Category Archives: ★★½

Tumbleweeds (1999, Gavin O’Connor)

Despite excellent lead performances, Tumbleweeds is almost entirely inert–dramatically speaking. Janet McTeer is a thirtysomething single mom with bad taste in men who drags tween daughter Kimberly J. Brown all around the country after her latest romance goes bad. The romances never go too bad because McTeer has a preternatural ability to stay away from physically abusive partners. For example, the film starts with McTeer and (uncredited) beau Noah Emmerich getting into–oh, yeah, McTeer moves in with every guy and marries many of them–but they’re getting into a big fight where it seems like Emmerich is about to hit her, but never does. He’s just an angry, break everything drunk. Meanwhile Brown is preparing her wordly possessions for she and McTeer’s imminent departure.

They’re apparently always in lousy situations, but never dangerous ones, which ends up contributing to the eventual lack of dramatic impact. If director O’Connor were capable of a lyrical type narrative, it’d be fine. He’s not. But more on that deficiency in a bit.

So after McTeer and Brown leave Emmerich punching his kitchen appliances and watching TV, Tumbleweeds becomes a road movie. McTeer wants to go to Arizona (they’re from the South, all over); Brown doesn’t. Eventually they agree on San Diego. Well, McTeer eventually agrees with Brown. It’s Brown’s idea. They have some misadventures–but nothing too dangerous or dire–before getting there. They don’t get to San Diego until about halfway through the film. The first half is a meandering road movie, the second half has none of the same stylistic choices. By stylistic choices I guess I mean O’Connor’s proclivity for occasional shaky camerawork to show… well, to show nothing, really. Except to diss Dan Stoloff’s otherwise perfectly competent photography.

Once they arrive in San Diego–actually a smaller city near San Diego, but on the water–Brown gets enrolled in school (at just the right moment because it seems like McTeer could care less about it until that point) and makes friends and McTeer gets a new job. In comes the supporting cast. There’s Ashley Buccille as Brown’s friend from drama class (and Cody McMains as the annoying boy who likes her) while McTeer starts working for weird (but not too weird) creep (but harmlessly) Michael J. Pollard and makes friends with coworker Laurel Holloman. Pretty soon McTeer has a kismet moment with a new dude–director O’Connor, whose blasé performance basically relegates Tumbleweeds to that dramatic inertia–much to Brown’s disapproval.

McTeer moves them in with O’Connor, with Brown knowingly anticipating the relationship’s eventual failure. Meanwhile she’s trying out for Romeo and Juliet at school, much to soon-to-be-ex-bestie Buccille’s chagrin (there can be only one Juliet, after all), especially since McTeer’s afore unmentioned coworker Jay O. Sanders coaches Brown on her performance. Because he’s just the type of great guy McTeer would never go for.

Drama does not ensue.

The script, by O’Connor and Angela Shelton, is anti-melodramatic but also entirely unrealistic in its cockeyed reality. McTeer, despite working menial jobs, is never wanting for money. Both she and O’Connor go through too short unemployment arcs; apparently everyone’s got a lot of rainy day savings in Tumbleweeds. They have to have them, because otherwise things might actually get a little intense or dangerous and there’s no intensity or danger in Tumbleweeds. It’s gritty… ish, because low budget, and never because of narrative. There’s some “gritty” dialogue–Holloman’s lengthy description of coffee enemas is exceptionally pointless–but the film avoids all its confrontational moments. Besides the opening one where Baumbach decides he’ll be a verbally abusive drunken bastard but he’s got his limits. Tumbleweeds is a poser when it comes to the dark realities of humanity.

Luckily, the performances are mostly phenomenal. McTeer, Brown, and Sanders are all amazing. Though Sanders’s material is mostly pat. And outside the character relationship stuff with McTeer and Brown they don’t get much either. All the important narrative developments happen off-screen (once it becomes clear O’Connor, as actor, is never going to be too abusive or too dangerous; it kind of works since his performance is just as shallow as his character). Pollard’s fine in an extended cameo. Holloman is good with a nothing role. Lois Smith shows up for a bit. She gets even less of a role than Pollard. Kids Buccille and McMains are fine. Again, since important narrative developments are discussed in exposition, they don’t need to be any better.

If it weren’t for McTeer and Brown and their performances, Tumbleweeds would fizzle (Sanders is gravy). But they’re great, so it doesn’t. The script’s just not there, O’Connor (both as actor and director) isn’t there. Sure, the movie’s low budget, but… if O’Connor were a better director (and writer) it wouldn’t matter. The film’s got zero ambitions. Thank goodness the cast has some.

The six to nine endings don’t help things either.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Gavin O’Connor; screenplay by O’Connor and Angela Shelton, based on a story by Shelton; director of photography, Dan Stoloff; edited by John Gilroy; music by David Mansfield; production designer, Bryce Holtshousen; produced by Greg O’Connor; released by Fine Line Features.

Starring Janet McTeer (Mary Jo Walker), Kimberly J. Brown (Ava Walker), Gavin O’Connor (Jack Ranson), Jay O. Sanders (Dan Miller), Laurel Holloman (Laurie Pendleton), Michael J. Pollard (Mr. Cummings), Ashley Buccille (Zoe Broussard), Cody McMains (Adam Riley), and Lois Smith (Ginger).


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Lawyer Man (1932, William Dieterle)

Lawyer Man is a tad too streamlined. It runs around seventy minutes, charting neighborhood attorney–meaning he works with ethnic types and not blue bloods–William Powell’s rise and fall from grace. At the end, he says something about the events taking place over two years, which the film accomplishes through a variety of narrative shortcuts, usually newspaper headlines. The second half of the film is a little too truncated; it plays like the budget ran out around the forty-five minute mark.

The film opens on the crowded streets of the East Side of Manhattan; Powell’s office is amid the Jewish theaters, the street markets, the hustle and bustle of the working folk. He’s got an admiring secretary (Joan Blondell) but he’s a skirt-chaser, which contributes to his eventual downfall. Something Blondell warns him about frequently.

By the second half of the film, when Powell’s made it, there’s no more exterior street scenes. It’s one office to another, usually with the same handful of cast members. After some wonderfully efficient setup, the plot proper kicks off with society lawyer Alan Dinehart offering Powell a partnership. Whenever Powell beats someone in court, they always want to be pals–he’s such a good lawyer they can’t help it. Unfortunately, part of the film’s efficiency is never showing any of the courtroom lawyering. Even when it’s Powell on trial.

Anyway. Powell and Blondell go uptown to a skyscraper office and a better class of clients. Powell’s still skirt-chasing, Blondell’s still obviously mooning over him (Powell’s unbelievable obliviousness to it is one of Lawyer Man’s failings), but they’re more successful. And then in walks Helen Vinson as Dinehart’s sister and a suitable marriage prospect for Powell. So the film’s now got Powell, Blondell, Vinson, and Dinehart in the mix as far as characters.

Immediately after Powell runs afoul of political fixer David Landau, Claire Dodd comes into the film. She’s a showgirl just jilted by society doctor (and Landau flunky) Kenneth Thomson. Since Lawyer Man is so streamlined, it only takes her about five minutes to have Powell wrapped around her finger. And about ten minutes until she’s helped get him into a bunch of hot water.

Powell’s got to scrap to stay afloat and he becomes a dirty opportunist, with only Blondell sticking by him. At this point, the film sheds pretty much everyone except Powell and Blondell–and shaves Blondell’s subplot off her–as Powell fights to regain his good name. Landau becomes a much bigger player, until he’s pretty much the only other billed actor who interacts with Powell by the final third.

Instead of character development, there’s a lot of summary and speeches from Powell. It’s masterfully done summary, sure, but it’s still just summary. The speeches are a little much. Dieterle sort of zones out during them. He’s really involved when it’s about Powell’s skirt-chasing (there are some great examples of pre-Code visual euphemisms in Lawyer Man too) and Dieterle does really well with the bigger sets. When it’s just the static offices and melodrama… he checks out. Not on the actors, however. Blondell and Powell maintain their charm throughout, even as their characters thin. Blondell’s not the only one who loses her subplots as things progress; Powell goes from a Tex Avery wolf to a practical monk by the end.

The supporting cast is all fine. Landau’s got the only significant part throughout. He’s good.

Lawyer Man’s a little too short, a little too slight. It needs just a little more time to bring its threads together. And to keep its threads in play.

But for a seventy-ish minute programmer? It’s pretty darn good. Great photography from Robert Kurrle and the film’s general sense of humor help.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by William Dieterle; screenplay by Rian James and James Seymour, based on the novel by Max Trell; director of photography, Robert Kurrle; edited by Thomas Pratt; music by Bernhard Kaun; produced by Hal B. Wallis; released by Warner Bros.

Starring William Powell (Anton Adam), Joan Blondell (Olga Michaels), David Landau (John Gilmurry), Helen Vinson (Barbara Bentley), Claire Dodd (Virginia St. Johns), Kenneth Thomson (Dr. Frank Gresham), Allen Jenkins (Izzy Levine), Ann Brody (Mrs. Levine), and Alan Dinehart (Granville Bentley).


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Creed II (2018, Steven Caple Jr.)

At no point in Creed II does anyone remark on the odds of Michael B. Jordan boxing the son of the man who killed his father. It’s all matter-of-fact. The sportscasters all seem to think it’s perfectly normal Dolph Lundgren spent the thirty-ish years since Rocky IV training his son to someday defeat the son of his adversary in that film. Well, his first adversary. Because Sylvester Stallone is actually the one who beat Lundgren back in Rocky IV, something this film barely acknowledges. Because Creed II isn’t a father and son movie. There’s a nod to it for Lundgren and son Florian Munteanu, which is weird and cheap as Lundgren’s been mentally abusing musclebound giant Munteanu for decades and probably physically as well. But Stallone and Jordan? They don’t have some de facto father and son thing going here. Neither of them are really in it enough.

Of course, they’re in the movie. Lots. Most of the time. The film splits between Lundgren and Munteanu, Jordan, and Stallone. Stallone visits Jordan from time to time and maybe once vice versa, but they’re separate. Except for training montages and the setup to training montages. Juel Taylor and Stallone’s screenplay is absolutely terrified of developing the relationship between Jordan and Stallone here. The script also isn’t big on… well… good character development. Jordan, Stallone, and Lundgren all have character development arcs. Jordan, for example, has to understand why he wants to fight Munteanu. As well as have a baby with probably wife but they seem to have cut the wedding scene, which is weird, Tessa Thompson. At its best, Creed II is about Jordan and Thompson and then everything else, Stallone and Lundgren filling out the background. They’re looming threats.

But Stallone’s arc? It’s hackneyed and rushed. Creed II moves through its two hour and ten minute run time but it skips over everything to stick to its big boxing match finale schedule. No matter how much time gets spent giving Jordan and Thompson their salad days time, it’s still not enough. Thompson’s initial pseudo-character arc fizzles fast. The subsequent hints at more for her are occasionally deft, but really just keep Thompson in a holding pattern until it’s time’s up and it’s fight night. Jordan’s arc is written with an utter lack of depth or ambition. It’s all on Jordan’s charm to get through some of that arc. It’s like he’s hinting at the better performance in cut scenes. Because Creed II feels light. Even if it isn’t actually light, the character development is way too thin. The script’s mercenary in a way the rest of the film is not.

Director Caple takes Creed II serious. He’s able to get away with the scene where Lundgren tries to intimidate Stallone in Stallone’s picturesque little Italian restaurant. And it’s a lot to get away with because the script doesn’t even pretend they can work an arc for Stallone and Lundgren. Creed II also ignores how Lundgren remorselessly killed Jordan’s dad thirty years ago. It acknowledges it, but ignores it. Lundgren tries in an impossible role. It isn’t a significant success, but it’s far from a failure and–like everyone else–Lundgren’s taking it seriously. It helps.

It also hurts because there are all the missed opportunities. If only the script took itself more seriously, there’d be so many possibilities. But Taylor and Stallone don’t have a good enough story to play it straight. Instead Caple and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau have to make it play. At one point Lundgren and Munteanu wordlessly survey the Philadelphia Museum of Art with their minds set on destroying Jordan. Because it’s a father and son thing against Stallone and Jordan. Only it’s not. Because Taylor and Stallone haven’t got the story for it. It’s kind of depressing.

Well, the more you think about it, the more depressing it gets. Stallone, as a writer, went cheap on the character for Stallone, the actor, to play. Creed II’s got its constraints and Caple gets the film by with them, but doesn’t play off them. It’s not like the film succeeds through ingenuity. It’s just Caple and the cast, the editors–who never make a bad move until the postscripts–composer Ludwig Göransson (basically remixing old Rocky music selections but to strong effect)–they all take it seriously enough and present it straight-faced enough, the film gets away with it.

It’s a not craven sequel, except when it’s got to be craven. Then it’s craven. But it’s passively craven. Creed II, despite narrative contrivances, is never actively craven. It’s a successful approach. The film’s engaging and entertaining throughout. Great star turn from Jordan, great but not enough of a star turn because she’s not in the movie though Thompson, good support from Stallone and Phylicia Rashad. And, of course, Wood Harris. Who gets a thankless part but goes all in. Lundgren and Munteanu are fine.

Shady fight promoter Russell Hornsby feels like a leftover plot thread from a previous draft. Snipping him for more on Thompson or Stallone would’ve only improved things.

There are some surprises along the way and sometimes the actors handle them well. Even if nothing slows the film from getting to the fight night finale. Not even obvious character development possibilities related to the fight night.

Creed II is a strong fine. With the script–and maybe budget–holding back on the film’s obvious, greater possibilities.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Caple Jr.; screenplay by Juel Taylor and Sylvester Stallone, based on a story by Cheo Hodari Coker and Sascha Penn and characters created by Ryan Coogler and Stallone; director of photography, Kramer Morgenthau; edited by Dana E. Glauberman, Saira Haider, and Paul Harb; music by Ludwig Göransson; production designer, Franco-Giacomo Carbone; produced by William Chartoff, David Winkler, Irwin Winkler, Charles Winkler, Kevin King Templeton, and Stallone; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Michael B. Jordan (Adonis Johnson), Tessa Thompson (Bianca), Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Phylicia Rashad (Mary Anne Creed), Dolph Lundgren (Ivan Drago), Florian Munteanu (Viktor Drago), Russell Hornsby (Buddy Marcelle), and Wood Harris (Tony ‘Little Duke’ Burton).


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Haywire (2011, Steven Soderbergh)

Haywire’s plotting is meticulous and exquisite. And entirely a budgetary constraint. It’s a globe trotting, action-packed spy thriller with lots of name stars. The action in the globe trotted areas, for instance, is more chase scenes than explosions. Haywire doesn’t blow up Barcelona, lead Gina Carano chases someone down the streets. She doesn’t land a 747 in Dublin, she has a chase scene on the rooftops. And director Soderbergh does phenomenally with those sequences. While Carano’s in real danger and Soderbergh’s shooting realistic DV, David Holmes’s music riffs back to sixties spy movie music and contextualizes things. You still get to have fun watching the spy movie. You’re supposed to have fun. It’s just a different kind of spy movie.

One where the action set pieces are what Carano does, whether it’s stunts or fight scenes, she’s the action. Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs space out the action sequences, sometimes not actually going with a big Carano sequence in the situation. Sometimes the film focuses on her adversaries or allies. Soderbergh and Dobbs do a lot of action thriller without a lot of money.

The film starts with Carano–former Marine and spy-mercenary–is on the run. We don’t know from who, because when Channing Tatum shows up to bring her in, they don’t say the character’s name. It becomes obvious pretty soon, but Soderbergh and Dobbs go through all the motions to give Haywire a conspiracy thriller foundation. They don’t have time to engage with it–or, presumably, money–but it’s part of the film’s texture. Some creative decisions in Haywire just plump up the film. Soderbergh’s not trying to make a low budget spy thriller, he’s making a spy thriller with a low budget. He’s not… chintzing.

So after the first Carano action sequence, the film gets into flashback and explains Barcelona and Dublin, which keep coming up in dialogue. They seem less destinations for major spy intrigue and more stops on a tour group’s European vacation. Nicely, both sequences really pay off. They live up to the hype, even if the hype was really nonspecific so Dobbs and Soderbergh could up the mysteriousness.

Then it’s the flashback catching up to present and the film resolving. Ninety-three minutes of not entirely lean–though subplot-free–narrative. Carano works her way through various other spies and government officials. They’re sort of in glorified cameos, but it never feels like it. The magic of the pacing. Bill Paxton, for example, is in a cameo role. He’s in two scenes. One on the phone. But Dobbs and Soderbergh pace it where Paxton feels like an active supporting player. It’s impressive to see executed. Paxton’s fine–it’s a cameo, he’s got nothing to do–but the feat is how the filmmakers pull it off.

Paxton’s Carano’s dad. Ewan McGregor is her spies for hire boss, Tatum is a fellow spy for hire, Michael Fassbender is a fellow (but British) spy for hire. Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas as government guys who hire spies for hire. Anthony Brandon Wong and Mathieu Kassovitz are the guys the spies for hire go after. No one trusts anyone else. Something Dobbs and Soderbergh take their time addressing, which shifts the film from spy action to spy thriller, both for the film itself and Carano’s understanding of her situation.

So Carano.

As dubbed by Laura San Giacomo.

Yes, really.

Physically she’s great. The stunts, the fighting. It’s all nearly silent–trained killers don’t exchange banter in the seedy international spy ring underbelly of Dublin–so it’s just the fight, just the choreographer, just Carano and the actors and the stunt fighters. The fights are excellent. Soderbergh’s editing and photography, the fighters, Carano–great.

Carano dramatically? She’s really likable. Sympathetic. But the performance is hinky; the dubbing explains it. Carano’s dialogue is already terse so San Giacomo doesn’t really build a character. And the comedy moments are a little off. But it’s fine. Carano does well. The physicality of her performance is spot on. Soderbergh builds the movie–tone-wise–around her action sequences. The chase in middle flashback informs how something in the first act present was done. Exquisite. Always exquisite.

The cameos are all good. Bandares and Douglas have the most fun, though different kinds of fun. Tatum’s good. McGregor’s good. Fassbender’s more just effective. He’s a glorified cameo too. The movie’s Carano, Tatum, and McGregor.

Under pseudonym, Soderbergh also shot and edited Haywire. Technically it’s great. There’s great editing, there’s great photography, seperate sometimes, together sometimes. He does some excellent work in Haywire. With Holmes’s music an essential support. Holmes gets to foreshadow the slight change in tone for Haywire; how the filmmaking, narrative, and music shift gears–the music goes first.

There’s a lot of awesome to Haywire. It’s just an action movie on a budget with a problematic lead performance. The film does well not drawing attention–or even acknowledging–its constraints. But they’re there nonetheless.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Edited, photographed, and directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by Lem Dobbs; music by David Holmes; production designer, Howard Cummings; produced by Gregory Jacobs; released by Relativity Media.

Starring Gina Carano (Mallory Kane), Ewan McGregor (Kenneth), Channing Tatum (Aaron), Michael Fassbender (Paul), Michael Douglas (Alex Coblenz), Antonio Banderas (Rodrigo), Anthony Brandon Wong (Jiang), Mathieu Kassovitz (Studer), and Bill Paxton (John Kane).


THIS POST IS PART OF GIRL WEEK 2018 HOSTED BY WENDELL OF DELL ON MOVIES.


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