Category Archives: Drama

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.

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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).



The Godfather: Part III (1990, Francis Ford Coppola), the director’s cut

Here’s an all-encompassing theory to explain The Godfather Part III, based only on on-screen evidence (i.e. ignoring production woes, casting woes, rewrites, budget and schedule comprises, and whatever else). Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo hate everyone in the film and everyone who will ever watch the film—maybe Coppola didn’t cast daughter Sofia Coppola in the third lead of the film because he thought she’d be good, but instead because she’d be godawful and make everyone hate the movie, which would just validate Coppola not wanting to make it in the first place. It would also explain the terrible script, full of awful exposition sequences and hackneyed scene after hackneyed scene. Godfather Part III makes Sofia Coppola and Andy Garcia’s star-crossed romance—they’re first cousins—into a fetish. They’ve both got a cousin-smashing fetish. If you want to love Godfather 3, Coppola and Puzo say, you’ve got to love some cousins bumping uglies.

Let’s not even get into when Talia Shire does a jaw drop at Garcia’s useless stud twin bodyguards and then rubs her nephew’s hands suggestively. If Godfather 3 has any subtext, it’s icky. But saying it has subtext is a stretch. Shire seems like she’s just in the movie to wear great clothes. Her performance is utterly atrocious. Of the returning cast members, Shire’s easily the worst. See, there’s nothing good about Godfather Part III. There are no hidden gems in the film. It’s not like secretly Al Pacino gives a good performance if you just ignore the terrible dialogue. It’s not like his eyes give a different performance than his words when he’s trying to rekindle with ex-wife Diane Keaton—in the twenty-one movie years between II and III apparently Pacino decided he didn’t want to raise the kids he stole from Keaton and ships them back to her and then is estranged from the kids somewhat. Keaton’s remarried (to Brett Halsey, who seems to have just met his wife and step-kids in first scene) and Pacino’s seems to have been a baching it, living with bodyguard Richard Bright (who gives the best returning performance) and hanging out with sister Shire. It’s not clear. The first act is really inept as far as establishing the ground situation.

Godfather 3 kind of remixes styles from the previous two movies—it doesn’t seem like Carmine Coppola composes a single new piece of music for the film, just recycles material from the previous ones, as director Coppola just recycles dialogue and scenes. It all echoes, the film bellows: Don’t you remember when you loved this.

But then Coppola and Puzo grossly veer as far as characterization. Pacino doesn’t have a character. He’s got a caricaturization, not even of the character from the previous films, but of himself since then. In really bad make-up. They’re only aging Pacino ten years but the way he dodders around, shuffling, kind of glassy-eyed, it’s like the makeup person was going for seventy-five and stoned. It’s really, really, really hard not to feel bad for Pacino throughout Godfather Part 3. People remember the first one for Brando, the second one for De Niro; here, Pacino gets to be the whole show—or should be—and director Coppola instead gives all the big material to his daughter, who must give one of the worst performances in a film budgeted over fifty million dollars before 1994. It’s humiliating.

Because Pacino’s not terrible. He’s doddering, he’s pretty dense—it’s unbelievable he’s a successful anything, gangster gone businessman or gangster pretending to go businessman—the same goes for Garcia, who goes from driving a car, shooting people, yelling, picking up young girls, then picking up his cousin to being a criminal mastermind. Of course, given the mob plot in this one involves Pacino wanting to buy a huge corporation from the Vatican and the Vatican going to war with Pacino but there’s also something with Joe Mantegna as the mob guy Pacino gave the old neighborhood. Mantegna and Garcia hate each other. Garcia’s Pacino’s illegitimate nephew (and if you’re expecting a great Pacino blow-up scene after Gracia seduces Sofia Coppola, dream on; though at least Pacino disapproves, Keaton’s all for the first cousin—they bring it up to confirm–smashing). Eli Wallach plays an old mob friend who somehow wasn’t in the first two movies even though he obviously should’ve been; he’s got an agenda of his own. If you’ve seen the second movie you can figure it out pretty quick because they use the same music cues.

Speaking of the second movie, evidently the reason Pacino’s a big sweetheart now is because he feels so bad about killing his brother in the second movie. Coppola rolls that footage in the first ten minutes of the movie, clearly it’s important. Only it’s not because Pacino hasn’t got enough character for it to affect anything. Wait, wait, it does. I forgot: Franc D’Ambrosio. D’Ambrosio is Keaton and Pacino’s other kid (sadly, no, he and Garcia don’t bang too). The reason Keaton comes back into Pacino’s orbit is because she wants to support D’Ambrosio dropping out of law school to become an opera singer. See, D’Ambrosio knows Pacino had his favorite uncle killed in the last movie and wants nothing to do with him. Except in all those scenes where he hugs Pacino and tells him how much he loves him and how much he wants Pacino’s approval and blah blah blah. Until the last twenty minutes, it’s hard to get too worked up about Sofia Coppola’s performance because for as terrible as she gets, D’Ambrosio is just as bad. Coppola looked at Keaton and Pacino—who actually dated back on the second movie—and decided if they had kids, those children would grow up to give terrible performances in the worst sequel (compared to previous entries) of all time.

The complete disconnect between D’Ambrosio’s first scene and every subsequent one? It gets to be a natural feeling in Godfather 3. A lot of scenes feel reshot, even if they’re not. Like maybe Keaton and Pacino weren’t really on set at the same time for this one. Same goes for Sofia Coppola and Andy Garcia. They’ve got a couple scenes where it really doesn’t seem like they’re talking to anyone else. It’s hard to tell, because Coppola directs the film like a TV show. Instead of doing a two shot in a conversation, he’ll cut between close-ups. It’s really, really, really bad composition. Like so much in the film, it’s embarrassing.

So Pacino’s greatest success is not appearing visibly humiliated. Keaton just seems defeated. She’s terrible. The writing on her character is real bad. All the writing on characters is real bad. But Keaton is way more in Shire territory than not.

Garcia’s okay. Sort of. It’s not his fault. Also the James Caan impression stuff is stupid.

Sofia Coppola’s performance is singularly terrible. Can’t be repeated enough.

Oh, right. The supporting cast. Besides George Hamilton, who has squat to do in the film, everyone is pretty bad. Hamilton’s not good, but he at least seems excited to be in a Godfather movie. He shows up and tries. Mantegna and Wallach don’t try. Wallach just gets worse the more he’s onscreen. The Vatican Eurotrash villains—Donal Donnelly and Enzo Robutti—they’re awful too. But for different reasons. Coppola doesn’t really bother directing the actors. He must be too busy setting up terrible shots, which all have variously poor establishing shots. Gordon Willis’s photography is something dreadful, but it’s impossible to blame him. Somehow it’s got to be Coppola’s fault.

So what’s left… Bridget Fonda? She’s got an extended cameo to get in some male gaze. She’s not good. But she’s nowhere near as problematic as anyone else, even Richard Bright, just because she’s not in the movie long enough to get worse scenes. The longer you’re in Godfather 3, the worse your scenes get. Except maybe D’Ambrosio, who frequently gets completely forgotten because no one cares. He’s not banging Garcia, after all.

The scary part is it could be even worse. You can just tell. Coppola could have made an even worse film.

There is one nearly good scene in the film where Coppola lets Pacino try to feel out an honest emotion. It seems like it ought to be a scene in a film called The Godfather Part III. None of the other ones do. The rest of it feels like Puzo and Coppola really wanted to do a Vatican conspiracy thriller and shoehorned in the Corleone Family, with the cousin sex for dessert.

I don’t loathe Godfather 3, I just dread it. Every one of the 170 minutes after the first just promise something else dreadful.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola; screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, based on characters created by Puzo; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by Lisa Fruchtman, Barry Malkin, and Walter Murch; music by Carmine Coppola; production designer, Dean Tavoularis; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Al Pacino (Don Michael Corleone), Andy Garcia (Vincent Mancini), Sofia Coppola (Mary Corleone), Talia Shire (Connie Corleone Rizzi), Eli Wallach (Don Altobello), Diane Keaton (Kay Adams Michelson), Richard Bright (Al Neri), Franc D’Ambrosio (Anthony Vito Corleone), George Hamilton (B.J. Harrison), Joe Mantegna (Joey Zasa), Bridget Fonda (Grace Hamilton), Raf Vallone (Cardinal Lamberto), Donal Donnelly (Archbishop Gilday), Helmut Berger (Frederick Keinszig), Don Novello (Dominic Abbandando), John Savage (Father Andrew Hagen), and Vittorio Duse (Don Tommasino).


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The Scapegoat (1959, Robert Hamer)

Despite Bette Davis playing a French dowager countess, The Scapegoat always feels very British. It’s probably exaggerated a little because it takes place in France, features mostly British people (save American Irene Worth) playing French people. Nicole Maurey is the only actual French person in the film, certainly the only one with a French accent. It draws some attention to her and how little she fits with the rest of the film, but it somehow works pretty well, which the film acknowledges enough to take for granted.

Scapegoat is also a little strange because it’s a character study of lead Alec Guinness, who’s in the middle of a peculiar mystery. The film opens with Guinness arriving in France on holiday; he’s a bored bachelor school teacher who’s given up on doing anything but teaching French to rich little British snots. He goes to France every year for the holiday and this time he’s thinking of just staying. He gets his wish in the form of… Alec Guinness. See, turns out Guinness has a French double and his double is a French nobleman who’s got land, title, and a whole bunch of debt. French Guinness is also at least a sociopath and always up to some kind of no good, having—it turns out—just ducked out on wife Worth after she’s suffered a miscarriage, but he also skipped out on mistress Maurey. Neither woman ends up getting an explanation because when Guinness gets home to his estate, he’s not French Guinness, he’s British Guinness. The double got him pass out drunk, switched places, disappeared.

Going forward—British Guinness is always going to be Guinness and French Guinness is always going to be French Guinness. So Guinness doesn’t really get particularly interested in why French Guinness has changed places with him, as life on the estate is an unhappy mess. French Guinness had left under the pretense he’d had a schizophrenic mental breakdown and needed to go to Paris to party. As much as any Alec Guinness, French or otherwise, is going to party. All by himself. No families, mistresses, doctors. And nobody except daughter Annabel Bartlett really seemed to care. But Guinness Guinness is overwhelmed at all the double has around him. He’s got a great kid, a sympathetic wife, a mistress, an estate, a failing but beloved business, and a cranky but not actually dangerous bedridden mum, Davis. Guinness tries to fix French Guinness’s life, which is the character study. But there’s still the mystery. Even if Guinness doesn’t acknowledge it.

That mystery comes back in the last twenty minutes of the film. The first twenty minutes are kind of slow, the next fifty breeze, the last twenty are a little awkward. Guinness is never appropriately suspicious, there’s not enough with Bartlett in the finale, and the resolution is too abrupt. Those reasons, more than everyone speaking with a British accent save Maurey, are why the film feels so British. It’s almost like director Hamer is trying to direct a slightly different, more comedic mystery script while the script is actually trying not to be comedic or mysterious. Only Hamer wrote the script; based on a Gore Vidal adaptation of the novel. So I want to assume it’s Vidal who turned it into this character study but who knows. Because, based on a summary, the novel sounds a bit more melodramatic.

It works out pretty well in the end, all things considered, but just makes it.

Guinness is phenomenal. The script gives him these great quiet reflection scenes without any narration—his narration is always matter-of-fact and goes away after a while; his reflection scenes are always beyond subtle. He’s exceptionally patient. Then as French Guinness, he’s got this subtle character arc, which the script sort of hints at but Guinness takes it a different direction. It’s rather good.

The special effects putting Guinness on screen twice are all good. Hamer never goofs off too much with it. He’s got an enthusiastic workman quality to his direction here, with cinematographer Paul Beeson helping a bit, and the special effects scenes are just the same. It’s not a gimmick, it’s a scene.

Of the supporting performances, Davis’s is the most fun. She’s got maybe three scenes and manages to imply a character arc. Bartlett’s performance is the most important because she’s the reason Guinness gets so interested. See, French Guinness—despite driving her into town each week for a music lesson (but really so he could go see Maurey)—he always wanted a boy. Guinness has no such prejudice. He also doesn’t have any animosity with Worth, which French Guinness seemed to have cultivated. Worth’s fine. She rarely gets time enough to develop her character. Pamela Brown has a really good scene opposite “brother” Guinness (she’s otherwise background). So all the acting is good or better.

The Scapegoat just has tone problems the conclusion doesn’t resolve satisfactorily enough, which… seems very British to me.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Hamer; screenplay by Hamer, adaptation by Gore Vidal, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier; director of photography, Paul Beeson; edited by Jack Harris; music by Bronislau Kaper; production designer, Elliot Scott; produced by Michael Balcon; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Alec Guinness (John Barratt), Annabel Bartlett (Marie-Noel), Nicole Maurey (Bela), Irene Worth (Francoise), Geoffrey Keen (Gaston), Noel Howlett (Dr. Aloin), Peter Bull (Aristide), Pamela Brown (Blanche), and Bette Davis (The Countess).

THIS POST IS PART OF THE FOURTH ANNUAL BETTE DAVIS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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