Category Archives: Drama

Ever After (1998, Andy Tennant)

Ever After imagines the Cinderella story as a vaguely historically accurate period drama. It’s desperate to present itself as “realistic,” including bookends with special guest star Jeanne Moreau adding some actual French to the film, which is set in France and acted by Americans or Britons of various origin. Moreau’s got a scene and a couple voiceovers; she’s telling the Brothers Grimm they got the Cinderella story wrong and she’s going to tell them the whole truth. No singing birds, just Leonardo da Vinci saving the day.

Until the ball, which is its own thing, Ever After is lead Drew Barrymore suffering or falling in love with Prince of France Dougray Scott. She’s a progressive, he’s a royalist. She challenges him though; he’s never met a noble like her. Little does he know she’s not nobility—it’s unclear why not, given her widower father (Jeroen Krabbé) married a widowed Baroness, Angelica Huston. Of course, Krabbé drops dead—in the flashback—the day after he brings Huston and her two daughters back home with him, leaving his wife without a husband and Barrymore (or the kid who plays young Barrymore) without a father. Huston predictably becomes an evil step-monster immediately and puts Barrymore to work around the house while Huston and daughters Megan Dodds and Melanie Lynskey live it up. Relatively speaking. When the film gets to the main action, Huston’s run up a bunch of debt and is selling off servants and furniture to maintain her lifestyle. All she’s got to do is marry Dodds off—Lynskey’s ostensibly too heavy to deserve a man’s attentions (Lynskey being too “heavy” is only slightly less realistic than the da Vinci stuff)—and it will have been worth it.

Little does she realize Barrymore is sneaking off to seduce Scott with her mind and whatnot.

Huston’s great, Dodds’s great, Lynskey’s great. They’re in this black comedy, set aside from the rest of Ever After, which is de facto about Barrymore showing more agency than any of the other women in… well, existence at the time, and Scott learning maybe he needs to be less of a thoughtless snob. It’s not until the dance, when the film heads into the third act—the plotting is fine, it’s the actual scenes where the problems arise—and, of course, the film avoiding the hell out of Barrymore just when it should be focusing on her.

But that dance. It reveals how little Ever After has done to actually establish Barrymore as protagonist; she’s just the victim and straight man in Huston’s story. Sporting a da Vinci—designed dress (you’d think he’d do better, he thinks some angel wings and glitter makeup are enough), Barrymore shows up at the Ball, apparently has a moment of apprehension, which makes no sense for the character in general or specifically in the scene, and then everything goes to crap so there can be a third act redemption arc for characters needing one. Along with some reveals; one of them raises more questions than it answers. Ever After doesn’t have a good script. Susannah Grant, director Tennant, and Rick Parks turn in an entirely mediocre screenplay, even if you forgive all the “real” nonsense.

Tennant, as a director, does lots of sweeping crane shots, playing up the location shooting, and trying to make it into a grounded fairy tale romance. An intellectualized one, where Barrymore’s peasant pretending to be royalty is able to show Scott how stupid he’s been about his life. Unfortunately it has the result of making Scott the protagonist in the third act, which is a bit of a slight to Barrymore, given it’s supposed to be her story. Her “real” story, which is fake. Either Ever After started with the gimmick of a realistic Cinderella adaptation or it added it later. A better director might do some magical realism, but Ever After doesn’t have much in the way of ambition. Not given how little it actually gives Barrymore to do. It gives her a lot of action, but not a lot of acting.

She’s fine, though. Better at some points than others. Same goes for Scott, who’s never quite charming enough to be a Prince Charming, but he’s likable. Neither of them can compare to the supporting cast; Huston’s amazing, Judy Parfitt’s really good as Scott’s queen mother, Richard O’Brien has a great bit part as a rich lech after Barrymore.

Nice enough score from George Fenton. He plays up the fairy tale romance, which matches all of Tennant’s big shots. Shame Tennant’s big shots are almost always poorly conceived so Fenton’s music is always going on about fifteen seconds too long.

After some genuine drama in the third act, the wrap-up is way too pat. But Ever After is still a lot more successful than you’d think from the tacky prologues.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Andy Tennant; screenplay by Susannah Grant, Tennant, and Rick Parks, based on a story by Charles Perraul; director of photography, Andrew Dunn; edited by Roger Bondelli; music by George Fenton; production designer, Michael Howells; produced by Mireille Soria and Tracey Trench; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Drew Barrymore (Danielle), Dougray Scott (Prince Henry), Anjelica Huston (Rodmilla), Megan Dodds (Marguerite), Melanie Lynskey (Jacqueline), Patrick Godfrey (Leonardo), Judy Parfitt (Queen Marie), Timothy West (King Francis), Jeroen Krabbé (Auguste), Lee Ingleby (Gustave), Kate Lansbury (Paulette), Matyelok Gibbs (Louise), Walter Sparrow (Maurice), Jeanne Moreau (Grande Dame), Anna Maguire (Young Danielle), and Richard O’Brien (Pierre Le Pieu).


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The Best of Enemies (2019, Robin Bissell)

Chris Rock has a joke about waiting to see if the evening news—it’s an old joke—report on a crime is going to have a Black perpetrator or a White one, just so he (Rock, a Black man) can figure out if his white coworkers are going to ask him if he knew the perp (if he’s Black).

In other words, I had to check and see if Best of Enemies writer, director, and producer Robin Bissell was a White person. He is. He’s also fifty, which… isn’t a demographic to be making The Best of Enemies in 2019. Or ever, really. There was never a good time for a fifty year-old White guy to make a movie about a North Carolina Klan leader in the early seventies realizing Black people are people because they can be nice to him. Best of Enemies is basically the reverse of those White “liberals” who tell Black people to stop complaining or they’ll have to vote GOP next time when, in reality, you know they all voted for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein anyway. It’s about lead Sam Rockwell—the aforementioned Klan leader—realizing not just Black people are people but also how the system is rigged against poor Whites and Blacks alike and that rigging seems to be the point.

Less on the second part, however, because it might be interesting to see that development in Rockwell’s life and the film avoids any interesting developments.

I’m going at Enemies a little harder than usual for a few reasons. First, Taraji P. Henson is top-billed. She’s the Black woman community organizer who works with Rockwell and contributes to his ability to see the humanity in… you know, humans. Rah for him, sure, but a movie? Not sure it’s worth a movie. Especially since the movie sets itself up to be this great anti-buddy buddy pic between Henson and Rockwell and it’s not. Henson, it’ll turn out somewhere in the very lengthy two hour plus runtime, is red herring. She’s got nothing to do in the movie. Not even supporting player scraps after the movie shoves Rockwell into the lead. So The Best of Enemies, which ostensibly is about two “born enemies”—a Klan leader and, you know, a Black person—becoming something together, is really just a White Savior movie for Rockwell. And he’s not even the most interesting White Savior in the picture.

John Gallagher Jr.’s the most interesting White Savior. He’s just in a bit part, which is too bad because he’s a lot more useful a character than some of the bigger stunt casts in bit parts—fifth-billed Wes Bentley, for example; around to be the creepy, greasy Klan guy who you think is going to crack and kill someone.

And then there’s Nick Searcy, who’s—as usual—quite good. This time he’s quite good as a piece of shit upper class racist who gets Rockwell’s poor White Klan boys to do his dirty work. Is the film aware of… Nick Searcy’s optics? Like. You can leave a lot at the door. You can’t leave Nick Searcy at the door. It’s not a good enough part for it really to be worth it. Though no one’s part is really good enough.

Henson’s great. Even after Bissell’s scared to give her scenes with other Black people. Or maybe he’s not scared. Maybe he just doesn’t have the interest in her story. She and Rockwell are working on a charrette, which doesn’t make the Apple dictionary (says something, I imagine), and is “any collaborative session in which a group of designers drafts a solution to a design problem.” The problem in Enemies is school integration. Rockwell and Henson end up co-chairs, forced into working together by facilitator Babou Ceesay. Cessay’s in town doing the charrette because the judge doesn’t want to have to rule on school integration and wants to pass the buck.

It’s not a metaphor for the film’s proclivity for passing the buck, but only because Bissell wouldn’t know how to do a metaphor.

Technically, the film’s fine. It’s clearly on too low of a budget to do the period well. Almost no extras in the exteriors of strangely empty streets and so on. Bissell’s not bad at composition. He’s perfectly pedestrian, which does the film no help in getting over the budget constraints. Presumably most of the money went to Rockwell and Henson, who both do their best, but… there’s only so far they can go with the script and what the script gives them. Or, in both their cases, what the script doesn’t give them. Henson just doesn’t get material. Rockwell gets material but no character development arc. The whole point of the movie is shitbag racists are people too but Bissell never wants more than a caricature from Rockwell. Maybe a 3D one, but still just a caricature. You can see Rockwell getting bored in Enemies. The part doesn’t give him anything to do. Not really. Not sincerely. Some of his best scenes in the movie ought to be the ones where he’s just hanging out with wife Anne Heche, only there’s so much expository dumping in those scenes—because Heche isn’t a big-time racist, she just loves one. So she makes him different than the Bentleys or the Searcys of the film. Her and Rockwell having a son with Downs in the South in 1971 and still, you know, loving him. Best of Enemies exploits its cast in a lot of ways—after a while, if she’s not just building up Rockwell’s humanity, Henson’s part is reduced to crying helplessly—after a certain point, Bissell can’t even pretend he’s not just objectifying anguish… but no one gets it worse than Kevin Iannucci as the son. Bissell’s a callous filmmaker.

Probably because he can’t figure out how to make the movie work. Possibly because it’s not Rockwell’s movie but Bissell can’t imagine it any other way.

It’s a waste of the cast. Maybe not Bentley but everyone else. Bentley’s fine he’s just not promising. Everyone else is at least promising. Like Bruce McGill. Or Nicholas Logan, who’s creepy as the bland blond Klan redneck (versus Bentley’s greaser one, who needs a Johnny Reb cap to be distinct).

Really good songs on the soundtrack. Seventies stuff. Because they were listening to early Bowie in South Carolina in 1971. It’s Bissell bumbling his way through softening the audience with nostalgia.

Is there a good movie in the true story? Probably. The clips over the end credits of the real people Rockwell and Henson are playing is a better movie than the previous two hours and five minutes and they’re just clips.

There’s some good acting work in the film and Jeannine Oppewall’s production design is good and whoever did the line producing did well, but… The Best of Enemies is way too shallow. Bissell knows there’s a movie in the story, he just can’t find it. Especially not in his script.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robin Bissell; screenplay by Bissell, based on the book by Osha Gray Davidson; director of photography, David Lanzenberg; edited by Harry Yoon; music by Marcelo Zarvos; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; produced by Matt Berenson, Fred Bernstein, Bissell, Tobey Maguire, Matthew Plouffe, Danny Strong, and Dominique Telson; released by STX Films.

Starring Sam Rockwell (C.P. Ellis), Taraji P. Henson (Ann Atwater), Anne Heche (Mary Ellis), Nick Searcy (Garland Keith), Babou Ceesay (Bill Riddick), Wes Bentley (Floyd Kelly), Nicholas Logan (Wiley Yates), John Gallagher Jr. (Lee Tromblay), Caitlin Mehner (Maddy Mays), Kevin Iannucci (Larry Ellis), and Bruce McGill (Carvie Oldham).


The Mind of Mr. Soames (1970, Alan Cooke)

The Mind of Mr. Soames is preternaturally gentle (which, getting ahead of myself, is kind of the point) but it’s always a surprise how much more gentle it can get. The film doesn’t forebode or foreshadow, even though doing either wouldn’t just be predictable, it might even be appropriate given the subject matter.

The film opens at a private British medical institute, where everyone is very excited because they’re going to operate on star patient Mr. Soames (played by Terence Stamp). Stamp was born comatose due to a super-rare condition in his brain stem and this institute has kept him alive for thirty years. They’ve been waiting for medical science to get to a place where it can help Stamp. And it has. American surgeon Robert Vaughan (sporting a very cool beard) crosses the pond to do it. He’s not interested in Stamp’s recovery process, just the surgery.

At least, not until he realizes Davenport wants to train Stamp like a pet, not raise him like a child. Because even though Stamp’s got an adult brain, he’s pristine tabula rasa.

Also in the mix is scuzzy TV journalist Christian Roberts. He’s got Davenport’s permission to turn Stamp’s “childhood” into a documentary series. Part of the film’s gentle is how much the filmmakers trust the audience. The script trusts them to keep up, director Cooke trusts them to keep up—a big thing in the first act is American doctor Vaughan realizing British doctor Davenport is less concerned with Stamp recovering than with him making the Institute famous. But it never comes up. The whole arc of the film turns out to involve Donal Donnelly as Davenport’s underling, who gradually learns how to be a good doctor. Vaughan’s a big influence on him, but so’s Stamp.

Even though it’s almost a spoiler how much agency Stamp gets in the film given he starts it inanimate, kept alive by a roomful of machines. When Mind starts, it’s a split between Vaughan, Davenport, and Roberts, with Donnelly bouncing between Vaughan and Davenport. But once Stamp wakes up, the film starts its gradual transition into being his story.

It’s a great film, but it’s very hard to imagine it being able to do any more than it already does. Stamp eventually encounters all sorts of other people—most importantly kindly (potentially too kindly) miserable housewife Judy Parfitt—and Mind treats them as caricatures. Only Stamp, with this necessarily reduced agency and potential of it, gets to be a full-fledged character. These people he encounters are caricatures from his perspective, but from the film’s, which I guess is where the only real problems (outside the wrong closing music) occur. Everyone relies on Stamp to handle his perspective, which is understandable, he’s phenomenal. But if the film adjusted the narrative distance to track Stamp more closely, it’d necessarily lose the doctors.

Mind of Mr. Soames can’t be a character study, but it also can’t be a medical thriller because it can’t maintain the medical procedural. It also can’t do straight drama because it’s got a speculative air to it. Director Cooke does that gentle thing instead of trying to hit various intensities. It’s never calm, it’s never placid, it’s just gentle. Mind is based on a novel and there’s definitely the potential for some sort of comparison to Frankenstein, maybe with the book but definitely with the film; whether or not Stamp is going to go Frankenstein is one of the film’s many questions, but never one of Stamp’s and it’s Stamp’s film.

The film doesn’t exactly have charm—it’s too intense, stakes-wise—and it’s never overly stylish, but the deliberate but still surprising way the narrative unfolds is rather agreeable. Mind of Mr. Soames does a lot, provides its cast a lot of great scenes, and it’s not an easy story to do. So when it works out so well… not charming, but nice.

It’s a story very well told.

Outside the occasionally too obviously shot in the studio night time exteriors, Billy Williams’s photography is always good. The actual exterior shooting—when Stamp and the film get outside his “playroom”—is excellent. Really strong direction from Cooke, both with the actors and the composition. The film seems to get a certain patience from Cooke, while it gets a different one from John Hale and Edward Simpson’s script; the story’s about agitated people but the story’s never agitated.

Pretty good music from Michael Dress (except the closing track, which is fine but not good enough for what the film has just accomplished).

Great performance from Stamp (you can’t imagine anyone else in the role after he does it). Excellent support from Vaughan, Davenport, and Donnelly. They’re ahead the other caricatures because, well, they get enough time not to be caricatures.

Stamp, Cooke, and everyone else make something special with The Mind of Mr. Soames.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Alan Cooke; screenplay by John Hale and Edward Simpson, based on the novel by Charles Eric Maine; lighting cameraman, Billy Williams; edited by Bill Blunden; music by Michael Dress; production designer, Bill Constable; produced by Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Terence Stamp (John Soames), Robert Vaughn (Dr. Bergen), Nigel Davenport (Dr. Maitland), Christian Roberts (Thomas Fleming), Donal Donnelly (Joe Allan), Norman Jones (Davis), Dan Jackson (Nicholls), and Judy Parfitt (Jenny Bannerman).



The Straight Story (1999, David Lynch)

The Straight Story wants to present its characters as real, but it then exaggerates their reality. They’re better than real. Superior imitations. And it’s the film’s undoing.

Well, and the music. The eschewing of cartoon for caricature and the Angelo Badalamenti score. It is not the music to tell the story of a man born in 1920s Minnesota, who later moves to Iowa at some point and now at seventy-three is driving a riding mower to Wisconsin to see his estranged brother. Badalamenti’s main theme is ostentatious; even if you like it, it’s ostentatious. The movie’s all about how this guy, played by Richard Farnsworth, isn’t ostentatious. How could he be? He gives folksy, somewhat progressive wisdom and always pays his way. He never takes handouts, but he’ll compromise as long as it doesn’t fundamentally break his code. He’s a cowboy, on the steel green horse—well, steel green mule of a John Deere riding mower—he rides.

Straight Story isn’t a character study; its protagonist is never subject, never driving force (no pun intended). Director Lynch and writers John Roach and Mary Sweeney shrug off the idea of Farnsworth’s motivations until the third act when he dumps them in some heartfelt, folksy exposition. Straight Story is based on a true story, yet the film does whatever it can to make its characters seem utterly contained to their scenes. They stop existing when the film, sometimes jarringly, cuts away from them. It’s somewhat appropriate, however, as Sweeney also edited the film. The film has a handful of really rough cuts, not to mention when all of a sudden in the second half it employs frequent fades to black to end scenes. Occasionally the cuts are rough because clearly the actor onscreen didn’t think their scene was over. The movie’s just done showing this good, simple folk being kindly to one another. Point made, time to move on. Though, more often than not—especially in the second half—it’s just cutting to some other good, simple folk being kindly to one another scene.

It’s too bad. There are some occasional really strong moments. There’s a scene where Farnsworth witnesses a car accident and its frantic aftermath. Or when he’s hanging out with fellow old guy Wiley Harker at a bar and they’re having a profound emotional moment talking about World War II. Harker’s monologue is way better than Farnsworth’s and clearly so, which is concerning since Harker’s only in two scenes and Farnsworth is, you know, the movie. But even so, when Lynch and Sweeney bring in a non-diegetic war sounds track, it ruins the actors’ scene. Why would you give the actors this great opportunity then junk it for pedestrian memory sounds. It’s so strange. The Straight Story puts sugar in its own gas tank, time and again.

And then there’s Farnsworth’s daughter, played by Sissy Spacek. She gets a character revelation after her character is basically gone from the movie and it’s just to hammer in how progressive Farnsworth can be compared to, well, the younger generation. Straight Story positions Farnsworth as the world’s greatest grandad, only it’s a secret power and he can only use it on strangers, who hear more about his motivations for the trip than daughter Spacek. Of course, Spacek is—according to Farnsworth—a little slow. Spacek plays the character maybe autistic? Or with a speech impediment. But not slow. Not given the ideas she’s got to talk about in the dialogue she’s got. It’s kind of the most egregious of the film’s problems, just because the movie later uses Spacek just to develop Farnsworth and even then, only in a trite, contrived way. The film never feels less “real” than when Farnsworth is explaining how he’s so real. And manly.

Because he’s a cowboy. He’s a real American hero, which might explain why the movie treats him like an action figure. He moves where the film needs him; never once seems to have agency his own.

Even more distressing is when, in the final scene, a very special guest star outacts the 110 minute sum of Farnsworth’s performance without even speaking.

The film isn’t exactly condescending or patronizing, but it’s got a very definite narrative distance; it displays the events, doesn’t create them; it displays the people, doesn’t give them agency. They don’t develop. At all. And the exposition dumps are always manipulative.

Especially since it’s called The Straight Story.

Farnsworth is okay. It should be the kind of part you can go on and on about, analyzing the performance and whatnot, but you can’t. Because he’s just okay. Partly because Lynch doesn’t have any idea what kind of performance he’s directing. Spacek’s okay too, even if she’s the film’s narrative device doormat. James Cada’s good in one of the supporting roles, which are usually cast based on the actor’s appearance rather than their… acting ability. Or even casting appropriateness.

Good photography from Freddie Francis. Okay direction from Lynch. There are issues. There are peculiar choices when it comes to the ostensible character study stuff. There are weird, frankly silly zoom-ins.

It’s long, its plotting structure stalls, the music is annoying (even after the repeated use of the theme disappears—possibly when those fades to black come in, I wasn’t paying attention)… Straight Story has its sincerities, but never where it needs them.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by David Lynch; written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney; director of photography, Freddie Francis; edited by Sweeney; music by Angelo Badalamenti; production designer, Jack Fisk; produced by Neal Edelstein and Sweeney; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Richard Farnsworth (Alvin), Sissy Spacek (Rose), James Cada (Danny), Wiley Harker (Verlyn), Anastasia Webb (Crystal), and Everett McGill (Tom).