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  • Deception (2008, Marcel Langenegger)

    Deception (2008, Marcel Langenegger)

    Here’s a surprising one. I was ready to say director Langenegger was a music video director who learned how to calm it down for a theatrical, but it appears he’s just a commercial director. For most of Deception, I was just letting myself enjoy the technical. Langenegger’s composition, Dante Spinotti’s photography and Ramin Djawadi’s music (Djawadi is an essential for the formula) made Deception one of the better looking modern films I can remember, certainly coming out of an American studio. Langenegger takes traditional montage techniques and applies them to regular scenes and makes everything work. Oh, the sound–great sound design.

    The story’s pretty simple. First it’s Fight Club only with a sex club, then it’s conned protagonist unraveling the web movie. Mark Bomback’s script is middling, with the occasional bad dialogue exchange. The beauty of Deception is how little the script matters, given Langenegger’s direction.

    But the direction apparently did not extend to the hiring of Ewan McGregor’s dialect couch. McGregor’s American accent in this one sounds like Woody Allen. Really. I kept waiting, in the first half, for there to be some reason for it to sound like Woody Allen, as it’s set in New York (and beautifully shot there). But there’s no reason. McGregor being good, he manages not to let the accent get in the way of his performance. It doesn’t hurt the supporting cast is uniformly excellent. I suppose Charlotte Rampling has the largest of the smaller roles, but even Margaret Colin, in her minute and a half, lends the film some really acting credibility. The direction, these smaller roles, they give Deception a credibility the general lameness (it’s all been done before) of the script saps. Not to mention McGregor’s goofy accent.

    For the majority of the film, the three other principals are solid as well. Hugh Jackman toggles nicely between creepy and charming. Michelle Williams is fine as the object of McGregor’s affections. Lisa Gay Hamilton is good as the police detective.

    Then the film enters the third act and everything changes, not so much for the story, it’s a natural narrative development, but what the film achieves. The end finally incorporates the actors into that filmmaking euphoria and Deception skyrockets (Williams is fantastic). Bomback doesn’t even go for the cheap ending, which I’d been expecting the whole time too.

    Good acting and good filmmaking will often improve a weak script, but, comparative to what Deception was achieving (being a diverting lower budget studio thriller) to what it finally does achieve… I think Henry Fool‘s the last one with such a bump. Fool‘s was a far higher boost, but–as a lower budget studio thriller–Deception‘s is no less significant, given its ambitions.

    2.5/4★★½

    CREDITS

    Directed by Marcel Langenegger; written by Mark Bomback; director of photography, Dante Spinotti; edited by Christian Wagner and Douglas Crise; music by Ramin Djawadi; production designer, Patrizia von Brandenstein; produced by Arnold Rifkin, John Palermo, Hugh Jackman, Robbie Brenner, David Bushell and Christopher Eberts; released by 20th Century Fox.

    Starring Hugh Jackman (Wyatt Bose), Ewan McGregor (Jonathan McQuarry), Michelle Williams (S), Lisa Gay Hamilton (Detective Russo), Maggie Q (Tina), Natasha Henstridge (Wall Street Analyst), Lynn Cohen (Woman), Danny Burstein (Clute Controller), Malcolm Goodwin (Cabbie), Dante Spinotti (Herr Kleiner/Mr. Moretti), Bill Camp (Clancey Controller), Lisa Kron (Receptionist), Margaret Colin (Ms. Pomerantz) and Charlotte Rampling (Wall Street Belle).


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  • What About Bob? (1991, Frank Oz)

    What About Bob? (1991, Frank Oz)

    What About Bob? is a special movie. It’s absolute dreck. Coming from screenwriter Tom Schulman, I suppose its lack of quality shouldn’t have been a surprise, but I think I was operating under the assumption producer Laura Ziskin wouldn’t let it get too bad. I mean, production wise, it’s got good people–Anne V. Coates is good editor and Michael Ballhaus has done some truly great films. I mean, sure, Frank Oz isn’t great shakes, but he’s competent.

    So why’s Bob so awful? First, and easiest, it mocks mental illness. Though Bill Murray’s performance is atrocious and he’s never believably mentally ill for a moment in the movie–it’s a real problem, Murray playing the character as a totally sane, totally self-aware jerk (he just wants to make Richard Dreyfuss miserable)–he is supposed to be mentally ill. And the viewer is supposed to laugh at him. Second, it’s never believable the supporting cast would welcome him into the fold, knowing he’s a patient of Dreyfuss’s prominent psychiatrist. It’s ludicrous.

    It’s got to be one of Murray’s worst performances (one can hear the paycheck deposit), but there’s a lot of terrible acting to go around. Julie Hagerty’s “acting” is something special, but Charlie Korsmo is even worse. He’s got to be one of the worst child actors I can remember. Just terrible.

    Oddly, Kathryn Erbe’s steady, even though her writing is as bad as everyone else’s.

    Dreyfuss has some moments and they’re mostly visible, where one can see he’s at least enjoying himself (for the most part, he isn’t). The rest of the time, he looks mildly embarrassed, but no more than the viewer who remembers his good, better and unspectacularly poor films.

    Oz’s direction isn’t bad. The movie looks beautiful and Oz is competent when it comes to framing shots, especially all the (slightly) moving camera shots–mostly the camera following people as they go over to other people. And he also convinced me, somehow, if I kept watching, it’d get better (it never, ever does–the ending is just as awful as everything else in the movie).

    What’s scary about Bob is how light-hearted it seems to be. It’s insensitive and garish. If it were from a better filmmakers, I’d try to find some stronger words… but Oz doesn’t strike me as particularly smart and Schulman is quite obviously, based on this one and his other “writing,” a functional illiterate.


  • Outland (1981, Peter Hyams)

    Outland (1981, Peter Hyams)

    What Peter Hyams does at the end of Outland–cutting away from Sean Connery to a shot of the mining station with a superimposed message from the character to his wife–ought to be a crime. Hyams gets one of Connery’s better performances out of him and then cheats both Connery and the viewer from giving the character a proper sendoff. Instead, the superimposed message and some really sentimental Jerry Goldsmith music. It’s particularly unfortunate, as Hyams makes very few mistakes in Outland and Goldsmith’s score is otherwise excellent. It’s even excellent two seconds before the cut to the exterior.

    One could dismiss Outland as High Noon in space, but, in actuality, only the last third is High Noon in space. The rest is an effective, if derivative (from Alien in a lot of ways, particularly Goldsmith’s score), cop fighting corruption (in space) movie. There are a lot of Western elements, but Hyams nicely adjusts everything for the future setting. Strangely, his greatest strength is the human element, whether it’s Kika Markham as Connery’s fed-up wife (most of her scenes are video messages, in which she’s excellent, but Connery’s also good watching them), James Sikking as his shady assistant or–and here’s where Hyams really excels–with station doctor Frances Sternhagen. Connery and Sternhagen have maybe six scenes together and every one of them is fantastic. They’re Connery’s best moments, so maybe Sternhagen somehow got him to act. There’s this one scene, where Connery explains himself to her–short, maybe thirty seconds, forty-five, and he stunned me. Hyams’s dialogue is fine, but Connery’s delivery and Hyams’s composition make it a gold star moment.

    Hyams has gone on to shoot his own films, usually poorly (with some excuse about natural light), but here he’s got Stephen Goldblatt, who makes Hyams’s shots look wonderful. Hyams knows how to compose for Panavision and he knows how to make the most out of a limited effects budget. When there finally are a bunch of sets at the end, Hyams concentrates on the enormity and the surrounding emptiness and pulls off a great concluding action scene.

    The acting is all good–except Nicholas Barnes as Connery and Markham’s kid, he’s terrible–though Peter Boyle really doesn’t have enough to do as the bad guy.

    A lot of the exteriors in space are excellent. Goldsmith’s score is great. Connery’s good, sometimes better. Sternhagen’s a joy. Shame about the last thirty-five seconds though.

    2.5/4★★½

    CREDITS

    Written and directed by Peter Hyams; director of photography, Stephen Goldblatt; edited by Stuart Baird; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Philip Harrison; produced by Richard A. Roth; released by Warner Bros.

    Starring Sean Connery (O’Niel), Peter Boyle (Sheppard), Frances Sternhagen (Lazarus), James Sikking (Montone), Kika Markham (Carol), Clarke Peters (Ballard), Steven Berkoff (Sagan), John Ratzenberger (Tarlow) and Nicholas Barnes (Paul O’Niel).


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  • The Abyss (1989, James Cameron), the special edition

    The Abyss (1989, James Cameron), the special edition

    Running almost three hours, the special edition of The Abyss manages to be too long in an interesting way. It forgets its story. There’s about an hour there with the valiant undersea oil workers battling the psychotic military man–there’s fight scenes and chase scenes and drama scenes and all sorts of scenes… just nothing about the movie’s actual story, which is something to do with space aliens saving the human race from itself. Cameron’s thesis is incredibly naive and also a fantastic cop-out. Thanks to some newsreel footage of Americans being asked about being on the brink with the Soviets, its clear Cameron puts all the blame for xenophobia on the military. It’s a very, very goofy move… and wholly lifted from 2010 (I think from both the book and the movie).

    But The Abyss is highly derivative. Cameron borrows storytelling techniques from all the finest sources (Irwin Allen mostly) and comes up with a rather amusing, well-acted undersea action melodrama. It’s perfectly fine. Well, except Michael Biehn. As the nutso Navy SEAL, Biehn’s supposed to be suffering from the bends and, therefore, not responsible for going insane. Except, with a few exceptions, Cameron never goes and makes Biehn anything but a nutso jerk even before the insanity sets in. And Biehn doesn’t even try to work it in as a subtext. He’s the movie villain. He’s not all together bad, but he’s not good.

    Almost every performance is excellent, otherwise (except Christopher Murphy, who Cameron appears to have cast from a weightlifting advertisement). In particular, Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Both are good throughout, but it’s really at the end when they excel, when they’re acting by themselves. Harris can’t talk and does everything with his eyes, Mastrantonio can’t move and does everything in close-up with her voice. Spectacular acting from the two of them, so much so, when they finally to get back to regular scenes… Cameron’s script is a real letdown. Supporting-wise, Todd Graff, Kimberly Scott, Leo Burmester are all great in the most vocal (and funny) roles. John Bedford Lloyd is also good, in a much quieter part.

    Cameron’s direction of groups is impressive, even if the editing doesn’t always match. He gives everyone something to do and, as he has lots of group shots, it makes The Abyss a congenial experience (which is why it doesn’t feel like three hours).

    But the movie fails–thanks to Cameron’s goofy ending–when it should succeed. For a few moments, Cameron gets close to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and then manages to screw it all up with his pedestrian plotting. He cut two scripts together–Ed Harris vs. Rambo underwater, underwater aliens make their presence known–and somehow, in three hours, didn’t achieve either.

    I need to take a moment to comment on Alan Silvestri’s highly derivative (of his own work) score. There’s a lot of good material, but then there’s a lot of mediocre. And maybe even some bad.

    So it fits The Abyss well, I suppose.

    2/4★★

    CREDITS

    Written and directed by James Cameron; director of photography, Mikael Salomon; edited by Conrad Buff IV, Joel Goodman, Howard E. Smith and Steven Quale; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Leslie Dilley; produced by Gale Anne Hurd and Van Ling; released by 20th Century Fox.

    Starring Ed Harris (Bud), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Lindsey), Michael Biehn (Coffey), Leo Burmester (Catfish), Todd Graff (Hippy), John Bedford Lloyd (Jammer), J.C. Quinn (Sonny), Kimberly Scott (One Night), Captain Kidd Brewer Jr. (Lew Finler), George Robert Klek (Wilhite), Christopher Murphy (Schoenick), Adam Nelson (Ensign Monk), Dick Warlock (Dwight Perry), Jimmie Ray Weeks (Leland McBride), J. Kenneth Campbell (DeMarco), Ken Jenkins (Kirkhill) and Chris Elliott (Bendix).


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  • Conspiracy (2008, Adam Marcus)

    Conspiracy (2008, Adam Marcus)

    Well, Val Kilmer’s gone all the way. After some serious flirtation over the last few years, he’s finally made it to the under ninety minute direct-to-video action movie. But, given he’s Val Kilmer and he’s difficult, Conspiracy is no simple ex-Marine direct-to-video revenge action movie. Oh, no, with the director and screenwriter of Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, Kilmer’s taking on Halliburton. Well, it’s not called Halliburton, it’s called Halicorp and its CEO (played by Gary Cole) is actually George W. Bush–from the lines about the unworked hands doing nothing but counting money–mixed with a little Dick Cheney–he really, really likes guns. There’s also a whole bit about Cole running a vigilante border patrol, which I’m not sure Halliburton’s CEO actually does. The whole border thing works into Conspiracy‘s message about Republicans war profiteering then paying illegal immigrants instead of citizens….

    There are actually a couple neat things in the movie. The political angle, when it’s not being spotlighted, is sort of amusing. It’s strange to see. There’s also a good surprise for Val Kilmer’s character. Unfortunately, Conspiracy never addresses the fact Kilmer’s grossly obese. Maybe if it had been about him being grossly obese, it would have been more like an actual narrative. Like if the stunt double hadn’t been some über-fit young guy. But the obesity is never addressed and the backstory makes little sense, especially given Kilmer’s age. And the flashbacks with the big Kilmer don’t seem reasonable.

    The movie’s real cheap–there’s maybe one or two squibs in the whole thing–and Marcus is somewhat inventive. He’s no good as a director, but there’s the occasional sign he’s trying. Except for the first act, when there’s no score, just poorly chosen country music. Apparently, the whole thing is just an uncredited rip-off of Bad Day in Black Rock. Conspiracy takes place in an old West town, with some lame excuse in the story about Cole building a theme park or some nonsense. I’m assuming it was cheap to film on an old West set. And the Dunkin’ Donuts being there is actually pretty funny.

    Until the political rhetoric starts, the only thing keeping Conspiracy interesting is watching Kilmer debase himself. Kilmer doesn’t even pretend to do anything interesting. Cole’s got some amusing moments playing the Mr. Big, but Kilmer’s got nothing. Except the scenes with kids. All the kid actors with lines are awful, but Kilmer plays those scenes really well. Adds a nice layer, or at least it suggests Kilmer’s still capable of adding layers. The only other actor with a recognizable name, Jennifer Esposito is pretty bad.

    Conspiracy is another of the made in New Mexico movies Kilmer has taken to do… I figure he just drives twenty minutes or so and gets free Dunkin’ Donuts, but this one is a piece of crap, versus the one I saw previously (Blind Horizon). Conspiracy really needed a decent writer and a decent director. Eventually, when Kilmer goes Rambo (as my wife put it–she also pointed out Stallone’s much older than Kilmer and in far better shape), Marcus should have been able to do something cost effective. Instead, he went goofy.

    I mean, the best acting work Kilmer’s done in a couple years has been a guest spot on “Numb3rs,” which is almost as embarrassing as having Conspiracy in your oeuvre.


  • Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg)

    Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg)

    As far as sequels go, Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (huh, Guantanamo isn’t in Apple’s dictionary) is superior to the first. It’s far more absurd and the characters have comfortably become a modern comedy duo. Their adventures are modernized comedy bits, which work due to the movie’s absence of realistic pretense, but where Harold & Kumar is different is in its willingness to discuss race in America.

    The humor generally falls into four categories. Kal Penn as a brainless male, getting high, race and the American identity. Even though Harold & Kumar cops out a little when it comes to Bush and his responsibility for American xenophobia, maybe portraying him as a drunk stoner with father issues is more effective (it certainly is in the comedic sense). The script nicely works the comedy into convenient vignettes, a grandiose road movie on a limited budget.

    As writers, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg run their characters through a bunch of funny situations, work in flashbacks and dream sequences to great effect (Harold & Kumar is, in the best possible way, something of a live action “Family Guy”), but their directing skills are nil. There’s almost no visual tone to the movie and the effects sequences are atrocious. I suppose they can sit the camera down and let action play in front of it well enough, but their composition makes the movie feel like a direct-to-video teen comedy.

    What elevates the movie from that confusion are Penn and John Cho. This time, Penn’s got a love interest, Danneel Harris (big shock, that one’s not in Apple’s dictionary either) and it really helps the movie. Harris is likable, if bereft of dramatic ability, and Penn makes up for anything she’s not bringing to her scenes. Cho’s good as the straight man, but thinking about it after seeing it, it’s sort of surprising just how little he’s got to do in the story. Sight gags mostly.

    The rest of the supporting cast varies. Rob Corddry’s funny because of his dialogue, but he can’t actually act. The whole time, I wondered what it’d be like if they’d gotten Domenick Lombardozzi from “The Wire” for the role. It would have worked a lot better. Roger Bart’s weak. Neil Patrick Harris is, no shock, real funny. Hurwitz and Schlossberg write some of the movie’s better material for Harris scenes.

    Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay is something more than a cheap diversion, due to that racial humor; it’s a good ice cream. And Hurwitz and Schlossberg are much better at the best pop culture references than anyone else. They really get them into the script naturally.

    2/4★★

    CREDITS

    Written and directed by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg; director of photography, Daryn Okada; edited by Jeff Freeman; music by George S. Clinton; production designer, Tony Fanning; produced by Greg Shapiro and Nathan Kahane; released by New Line Cinema.

    Starring Kal Penn (Kumar), John Cho (Harold), Rob Corddry (Ron Fox), Roger Bart (Dr. Beecher), David Krumholtz (Goldstein), Eddie Kaye Thomas (Rosenberg), Jack Conley (Deputy Frye), Paula Garcés (Maria), Danneel Harris (Vanessa), Eric Winter (Colton) and Neil Patrick Harris (Neil Patrick Harris).


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  • State of the Union (1948, Frank Capra)

    State of the Union (1948, Frank Capra)

    Capra tries for another entry in his humanist series (Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith and John Doe) and fails miserably. Two of the principal ingredients–Robert Riskin and Gary Cooper–are missing, but since State of the Union is from a play, it’s questionable if Riskin could have helped (Union‘s problems are fundamental). As for Cooper… Spencer Tracy’s excellent and the film’s failings aren’t his fault. The film’s also something of a technical failure, plagued by some terrible editing from William Hornbeck, during the first half.

    The movie moves well enough–the first half hour until Katharine Hepburn shows up goes at a lightning fast pace–usually thanks to Van Johnson. Johnson’s cynical but affable reporter is Union‘s best part. Margaret Hamilton’s put-upon maid is also a lot of fun, but Capra tends to misuse actors here more than not. Adolphe Menjou gets saddled with one of the big bad guy roles and he’s way too passive for it. Charles Dingle, in a smaller part, would have had the volume. As the primary villain–corrosive both as a newspaper publisher and Tracy’s mistress–Angela Lansbury is out of her depth. She doesn’t have the skills to pull it off as believable, not just in terms of her villainous scenes, but to convince anyone Tracy would want anything to do with her… much less leave Hepburn for her. (Hepburn in the Lansbury role would have been interesting). There’s the major problem with State of the Union… Tracy’s a bad guy too.

    The big changeover happens late in the film, so the viewing experience isn’t totally ruined. Hepburn’s got a great drunk scene during the last act, which is painfully slight, and Maidel Turner, as her drinking buddy, helps a lot. But the whole thing, as it wraps, is bad. Tracy’s not even a main character after Hepburn shows up, so no long walks to think or hurt expressions from the witness stand.

    Capra’s free of any earnestness here, just treading water. Worse, he’s lost almost all filmmaking imagination, only retaining competence–with the exception of one plane chase scene, which was probably all second unit. Sure, it’s adapted from a play and there’s lots of stagy scenes, but Capra doesn’t even explore that idea.

    It’s a sad afterword to the trilogy and a waste of time for Tracy and Hepburn. They both have good scenes, Hepburn having a lot more, but as a narrative, it’s an embarrassment.

    1.5/4★½

    CREDITS

    Produced and directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Anthony Veiller and Myles Connolly, based on the play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse; director of photography, George J. Fosley; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Victor Young; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

    Starring Spencer Tracy (Grant Matthews), Katharine Hepburn (Mary Matthews), Van Johnson (Spike McManus), Angela Lansbury (Kay Thorndyke), Adolphe Menjou (Jim Conover), Lewis Stone (Sam Thorndyke), Howard Smith (Sam I. Parrish), Charles Dingle (Bill Nolard Hardy), Maidel Turner (Lulubelle Alexander), Raymond Walburn (Judge Alexander) and Margaret Hamilton (Norah).


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  • Mary of Scotland (1936, John Ford)

    Mary of Scotland (1936, John Ford)

    Even with the overbearing music and the strange lighting for emphasis (play-like, it dims to concentrate attention on an object or person), lots of Mary of Scotland is rather well done. Ford’s got some excellent shots and, at times, creates anxious scenes. It’s hard to get particularly excited during most of the film because, while there’s always something going on, it’s more interesting as history than drama. Katharine Hepburn and Fredric March are both good–Hepburn’s got some extraordinary moments–and they’ve got good chemistry, but it’s hard to sustain concern for their problems. Ford seems to get it–or maybe the source play got it–and makes everyone but Hepburn and March, and some of the supporting cast, absolutely evil. Florence Eldridge as Elizabeth, for instance, comes off slightly more inhuman than Emperor Palpatine. Moroni Olsen’s clergyman comes off even more soulless.

    The wickedness of royalty raises a lot of questions about the film and historical filmmaking in general–the scene where Eldridge finally confronts Hepburn plays like something out of a Universal horror film of the era. In order to get sympathy for one royal, all the others must be abjectly inhuman. It’d be fine–I wouldn’t have even noticed it–if Mary of Scotland had a story going on. But it really doesn’t, it just sort of ambles along, killing the excellent momentum of the opening–Hepburn’s first night as queen is eventful and sets up the film with a lot of potential. But there’s so little visible interest from Ford’s part. Once he gets around to the lighting effects, he just keeps doing them; it’s a pragmatic way to get things over with.

    There’s some excellent supporting performances–John Carradine’s great as Hepburn’s loyal secretary (playing an Italian no less). The scenes with Carradine are some of the film’s most enjoyable, because they’re fun. Also, a lot of March’s early scenes–fun. Donald Crisp’s early scenes, fun. Later on, there’s only Douglas Walton to provide any amusement (and we’re supposed to laugh at him, not with).

    By the end, Ford would have been better served with title cards explaining events then trying to tell them scenically. Hepburn and March keep up, but the story’s rote. Regardless of historical inevitability, Dudley Nichols and Ford really should have found some way to vivify the last act. Instead, there’s the dour meeting between the two queens–which the viewer’s been waiting the whole film to see–and the pay-off… leaves a lot to be desired. And then the end, which leaves even more.

    2.5/4★★½

    CREDITS

    Directed by John Ford; screenplay by Dudley Nichols, based on the play by Maxwell Anderson; director of photography, Joseph H. August; music by Nathaniel Shilkret; produced by Pandro S. Berman; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

    Starring Katharine Hepburn (Mary Queen of Scots), Fredric March (Earl of Bothwell), Florence Eldridge (Queen Elizabeth I), Douglas Walton (Lord Darnley), John Carradine (David Rizzio), Robert Barrat (Lord Morton), Gavin Muir (Earl of Leicester), Ian Keith (James Stuart, Earl of Moray), Moroni Olsen (John Knox), William Stack (Lord Ruthven), Ralph Forbes (Lord Randolph), Alan Mowbray (Lord Throckmorton), Frieda Inescort (Mary Beaton) and Donald Crisp (Lord Huntley).


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  • Parenthood (1989, Ron Howard)

    Parenthood (1989, Ron Howard)

    I’m trying to find a synonym for genial… excuse me a moment. I like the look of gregarious, but the definition doesn’t fit. Convivial is going to be the compromise word. Parenthood is convivial. Somehow, Howard and company manage to convince the viewer to be touched by the movie’s events, but not to give them enough thought to realize how contrived and unrealistic the situations get. It’s kind of brilliant in a way–Ganz and Mandel don’t exactly mature their humor of the early 1980s, but they add parental responsibility to it. To some degree it works. Parenthood is a pleasant, if too long and too saccharine, experience.

    But it fails in some special ways. For instance, I think I remembered, while watching, Keanu Reeves’s character’s name and only because Dianne Wiest says it so many times. The rest of the characters, the names sound kind of familiar, but I could never do a lineup. It’s the Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen family or the Dianne Wiest family or the Rick Moranis. Howard cast very recognizable people. The two least recognizable main cast members–Tom Hulce and Harley Jane Kozak, are the only ones recognizable because of their characters. Even so, a lot of the acting is excellent. Wiest, Martin, Steenburgen… actually almost everyone is good. Except Hulce. Hulce is terrible. So’s Joaquin Phoenix, showing youth and a different name do not a better actor make. Hulce and Phoenix’s scenes get painful at times, taking the onus off Reeves, who isn’t good, but at least has a few solid moments. Jason Robards has some great scenes, but the movie–the problem with it–is there aren’t enough. There aren’t enough scenes with Robards and Martin together, since the movie blames Robards for all of Martin’s problems. There aren’t enough–really any, the funny grandmother (Helen Shaw is a lot of fun), gets more scenes–with Eileen Ryan. She’s mother to main cast, wife to Robards, but takes a backseat to everything. At best, she gets a few extra seconds of screen time being mortified at having an interracial grandkid. At best. There’s literally nothing for her to do in the movie, which probably speaks volumes if anyone wants to stop and listen.

    Howard’s direction is only distinctive in tone–look, he’s found a way to make a very special episode of a sitcom into a two hour movie–not in composition, certainly not in direction of actors. Hulce and Phoenix strain the suspension of disbelief, particularly Hulce. Phoenix, though atrocious, at least has the excuse of playing the weakest character in the script. It’s cheap and obvious, but passable.

    2/4★★

    CREDITS

    Directed by Ron Howard; screenplay by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, based on a story by Ganz, Mandel and Howard; director of photography, Donald McAlpine; edited by Mike Hill and Daniel P. Hanley; music by Randy Newman; production designer, Todd Hallowell; produced by Brian Grazer; released by Universal Pictures.

    Starring Steve Martin (Gil Buckman), Dianne Wiest (Helen Buckman), Mary Steenburgen (Karen Buckman), Jason Robards (Frank Buckman), Rick Moranis (Nathan Huffner), Tom Hulce (Larry Buckman), Martha Plimpton (Julie Buckman), Keanu Reeves (Tod Higgins), Harley Jane Kozak (Susan Buckman), Joaquin Phoenix (Garry Buckman-Lampkin), Eileen Ryan (Marilyn Buckman) and Helen Shaw (Grandma).


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