Category Archives: Mystery

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995, Carl Franklin)

Devil in a Blue Dress is almost so much better. Director Franklin gets easily distracted and follows tangents, both in the script and the directing. The latter makes sense–he’s always too enthuastic about the (excellent) production design, recreating late 1940s Black Los Angeles. With Tak Fujimoto’s warm but vibrant photography, the “regular life” part of the film is breathtaking. Sadly, Franklin’s too loose on the mystery side and he can’t bind the two.

The script’s the same way. Franklin has devices for lead Denzel Washington, including the narration, but also just how Franklin directs the scene. How he visualizes the space Washington occupies with the people he comes across. Washington’s a Black WWII vet turned amateur P.I. tracking down missing rich white guy’s white girlfriend Jennifer Beals. Franklin and Washington pay a lot of attention to personal space and what it reveals about character relationships, race relationships. But when they get the most ambitious, the narration fails. Or just isn’t present.

And Washington’s biggest character development arc is out of nowhere, introduced over halfway into the movie, with Don Cheadle’s arrival. Franklin desperately tries to forecast Cheadle through dialogue, narration, even one of the film’s ill-implied flashbacks. Yet when it comes time for Cheadle to get called up, Franklin botches the narration. Franklin sets up Devil in a Blue Dress to need narration–even though he and Washington could easily get away without it, Washington’s great and Franklin’s great with his actors–but he sets it up as an essential, then botches it.

It’s really unfortunate.

There are stops and starts throughout the film–scenes transitions are usually awkward, either too heavy or too light. Fujimoto’s photography on the investigation stuff is bad, which is an additional problem given the first act visual tone doesn’t match the rest of the film. But Franklin doesn’t know what to do with those scenes either. Devil in a Blue Dress tries to avoid film noir tropes so bad it ends up putting its back out.

The acting is either good or great. Washington is great. His performance has a sadness Franklin the director focus on, but Franklin the screenwriter ignores. Cheadle’s phenomenal as Washington’s loyal, unrepentent murderer sidekick. Tom Sizemore’s good as Washington’s mysterious client turned nemesis. Mel Winkler and Jernard Burks are real good in smaller parts. Lisa Nicole Carson’s good.

But then there’s Beals, who’s just okay. Some of it is Franklin’s direction; she’s supposed to be a femme fatale, but Devil in a Blue Dress doesn’t believe in femme fatales and she’s written as one. She’s another victim to Franklin’s indecision.

And Maury Chaykin is just bad. He’s only in a couple scenes, but they’re important ones, and he’s just too much. Same thing. Written as a noir villain, but Franklin doesn’t want to engage it.

Elmer Bernstein’s score is oddly half on, half off. Either way, it lacks personality, which is a no-no for Devil in a Blue Dress; everything else about it exudes personality. Except, obviously, Fujimoto’s “noir” shots.

Devil in a Blue Dress features some wonderful possibilities, some great photography, some great direction, some great performances. It should be amazing. It’s sad it isn’t.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Carl Franklin; screenplay by Franklin, based on the novel by Walter Mosley; director of photography, Tak Fujimoto; edited by Carole Kravetz Aykanian; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, Gary Frutkoff; produced by Jesse Beaton and Gary Goetzman; released by TriStar Pictures.

Starring Denzel Washington (Easy Rawlins), Jennifer Beals (Daphne Monet), Don Cheadle (Mouse Alexander), Tom Sizemore (Dewitt Albright), Terry Kinney (Todd Carter), Mel Winkler (Joppy), Jernard Burks (Dupree Brouchard), Lisa Nicole Carson (Coretta James), and Maury Chaykin (Matthew Terell).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE COLOURS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY THOUGHTS ALL SORTS.


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The Mean Season (1985, Phillip Borsos)

Somewhere in the second act of The Mean Season, the film just starts slipping and it never corrects. The opening titles, set against stormy Miami weather and a vicious (though not graphic) murder, establish the film’s momentum. Everything moves fast, whether it’s establishing unsatisfied reporter Kurt Russell and his newsroom sidekicks, his girlfriend Mariel Hemingway, even when the serial killer starts calling Russell–director Borsos and screenwriter Leon Piedmont keep things moving. Frank Tidy’s photography, the Florida locations, and Lalo Schifrin’s gentle but intense score help a lot.

There’s also Andy Garcia and Richard Bradford as the cops investigating the case. Garcia likes Russell, Bradford doesn’t. Like almost everything else in the movie, Borsos seems to think implying character motivation is the same as having character motivation. But Borsos and Piedmont aren’t particularly good at subtlety and Borsos isn’t great at directing his actors. He apparently gets Bradford’s world-weary, slightly fascist cop is the best character in the picture, since Bradford’s the only actor who gets any material to chew on. Though maybe it’s Bradford stepping up and chewing on his otherwise pointless role.

Getting a little ahead of myself–the salad days of Mean Season are the first half. The newspaper stuff is interesting, Borsos is good at the investigation, Russell and Hemingway are appealing. Then the movie gets into this whole juxtaposition of Russell’s media ambitions and the killer’s media ambitions and the stumbling starts. Russell and Hemingway try, but neither brings much weight to their roles. Once Borsos is done doing jump scares involving them, he and then Piedmont have nothing more for Hemingway. She’s just around to argue with Russell. Then Russell apologizes and scene.

There’s no character development, particularly for Russell. Piedmont’s script relies on thriller more than drama. Borsos’s direction eventually veers to action, which is a big mistake because he’s exceptionally inept at it. The second half of the film, as Russell finds himself in danger and not just from manipulative jump scares, is ragged and somewhat unpleasant. Russell burns through the charm and likability he’s built up and Borsos isn’t there with anything else for him. He ends the picture a husk.

Mean Season also skips the opportunity to look at the reporter becoming news, even though there are occasional details suggesting someone thought it might be a good idea to focus on that angle.

Hemingway gets a lot of help from Schifrin’s score. It’s problematic–she’s the damsel so she needs good damsel music–but also effective. And she’s trying. And her character does try to talk some sense, building up her likability. So she’s slight, but gets a pass.

Russell’s pass is a little different, almost more of an incomplete. It’s not his fault though. It’d be hard to make the last third silliness of Mean Season work. The film’s desperately in need of a better resolution to the mystery of the serial killer. Borsos overestimates where’s gotten the film in terms of suspension of disbelief as well as general interest.

The supporting cast is solid. Besides the awesome Bradford performance, Garcia is fine with little to do as a too young police lieutenant. Richard Masur, Joe Pantoliano, and Rose Portillo all ably staff the newsroom scenes. They eventually disappear from the A plot, reduced to background as Piedmont’s script loses focus. At least Borsos kept them around.

Richard Jordan and William Smith are good as witnesses who prove essential to the case. Borsos fails Jordan after a while, but he’s still got some fine moments.

The Mean Season wraps up with an unsatisfying, hurried, manipulative conclusion. By the end, the whole movie is on Hemingway, Russell, Schifrin, Tidy, and Florida’s collective shoulders. They manage to keep it afloat, but only just.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Phillip Borsos; screenplay by Leon Piedmont, based on a novel by John Katzenbach; director of photography, Frank Tidy; edited by Duwayne Dunham; music by Lalo Schifrin; production designer, Philip M. Jeffries; produced by David Foster and Lawrence Turman; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Kurt Russell (Malcolm Anderson), Mariel Hemingway (Christine Connelly), Andy Garcia (Ray Martinez), Richard Bradford (Phil Wilson), Richard Masur (Bill Nolan), Joe Pantoliano (Andy Porter), Rose Portillo (Kathy Vasquez), William Smith (Albert O’Shaughnessy), and Richard Jordan (Mike Hilson).


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Absolute Power (1997, Clint Eastwood)

Absolute Power has a number of narrative issues. Well, less narrative issues and more narrative slights. As the film enters the third act, director Eastwood and screenwriter William Goldman decide the audience has gotten enough out of the movie and it’s time to wrap things up. It’s a shame because the film goes into the third act at its high point.

The first thirty minutes of the movie have Eastwood playing an old man cat burglar who sees something he shouldn’t. There’s a little character establishment montage during the opening credits for Eastwood–he likes to sketch, he doesn’t know how to work a VCR, he’s solitary but still takes care of himself–then it’s into the break-in sequence, which leads to a really tough murder sequence. It goes on and on, getting worse and worse.

Then there’s a cover-up sequence, where Eastwood really shows off all cinematographer Jack N. Green is going to do with Absolute Power. Even with its issues, the film’s beautifully made, beautifully acted. Green’s photography, with its occasional soft focus, is stunning. Absolute Power’s entertaining because of the actors, but Green helps out a lot with presenting their performances. Because eventually everyone’s fighting for time.

You know, a better defined present action and subplots probably would’ve helped. Because everyone’s just present. Eastwood and Laura Linney, as his daughter, get some hints at his weak parenting, but it’s not like Linney’s got anything to do but be around for Eastwood and his thriller storyline. Same goes for cop Ed Harris. Well, eventually he gets to flirt with Linney a little and all of a sudden, it’s like Eastwood’s goal for Absolute Power is just for everyone to enjoy themselves. There’s so much charm in the scenes between Harris and Linney–and Harris and Eastwood–narrative slights don’t really matter.

But it’s also about ability. The other half of the film has Secret Service agents scrambling to cover up a Presidential indiscretion and some of these scenes aren’t the best. Goldman’s got to do a bunch of exposition, but not too much for anyone to ask logic questions. The acting gets it through–Judy Davis, Dennis Haysbert, Scott Glenn, Gene Hackman. All of them are phenomenal, but all of them come at their parts differently. And most of their scenes are together; Haysbert just waits. And Eastwood loves showing Haysbert’s patience. He’s got fewer lines than Glenn–as another Secret Service agent–but he makes more an impression. He’s terrifying. Glenn’s good, but sympathetic. Davis and Hackman both get to go wild; no one plays menace better than Hackman and it’s almost like Davis’s playing protege. It’s very helpful having that acting depth since there’s nothing but action or actions for them in the script.

E.G. Marshall’s good in a smaller part as a wealthy mover and shaker. He gets some of the film’s worst lines but Marshall just makes them work. Even in the third act, when Absolute Power is racing downhill to get finished as soon as it can, Marshall is patient in his performance. His deliberateness makes all the difference. Or, enough difference to keep things afloat until Eastwood can get to the incredibly gentle finish.

Awesome editing from Joel Cox. The thriller sequences are phenomenally cut. And Lennie Niehaus’s score is good. It does quite a bit of work throughout the film, though it can’t hold up the third act. Nothing can. It’s just too much all at once.

Eastwood, as an actor, gets some good scenes and then some fun ones. He and Linney are fantastic together–maybe the cutest thing about the film is how similar Linney and Eastwood seem after the film spends time with them. When it comes time for ominous line deliveries, they give them in the same way. Eastwood initially gets away with it because he’s Clint Eastwood, but by the end, they get away with it because she’s his kid and he’s her dad, after all.

Harris is fun. He plays great with his partner, Penny Johnson Jerald, who isn’t in it enough. Though almost no one is in Absolute Power enough. Not Jerald, not Davis, not Hackman, not Marshall. Especially not with how much story Goldman and Eastwood are telling. Again, they manage to get away with it, but it’s a rush. Goldman’s script is too spare, especially given Eastwood’s preference in the family drama over the thrills.

Absolute Power has that adaptation curse–too much content but not enough story; still, it’s masterfully produced, with rich performances.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Clint Eastwood; screenplay by William Goldman, based on the novel by David Baldacci; director of photography, Jack N. Green; edited by Joel Cox; music by Lennie Niehaus; production designer, Henry Bumstead; produced by Eastwood and Karen S. Spiegel; released by Columbia Pictures.

Clint Eastwood (Luther Whitney), Ed Harris (Seth Frank), Laura Linney (Kate Whitney), Scott Glenn (Bill Burton), Dennis Haysbert (Tim Collin), Judy Davis (Gloria Russell), E.G. Marshall (Walter Sullivan), Melora Hardin (Christy Sullivan), Penny Johnson Jerald (Laura Simon), and Gene Hackman as the President of the United States.


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The Big Easy (1986, Jim McBride)

There’s not much script structure like The Big Easy’s script structure. It’s an exceptionally constructed screenplay. The film’s great, but it all hinges on how Daniel Petrie Jr.’s script works. As previously introduced (whether onscreen or off) come back into the film, expanding on their original impression, as the relationship–okay, hold on, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Big Easy is about assistant district attorney Ellen Barkin trying to ferret out some bad cops. Possible bad cop Dennis Quaid is on hand not just to investigate–and hopefully dissuade Barkin about her impression of the New Orleans Police Department–but also to romance her. Romancing her quickly turns into this whirlwind love affair, with lots of sex (director McBride, cinematographer Affonso Beato, and editor Mia Goldman compose a wicked sex scene–no male gaze until after it’s all over), lots of working together (they’re supposed to be on the same side), and lots of general chemistry. The first act of Big Easy establishes Quaid and Barkin as a wonderful screen pairing.

Shame about Quaid maybe being a dirty cop, which then sends the narrative into an entirely different direction. But Petrie works so many plots and subplots in the film, it’s not until the third act everything is established. Barkin spent the first act as protagonist, with that focus moving more to Quaid (who always shared it to some degree), but in the third act, Petrie and McBride have ground situation revelations in store.

The other thing about the script is how quick it all moves. The film’s present action is maybe a couple weeks… maybe. There’s always time to relax though–as Quaid (and the title) reminds everyone, it’s The Big Easy, after all. McBride and Beato love the New Orleans locations, with Barkin’s recent transplant seeing everything fresh (for the viewer). It’s often delightful–funny, warm, beautiful–but it’s also very, very rough. McBride works wonders with the tone; Barkin and Quaid’s chemistry, regardless of what the narrative requires, always takes precedence. It’s what makes the film after all.

As far as lead acting goes, it’s hard to say who’s better. At first it seems like Barkin has a deeper character, albeit less flashy. The flashiness initially seems too much for Quaid, but once there’s a deep dive into his character, the performance becomes a lot fuller. It’s easiest to let them share the top spot; The Big Easy’s acting, how Quaid and Barkin deal with the script’s developments, how McBride frames them, is exceptional.

The supporting cast is all strong, starting with third-billed Ned Beatty. He’s Quaid’s boss and future step-father. Lisa Jane Persky’s Quaid’s girl Friday. She’s awesome in the part. It probably shouldn’t be a bigger part, since she’s just there for exposition and banter, but Persky could’ve easily run a spin-off herself. McBride’s tone for the rather serious film is often genial and welcoming. Persky and Beatty help a lot with it. John Goodman and Ebbe Roe Smith are funny as dumb cops. Grace Zabriskie is awesome as Quaid’s mom. And Charles Ludlam makes a great lawyer.

Great music, both incidental, soundtrack, and Brad Fiedel’s playful score. It’s technically outstanding–Beato excels at whatever he needs to be lighting and Goldman’s editing is strong from the start. McBride uses a variety of techniques–including actors looking directly into the camera, something I usually loathe–to facilitate performances. The second act, which is the least “pleasant” of the film, is the best directed.

The Big Easy is fantastic.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jim McBride; written by Daniel Petrie Jr.; director of photography, Affonso Beato; edited by Mia Goldman; music by Brad Fiedel; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; produced by Stephen J. Friedman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Dennis Quaid (Remy McSwain), Ellen Barkin (Anne Osborne), Ned Beatty (Jack Kellom), Lisa Jane Persky (McCabe), Tom O’Brien (Bobby McSwain), John Goodman (DeSoto), Ebbe Roe Smith (Dodge), Charles Ludlam (Lamar Parmentel), and Grace Zabriskie (Mama McSwain).


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