Category Archives: Drama

Creation (2009, Jon Amiel)

Creation is the not the story of how Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) and the ghost of his oldest daughter (Martha West) collaborated in the writing of On the Origin of Species. That story would make a much better movie.

The film opens with a title card explaining it will be about Darwin writing that book, released in 1859. Some conversation early on places the present action in 1858. So a year. At this point, it’s been twenty years since he published Voyage of the Beagle. Some of those adventures show up in flashback–a flashback’s flashback–as Bettany recounts stories to West.

Well, at the beginning. Then not. The Beagle flashbacks are the biggest budgeted sequences in Creation and director Amiel treats them as set pieces. Only then such flashbacks (in flashbacks) stop and so do set pieces. Instead, it’s just Bettany hanging around at home, making churchy wife Jennifer Connelly real upset with his blasphemous manuscript and research. It seems like this narrative floundering is covering a lot of time but it turns out it isn’t. Amiel and screenwriter John Collee are terrible at pacing. Why do they need pacing when they can have Bettany talk to West (not an actual ghost, just a narrative contrivance). If only the exposition moved the film along.

After a promising first act, Creation settles into that “ghost” story. Amiel and Collee tease out details of West’s death in the present while flashing back, at first, to unrelated family bonding scenes. The flashbacks eventually get confusing because Bettany’s makeup for Darwin age forty-nine is bald with stringy hair, very pasty skin, a paunch. The film skips back seven and eight years to the West flashbacks–those seven actual years in between Darwin’s daughter’s death and the Species’s completion are apparently empty of worthy story material. Darwin age forty-two makeup is bald with stringy hair, mildly pasty skin, general nineteenth century upper class flab. It’s not hard to tell them apart, but only because Bettany’s good. But in terms of filmmaking–Amiel’s direction, Jess Hall’s flat photography–well, it’s good they have Bettany.

Also because it’s an entirely thankless part. Collee’s script is deceptively worse than first impression. It’s not bland biopic stuff, it’s bland biopic stuff without any characters. Amiel, whose direction is never better than mediocre (outside the special effects sequences of animal decomposition and so on), he at least tries occasionally. He really likes his close-ups. So the actors can spout either ominous lines (because of hiding daughter West’s fate in flashback) or exposition.

While Bettany’s got it bad, he at least gets to walk around in his make-up. Connelly is left to take care of the kids and give disapproving looks when Bettany doesn’t take his “war on God” seriously. And Connelly never really gets a role. She ends up with one poorly written, well-acted scene. It’s exceptionally impressive filmmaking from Amiel, Hall, and editor Melanie Oliver. It’s this entirely manipulative, cheap, soapy scene and it still works. Because Bettany and Connelly. Connelly gets some character motivation at what might as well be the end of the movie. There’s still more movie and it’s bad, but that moment is when Creation could’ve got out in the black.

But it doesn’t. Because Amiel and Collee are entirely artless with Creation. They want all to benefits of melodramatic contrivances without ever embracing those contrivances. There’s also the issue of how the film characterizes the religious. Caricaturizes. Connelly and Jeremy Northam (extended cameoing as the village clergy) are inappropriately villainized. But meaning they need to be villainized differently. There’s no dramatic fodder in it as is.

Bettany’s good. Not great. Better than decent or fine. West is decent. Connelly is problematic; the part’s crap. Northam’s cameo is too thin. Ditto Toby Jones. He’s bombastic though. Energy is a lot in Creation, as the film stops producing any once the second act hits. Benedict Cumberbatch is good. He tries.

If there’s a great film about the final year of Darwin writing Species, Creation sure ain’t it. Amiel’s just too bland a director to save the film from the script. It could’ve at least maintained mediocre, but as it becomes more and more clear how bad Collee’s plotting and pacing is going to get… well, mediocre’s way out of reach.

The awful Christopher Young score doesn’t help either.



Directed by Jon Amiel; screenplay by John Collee, based on a story by Amiel and Collee and a book by Randal Keynes; director of photography, Jess Hall; edited by Melanie Oliver; music by Christopher Young; production designer, Laurence Dorman; produced by Jeremy Thomas; released by Icon Film Distribution.

Starring Paul Bettany (Charles Darwin), Jennifer Connelly (Emma Darwin), Martha West (Annie Darwin), Jeremy Northam (Reverend Innes), Benedict Cumberbatch (Joseph Hooker), Jim Carter (Parslow), Bill Paterson (Dr. Gully), and Toby Jones (Thomas Huxley).



Goodfellas (1990, Martin Scorsese)

Most of Goodfellas is told in summary. After an opening scene introducing leads Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, and Joe Pesci, the action flashes back to Liotta’s childhood. Liotta narrates. Christopher Serrone plays the younger version.

Liotta’s narration guides Serrone around the neighborhood, letting the film introduce all the mobsters Serrone is enamoured with. Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi’s script does mass introductions at least two more times, maybe three. They’re setting up the ground situation, but in tone and mood, not for narrative purposes. Not even when it’d be narratively efficient to use them for useful exposition. Scorsese is revealing and examining these characters he’s introducing, their criminal monikers, their appearance. It’d be a lot if there were any neccesary information, instead it’s just gorgeous Michael Ballhaus photography.

De Niro and Paul Sorvino get introduced in the Serrone flashback. Sorvino’s makeup is all right throughout, but De Niro’s young guy makeup is far better than his old guy makeup at the end. And Pesci gets introduced, but he’s also played by someone else. Liotta’s a little hard to believe playing a twenty-one year-old. But Pesci playing one is Goodfellas biggest suspension of disbelief.

Scorsese establishes Goodfellas’s narrative pattern during the Serrone flashback. Amusing, expertly shot, expertly cut summary, often with great songs playing, followed by more summary, more summary, then a scene. The scene works at an entirely different pace, usually to let Pesci have a big scene. Scorsese’s a good son though; his mom, Catherine, gets a big scene too. She’s playing Pesci’s mom. It’s a long, self-indulgent scene, but damn if Pesci’s acting doesn’t carry it. Neither Liotta or De Niro really act much. Liotta goes from being a dimwit to a scumbag to a cokehead. He’s awesome at the narration. His performance in the narration is so much more distinct than his performance on screen. On screen he’s thoughtless and dull. In the narration, he’s sharp. He does get his one monologue at the end, tying action to narration. It’s mildly successful.

Scorsese should’ve started employing it two minutes in.

And then De Niro. Until the last third of the movie, De Niro feels like something of a special guest star. Even when he gets his own subplot in the story, the film doesn’t cover it. He goes from being the cool older thug to kid Serrone to loitering around bars less active thug. Though De Niro does tend to be in the scenes. When Goodfellas slows down and stops summarizing, it’s usually for a De Niro scene.

Little weird since he’s obviously not the protagonist.

His performance is also a little bland. He’s only ever got to show concern for one person and he doesn’t pull it off. He hadn’t been layering his performance. He’s good, he’s a lot fun sometimes. But he’s the special guest star who gets to wear a lot of old age makeup. The character’s never interesting, only De Niro.

But then it’s the same thing and totally different with Pesci. His character is extreme and unpredictable, while never dangerous. Because danger doesn’t really factor in to Goodfellas. And it shouldn’t. The movie wouldn’t work if Liotta, De Niro, and Pesci didn’t act with impunity. Pesci’s the only one who takes the time to live in that experience. To luxuriate in the impunity. In his performance, not the character as written.

And now Bracco. Or, Goodfellas’s biggest problem. Not Bracco, she’s excellent. But how the film treats Bracco.

About an hour in–still in some kind of first act–Liotta and Bracco meet and get married. There’s a courtship, but it’s not long and their eventual marriage is never in question once it gets introduced. Especially since Bracco starts narrating the movie instead of Liotta.

It’s the mid-sixties now. The film pays beautiful attention to period detail–Kristi Zea’s production design, Richard Bruno’s costumes. Bracco’s ostensibly there to seduce the viewer with the mobsters’ wives lifestyle. Scorsese does it half-hearted, treating it as narrative function. Turns out Bracco’s narration isn’t Goodfellas developing its narrative into new territory, it’s just a device. One Scorsese and Pileggi do away with–Bracco’s done pretty soon after she observes all the other mob wives wear terrible pantsuits (something she’ll be doing before the end of the movie, foreshadowing of foreshadowings). Also Bracco and Liotta don’t really develop any chemistry. She moons over his tough guyness in the narration, but their scenes together are at best thin.

Again, she’s a narrative function. Bracco doesn’t get a good character until the movie’s almost over. And it’s a shame, because she’s excellent once she gets that character. And she has good scenes before it. Scorsese and Pileggi are just way too comfortable using her as a caricature.

After Bracco, the biggest female part is Gina Mastrogiacomo’s. She’s Liotta’s girlfriend–in the early seventies era of the film. She’s even more of a caricature, though not as loud of one.

Somehow Debi Mazer–as Liotta’s eighties girlfriend who used to be Mastrogiacomo’s friend–somehow she ends up with the stronger part. At least in how it plays on screen. Her performance never gets screwed up for narrative purposes. She’s a caricature through and through, never reduced to one.

The film ends with an amazing procedural sequence. When the film gets to the seventies, Scorsese stops showcasing the period. But Zea and Bruno work just as hard on the production design and costumes as when those aspects were getting spotlights. So the procedural sequence is this magnificant slowdown, while still staying active. Liotta and Bracco finally get a long sequence to themselves. Not much in the way of acting material, but they get the sequence.

And it turns out they’re great together, which is the most disappointing thing about Goodfellas. Where Scorsese wastes potential.

Especially since the last third is full of Chuck Low’s annoying wanna-be mobster pestering everyone. Goodfellas has a problem with cariacture.

Scorsese’s direction and the technical successes–Ballhaus’s photography, Thelma Schoonmaker and James Y. Kewi’s editing–keep Goodfellas moving along. There’s a lot of moving to do–the film races through thirty years, only slowing down for De Niro and the finale. And the finale doesn’t add up. Because it’s Liotta’s finale and Scorsese’s been avoiding Liotta since before Liotta was playing the part. Embrace the protagonist’s narration, avoid the protagonist.

It’s a problem. Goodfellas has many. It’s also has some real strong strengths; those add up to a moderate success.



Directed by Martin Scorsese; screenplay by Nicholas Pileggi and Scorsese, based on a book by Pileggi; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker and James Y. Kwei; production designer, Kristi Zea; produced by Irwin Winkler; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ray Liotta (Henry Hill), Lorraine Bracco (Karen Hill), Robert De Niro (James Conway), Joe Pesci (Tommy DeVito), Paul Sorvino (Paul Cicero), Frank Vincent (Billy Batts), Chuck Low (Morris Kessler), Gina Mastrogiacomo (Janice Rossi), Debi Mazar (Sandy), Christopher Serrone (Young Henry), and Catherine Scorsese (Tommy’s Mother).


The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976, Nicolas Roeg)

The Man Who Fell to Earth is an endurance test. The film runs 138 minutes and has a present action of… dozens of years? Eventually Candy Clark and Rip Torn are in old age makeup, milling about the film from scene to scene, like being forgotten by it would be worse. Everyone’s a drunk by the end, their lives ruined throughout. Man Who Fell to Earth is one of those rare pictures where if it were more melodramatic, it might get better mileage out of the script and cast.

But director Roeg rejects melodrama. He rejects exposition as well, which you need for melodrama but you also need for character development. Torn’s in the film from near the start–his self-destructive university professor subplot is initially juxtaposed against the main one–and Torn stops getting any character moments. He doesn’t get to develop. He gets established, a little more in-depth than other cast members, but then he stops perturbing. He just ages. With makeup assistance.

Clark doesn’t even get that initial setup. She gets one memory, but it doesn’t inform her character at all. She’s initially a big plot foil, then she’s background. Eventually her life is ruined off-screen, just like Torn’s.

Only Buck Henry gets any active resolution, along with the film’s most overt reference to him having a male love interest. That reference comes at the very end, after setting Henry up as a bifocaled visual punchline for an hour or so. Maybe longer. Time loses meaning at some point during Fell to Earth. You’re just waiting for Roeg to get around to something.

He doesn’t, of course, which is sort of the point. You can suck the energy out of any story, no matter how fantastical.

The whole thing revolves around David Bowie’s eclectic genius recluse millionaire who arrives out of the desert with some gems of technical ingenuity. Those gems lead to patents, patents lead to attorney Henry. Then it’s off to New Mexico (again) for Bowie, where he meets Clark and begins his reluctant descent into hedonism.

Bowie’s performance is rather flat. Not unlikable, sometimes rather sympathetic, but always flat. For a while, it’s Clark’s job to give the scenes some buoyancy. She’s got to make up for Bowie’s flat affect. Eventually, Roeg doesn’t even bother having Clark do it. By the time she’s caked in old age makeup, it’s in her scenes without Bowie where she gets to show that buoyancy. Only in scenes not needing any.

It’d lead to a third act drag if the whole thing didn’t drag.

Roeg wants Man to operate without the story having to be the compelling part. Each individual scene has its own internal logic–especially when Bernie Casey, as either anti-capitalist American government agent (Bowie’s inventions are just too good and they’re throwing the economy out of whack) or a rival company man. Casey’s got this whole setup with his family, juxtaposing him against Bowie, who’s temporarily abandoned his own.

About the only thing Casey has in common with Bowie is the butt shots. Roeg goes all out with nudity in Man Who Fell to Earth–initially all Torn is doing is rolling around naked with his female students, which ends up being the most interesting character development in the whole movie–and it gets rather tiresome. It never goes anywhere. The long lingering shots of Bowie’s emaciated form? They’re just long lingering shots.

Technically, the film’s more than competent. Excellent photography from Anthony B. Richmond, decent editing from Graeme Clifford. Roeg’s direction is sort of tedious, just like everything else.

The Man Who Fell to Earth builds until it stops building–pretty much with the introduction of Casey–and there’s nothing to go in the place of that building. Working up some sympathy for Bowie, maybe, but it’s far too late.

When it finally does getting around to stopping, it finally embraces Bowie as the rock star–the beginning of the film, with stranger in town Bowie bewildered by a desolate American town, could be the opening for a Bowie concert film with him ambling around before the show. Only it’s not much of an embrace, because Roeg never wants the film’s pulse to get too high.

The film tries hard with some of its symbolism, some of its dramatic echoes (though, really, with this one I’m being polite), but nothing else. Roeg’s sense of scenic sensationalism wears off. There are only so many times you can be shocked by everyone in the cast except Henry running around naked.

Roeg’s so dramatically restrained, he can’t even get Man to a pretentious state.

The acting’s okay, most of the time. Torn’s probably the best. At least, once people’s regular appearances become more sporadic, Torn’s the only one you’re happy to see again. Clark’s eventually just around to scream and cry. And tumble around naked with Bowie in proto-MTV music videos.

Henry might be better if the exagerrated bifocals didn’t get in the way. Well, that change and some better writing. Mayersberg’s script–or Roeg’s direction of it–doesn’t give the actors much to work with.

Roeg’s got problems with verisimilitude (the film’s got none), which is more than clear during the flashforward third act. In its place, he has his flat, protracted artiface. It’s exhausting. And Man Who Fell to Earth should be anything but.

Also, frankly, Clark doesn’t shoulder the weight of the picture puts on her. Her character’s too thin, her performance is too thin. Old age makeup a performance does not make.

The film doesn’t completely flop until the finale, when Man shrugs at the idea of adding up to anything for any of the cast–everyone lies to one another throughout, so much so their actions seem “dramatically” (quotation marks because drama would help too much) mandated versus naturally occuring.

Again, if Roeg had just like the natural melodrama come through–and maybe had a better production design than Brian Eatwell–Man Who Fell to Earth might be something other than an exasperating, if inoffensive, waste of time.



Directed by Nicolas Roeg; screenplay by Paul Mayersberg, based on the novel by Walter Tevis; director of photography, Anthony B. Richmond; edited by Graeme Clifford; music by John Phillips and Stomu Yamashta; production designer, Brian Eatwell; produced by Barry Spikings and Michael Deeley; released by British Lion Film Distribution.

Starring David Bowie (Thomas Jerome Newton), Candy Clark (Mary-Lou), Rip Torn (Nathan Bryce), Bernie Casey (Peters), and Buck Henry (Oliver Farnsworth).


Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee)

There are no clocks in Do the Right Thing. The film takes place over a twenty-four hour period; all the action is on one block, most of the characters live on the block. It’s a Saturday. Some people are working, some people aren’t. It’s a very hot day. And for the first ninety minutes of the film’s two hour runtime, writer-director-producer-actor Lee takes a relaxed approach to the pacing.

Lee’s protagonist isn’t exactly the main character; Thing has maybe four main plots running throughout the day, casually intersecting until everything crashes together. Lee’s part of most of them, but so’s Ossie Davis, so’s Giancarlo Esposito, so’s Bill Nunn. It’s about a lot of different people’s day. And Lee goes so deep with the backgrounds–narratively and filmically–it’s not always the top-billed who get the best scenes. Sure, John Turturro, Danny Aiello, and Ruby Dee all get excellent scenes and they’ve got bigger parts, but where Lee the filmmaker isn’t always in those scenes. Not for monologues for sure. Sam Jackson is the DJ and he gets some great scenes. Lee and editor Barry Alexander Brown change energy and tone with one cut to the next; the film already opens with Lee and Brown affecting the energy and tone.

The opening titles are over Rosie Perez dancing. She plays Lee’s girlfriend. They’ve got a kid. He’s not a great dad and he’s not a great boyfriend. But he loves her. They don’t live together.

Back to the opening titles. They’re over this red-colored monochrome Brooklyn street, empty besides Perez. Brown perfectly cuts on every movement as the shots cycle. Perez in different outfits, on different locations, with Ernest R. Dickerson changing up the lighting for most. More than the editing–or even pace, because Thing is never as relaxed as when Perez is dancing, not even in the quieter moments–more than either of those technical elements, Dickerson’s photography defines a lot of Thing. Especially during the first act when everything is getting set up. There’s a sharpness to Dickerson’s colors, but also enough warmth nothing ever clashes. And Frankie Faison’s third of a sidewalk raconteur trio is loudly dressed enough he definitely ought to clash. He’s in pastels in front of a red wall.

But Dickerson keeps it just warm enough. All those times where a clash should cause some kind of verisimilitude fissure–not because of the cast, but because of how Lee’s directing it–Dickerson’s photography keeps everything even. Or more inviting, actually. Faison doesn’t say much but he’s definitely the most amiable of the trio.

Robin Harris and Paul Benjamin make up the rest of the trio. Harris’s the most lovable, Benjamin’s unexpectedly the most dangerous. They sit and narrate the day, providing background through exposition. Lee’s script has so much going on at once, laying groundwork. One plot will discard an element, only for another to pick it up. Esposito is the energized pinball dinging between them.

Lee’s long setup, even after the first act establishing is done, is determining what exactly Esposito is dinging against. What are the bumpers he’s hitting. Only Espositio isn’t the main character either. He’s barely a supporting character. He’s kind of background, only he’s not, because the point of Thing is there is no background. Foreground and background intersect over and over–sometimes in great sequences, like Aiello friendliness to Joie Lee (Lee’s sister as his sister, which is a pragmatic goldmine). Lee and Turturro (as Aiello’s openly racist son–Aiello owns a pizza shop in a predominately Black neighborhood) don’t like Aiello’s attention to Joie Lee; Lee gets a lot of mileage out of it, both visually and in terms of narrative import.

There are times when Lee just lets a tangent go. It’s too hot to let things get drawn out. The end is different.

When the sun sets, Lee starts slowing things down. The last twenty minutes, minus the last two scenes, are in real-time. And Lee goes from a narrative distance of intense close-up to crane shot before things are over. He yanks the focus around, with Dickerson and Brown (and composer Bill Lee, accompanied by Branford Marsalis) making it all pretty, to keep the energy up but always different. He’s creating an entirely new narrative perspective, using materials he’s prepared in the previous ninety minutes.

Do the Right Thing goes from being great to being great in a totally different way; that second way is this careful rejection of melodrama, done at high speed. It’s awesome.

Great acting. Ossie Davis is the best. He’s got one of the fuller characters. Aiello’s real good, not flashy but real good. Turturro’s flashy and real good. Lee’s a fine protagonist. He’s generally reserved, which ends up helping to quickly introduce characters. In his scenes with Joie Lee and then Perez, he jumpstarts his character development. He’s more reactionary in his scenes with Aiello, Turturro, and Richard Edson (as Aiello’s nice younger son). Again, protagonist but not really main character.

In smaller parts, some fantastic acting. Dee, who starts a bigger character than she finishes, Harris, and Jackson, in particular. Joie Lee’s pretty good but never as good as when she’s bickering with her brother. Lee directs her a little different than everything else, almost like she’s in a featured cameo. The same goes, in very different ways, for Rosie Perez. She’s good too; it’s a good thing Perez is so naturally memorable–it’s the writing too but no one curses like she does–because she’s so set completely aside from everything else.

And, of course, a special mention of Christa Rivers. She’s in the background, she’s got no other film credits, but she’s tasked with holding a bunch of the film together just through reaction shots. She’s great.

Do the Right Thing is technically magnificent and beautifully acted. It’s also a stunning success for Lee. He goes after a lot with the film, does a lot with the film in terms of style and tone (and rapidly changing them), and it all hits.

Even with that studio-mandated insert shot of Lee at the end.



Written, produced, and directed by Spike Lee; director of photography, Ernest R. Dickerson; edited by Barry Alexander Brown; music by Bill Lee; production designer, Wynn Thomas; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Spike Lee (Mookie), Danny Aiello (Sal), Ossie Davis (Da Mayor), John Turturro (Pino), Joie Lee (Jade), Ruby Dee (Mother Sister), Rosie Perez (Tina), Giancarlo Esposito (Buggin Out), Richard Edson (Vito), Bill Nunn (Radio Raheem), Roger Guenveur Smith (Smiley), Paul Benjamin (ML), Frankie Faison (Coconut Sid), Robin Harris (Sweet Dick Willie), Miguel Sandoval (Officer Ponte), Rick Aiello (Officer Long), John Savage (Clifton), and Samuel L. Jackson (Mister Señor Love Daddy).