macready’s villain, for example, so I had to delineate his scenes. Or wanted to delineate his scenes in the essay and did.

The Searchers Japanese poster

The Searchers. If you grew up in the eighties and nineties and liked film and liked John Wayne, you did not like good films. I’m sure there are some childhood John Wayne fans who would argue, but if you were ever okay watching McQ and The Green Berets, you did not like good films.

I don’t think I started watching John Wayne movies until The Searchers in that college film class. I’d seen The Shootist but probably almost nothing else. After seeing The Searchers, I stuck to the John Ford ones, of course. When I did branch out—to McQ, to The Green Berets—they only confirmed my suspicions about his ability to give godawful performances.

Wayne didn’t really have a redeemable offscreen personality either. So I’ve always been really careful in considering his films, which just makes Searchers all the stronger. Ford knew how to use Wayne to best effect, particularly in this film. Wayne’s playing on type, struggling against the inevitable character development.

Searchers was another film where I learned a lot about how to consider present action. It’s the undergrad film essay the instructor made me stand up and read aloud. I remember he started reading it and I thought, that’s not mine. Only for him to call me up.

Forced public speaking versus ego boost. How grand.

The Searchers also made me think a lot about expectation. What the audience “deserves” to know, what they don’t, and ultimately why deserve hasn’t got anything to do with it.

Seven Samurai British poster

Seven Samurai. It took me forever to see Seven Samurai. I checked it out from the college library my first year, didn’t watch it. I already had a copy of it on tape; I had dozens of EP tapes of movies to watch when I went to college. The quality was so bad I gave up on them almost immediately. But Samurai had come up in film class and the library had it, so I got it.

But didn’t end up seeing it for at least two more years, even as I would’ve probably watched more Kurosawa.

The first Kurosawa I saw was Dreams. Because Scorsese. Because color. I rented it once, didn’t end up watching it, rented it again, watched it. Have zero memory of it, soon enough saw Rashomon, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Ran. I was a big Ran fan. But Samurai was always too daunting. Too long. Too big.

When I finally did see it, I thought it was great, but then sort of forgot about it. When I went back and watched it last year, I was blown away even more than I remember being the first time I watched it. Definitely one of those films where the more thoughtful you can be, the better your experience becomes. You’ve got to keep its 207 minutes constantly “in mind,” which isn’t necessarily easy but also is an imperative consumption skill.

Detective Story print ad

Detective Story. I gave this one a lot of thought before putting it on the list. It’s earlier than any of the other films, it’s got far more in common with post-war Hollywood than mid-fifties Hollywood. It’s the only Eleanor Parker movie on the list (and only probably her best performance from the decade, not definitely). It’s nowhere near as epic as any of the others (Touch of Evil and Paths of Glory being epically produced). It’s quite the opposite. It’s got a single location and is the most exquisite filmed adaptation of a play… ever. There’s just something about the way director William Wyler does it.

I cannot remember how I first saw it, unfortunately. I think I traded for it because it didn’t air on Turner Classic Movies and had never had a home video released (I was real excited when it came out on DVD, back when Paramount seemed to just realize it had a deep back catalog). Then the DVD went out of print and it all of a sudden became rarer. But now it’s streaming and being able to watch Detective Story on demand is—compared to when I first wanted to see the film in the late nineties—incredible. When classic film accessibility works out, it works out.

And Detective Story is rather accessible. It can’t be as frank as it could be, but Wyler and the cast don’t need to be too frank. Euphemism works on stage and Wyler understands how to make Story play as though it’s… produced on stage. Sort of.

It’s an exceptional play adaptation, even without being great otherwise.

And all five films are great. Phenomenal. Exceptional. Singular. Exquisite. All the good adjectives. Lots of complexity, lots of layers, lots of lots.

They’re enough to make you forget you ever dismissed the fifties as racist Westerns, soapy Hollywood melodramas, and obnoxious musicals. The fifties has all those kinds of films, unfortunately, but they also have some of the finest films ever made. Like the ones enumerated above. Like the thirty-one others I didn’t mention. Like the two dozen I can’t remember seeing. Like the countless others I haven’t seen. Yet.

If only phenomenal started with an F.


THIS POST IS PART OF THE 5 FAVORITE FILMS OF THE 50'S HOSTED BY RICK OF CLASSIC FILM & TV CAFÉ.


RELATED

Thistles and Thorns (2018, Kalie Acheson)

Thistles and Thorns opens with a girl (Madison Vance) going into a forest preserve after school. Vance is practically beaming as she does, which doesn’t initially make sense—when she’s walking on the street—but does once she’s in the forest, looking around at all the nature. She goes to a rock formation and gets a storybook out of a hiding place. She starts reading the book (Thistles and Thorns) and the action moves into the book.

The lead of the fairy tale is Yazmin Monet Watkins, who’s on a hero’s quest. Watkins also narrates the short from this point, reading the fairy tale. Watkins’s reading style is storytelling, excited by the text, so even though Vance has disappeared from the screen, Thorns feels like someone is reading it to her, being told to her; the story has a life of its own. It takes a minute or two for Watkins’s narration to really sell that tone. The transition between Vance and the fairy tale she’s reading is pretty sudden, even with the visual cues.

And Watkins’s narration is somewhat detached from the onscreen action. There’s no dialogue from the characters on screen, just Watkins reading the dialogue from the fairy tale. It also takes the narration a moment to catch on because the direction of the fairy tale itself is so fantastic, there’s not room to think about anything else, especially after director Acheson starts moving the camera. When the fairy tale starts, it seems like Watkins is moving through a realistic forest. As real as the one Vance entered at the beginning, albeit a fairy tale one. But Thorns’s set design is expressionist and entirely shot in profile. Acheson will move the camera behind Watkins but it’s always temporary, it’s always going to move back to that profile shot, showing this imagined landscape. The way the camera is always in a tracking shot makes Thorns feel like a story book being read, the action always being revealed from the right side of the screen, which works really well juxtaposed with the narration.

Watkins’s quest has a nice moral and a suitably positive, expansive finish for the tale. The direction, Watkins’s two performances, and the production design make Thistles and Thorns something special.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Kalie Acheson; written by Yazmin Monet Wakins and David Vieux; director of photography, Kyle Stryker; edited by Ethan Coco and Charles Latham; music by Dre Babinski, Selina Carrera, and William Collela; production designers, Acheson and Latham; produced by Acheson and Latham for Animi.

Starring Yazmin Monet Watkins (Assata), Kelli Wheeler (Hummingbird), Himerria Wortham (Fox), and Madison Vance (school girl); narrated by Watkins.


RELATED

superior film blogging

Advertisements