Category Archives: ★★★½

Twentieth Century (1934, Howard Hawks)

Even with its way too abrupt finish, Twentieth Century is rare delight. Would it be more successful if the ending hadn’t wasted Carole Lombard? Yes, but also because it would’ve given lead John Barrymore more Lombard to act opposite and Barrymore’s best opposite Lombard. He’s amazing the whole time, but he’s best working with her. He aggravates him in just the right way. And, after time, she aggravates him in just the right way, which certainly hints at an amazing finish.

Sadly, no. Screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur kind of choke on it, though no doubt some of the fault lies with director (and producer) Hawks.

Anyway. Done with the negative verbiage. On to the reverse.

The film opens with a stage production doing a rehearsal; it’s model Lombard’s first attempt at acting. The director, Charles Lane, and the theatre accountant, Walter Connolly, don’t think much of her. They think boss and Broadway wunderkind Barrymore just hired her because of her looks. Just before Barrymore arrives on stage to take over the film introduces Roscoe Karns as Barrymore’s drunkard newspaper stooge, who’s there to profile Lombard. For about ten minutes, it’s just Barrymore going nuts directing Lombard through the rehearsal. He’s mean (though not cruel), manipulative, rude, and utterly hilarious. Barrymore gnaws at the scene, practically snapping at the air over Lombard’s shoulders. The scene starts with them apart, ends with them intwined, Hawks and editor Gene Havlick really focusing on how the two actors pace off the other. The air is thick with chemistry.

Even if Lombard doesn’t quite realize it yet.

Because Barrymore’s not just interested in creating a successful contract player in Lombard, he’s looking for love. The “seduction” scene is where Barrymore goes from being a hilarious tyrant to a personable, hilarious tyrant. The film has three time frames. The first opens the film; Lombard and Barrymore getting together, realizing greater success because of their collaborations. Then three years later when things have hit the skids. Then another three years later, post-skids, with one far more successful than the other. That last part is the majority of the film. It’s also where the title comes in—they’re on the 20th Century Limited, on the way from Chicago to New York. The first two phases have a lot of Lombard and Barrymore together. There’s some more character establishing with the supporting cast, Connolly and Karns in particular, as they’re going to be very important in the third phase, but it’s all about Lombard and Barrymore. Second phase is mostly more about Lombard. It’s where she’s got to show all the changes in her character over the last three years; what being around Barrymore will do to an intimate partner as well as creative partner. It’s where Lombard gets to let loose almost as much as Barrymore.

Whenever the film’s Lombard or Barrymore, it’s that rare delight. Barrymore manages to get more eccentric by the third phase, set almost entirely on train, while Lombard finally gets to match him. Much of the film is spent either laughing or grinning while preparing to laugh again. Hecht and MacArthur’s script does a fantastic job building up jokes, particularly in the third section, particularly with troublesome train passenger Etienne Girardot. Girardot is a great C plot, which ties into the A plot, but also provides some real texture to the train. He gives the supporting cast something to focus on, giving them their own story arcs. The film is always bustling, as sometimes Lombard and Barrymore need to take a break. They’re both very busy; in character and performance.

Connolly and Karns get a bunch more to do in the third phase, as they’re trying to save Barrymore from himself, which means intruding on Lombard, who’s got her own things going on with fresh beau and stuffed shirt Ralph Forbes. At some point in the second half, it almost feels like Connolly and Karns’s movie. It doesn’t last for long, as they have to involve Barrymore in their activities, but then it becomes the Barrymore, Connolly, and Karns show. Lombard gets downgraded.

Just as the film finally starts remedying Lombard’s reduced station and bringing her back up, giving her some great scenes with Barrymore, the movie stops. Maybe Hecht and MacArthur ran out of ideas to give Barrymore and Lombard something to riff on, but the film needs just a little more. Five minutes maximum. It’s not like Lombard or Barrymore give any signs of slowing, even as Connolly and Karns are literally passing out by this time.

But it’s a magnificent ride to that abrupt finish. And it works, it just doesn’t transcend.

Good editing from Havlick, good photography from Joseph H. August, excellent direction from Hawks. Barrymore and Lombard are wondrous. Twentieth Century is awesome.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Howard Hawks; screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, based on a play by Charles Bruce Millholland; director of photography, Joseph H. August; edited by Gene Havlick; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring John Barrymore (Oscar Jaffe), Carole Lombard (Mildred Plotka), Walter Connolly (Oliver Webb), Roscoe Karns (Owen O’Malley), Ralph Forbes (George Smith), Charles Lane (Max Jacobs), and Etienne Girardot (Matthew J. Clark).



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Wonder Boys (2000, Curtis Hanson)

Wonder Boys has a very messy third act. The film takes place over a weekend, Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon; it’s the annual writers conference at an unnamed Pittsburgh university, which kicks off some of the film’s events, lines up some other ones, but is really just an excuse for exposition. It’s fine—it’s great exposition—but it’s somewhat redundant because lead Michael Douglas narrates the whole movie anyway. The film’s about how and why Douglas ends up playing hooky from the conference, even though it’s never clear how involved he was supposed to be. Douglas’s professionalism, which is at least seems ostensible at the beginning of the film, slowly evaporates as events start getting… weird.

Unfortunately the first thing to get weird is super-cringey. The film’s from 2000 and it doesn’t think it’s being transphobic and it actually gets somewhere very interesting with the subplot, but… it’s super-cringey. And kind of makes the three generations of Wonder Boys—Douglas, Robert Downey Jr., Tobey Maguire—seem like dicks. It makes Downey icky when he’s supposed to be lovable.

Downey’s Douglas’s agent. They both got famous when Douglas wrote his first (and only) novel. He’s been working on his new one for seven years. It’s over two thousand pages. Maguire is one of Douglas’s students; his best student, who already has a finished novel. And is really weird. He’s not so much moody as peeking at the world from his Nietzschean hole in the ground. The film’s at its best when Douglas and Maguire are bonding. It’s at its funniest when Douglas and Downey are mugging. It’s got the most potential when Douglas is canoodling (or trying to canoodle) Frances McDormand. McDormand is the chancellor of the school. She’s married to Richard Thomas, who’s the chair of the English department and Douglas’s boss. Douglas and McDormand are in love. Douglas’s wife has left him that very morning for unrelated martial strife; McDormand just found out she’s pregnant. Maguire might be suicidal (the movie drops this one hard, like it doesn’t want to take the responsibility). Downey’s about to lose his job (but doesn’t care so it’s a throwaway subplot; also he’s—unfortunately—a glorified guest star). There’s a lot going on.

Throw in stolen movie memorabilia, a blind dog, Katie Holmes as Douglas’s student and lodger who thinks she understands her grandpa-aged crush, and a stolen car. Not to mention Douglas’s unseen wife, who hangs over the narrative but has absolutely no presence. It’s impossible to imagine Douglas married, not to mention anyone else living in his de facto flophouse. Beautifully designed de facto flophouse, but flophouse nonetheless. So the ethereal wife is a problem. And Holmes is a problem. She’s trying to make time with Douglas and he’s aware but completely disinterested. He likes women closer to his own age—McDormand’s only thirteen years younger versus Holmes’s thirty-four. Presumably the phantom wife is somewhere in middle. But Holmes, who either gets to be really insightful or really thin—she’s flirting with Rip Torn, who’s—you know—forty-some years older—never seems to realize Douglas isn’t into her that way. He’s not into her any way. It’s hard to believe they live in the same house.

The film doesn’t exactly have plot holes, it just often has soft plot details. Director Hanson and screenwriter Steve Kloves gloss over things they shouldn’t, then somehow lose track of what the film’s supposed to be doing. During the second act, it falls completely in love with the supporting cast—Maguire in particular, which is fine and dandy because Maguire’s great—but then it chucks him in the third act to bring Downey back in. Okay, Downey’s really good, really fun (not great because he doesn’t have the part), but… wasn’t Maguire supposed to be important. Then it turns out Downey’s not important. What’s important is something the film’s had the opportunity to focus on and hasn’t. Intentionally avoided it, actually, which maybe is supposed to be a metaphor for pot-addled Douglas’s indecision—the film’s also got some really dated pot politics—but it’s a miss. Douglas is phenomenal and a great protagonist, but his narration doesn’t add anything to the film. The occasional smile, the tiniest bit of context for some exposition or another, but there’s never anything important in it.

Especially not after Douglas loses his agency in the third act.

But the script’s still good. It’s a complete mess, plotting-wise, but the scenes are great. The pacing is great. And Hanson knows how he wants to shoot the conversations. There’s a lot of beautiful direction, with outstanding photography from Dante Spinotti. Cool but warm photography, intense but natural. It’s a great looking film. Dede Allen’s editing is great, especially since Hanson’s composing these wide Panavision shots and the cuts between angles ought to be jarring. They’re not. They’re perfectly timed. Sublimely timed. Solid music from Christopher Young, mostly emphasis stuff. There’s a great soundtrack for the film, including an original Bob Dylan song. Though it’s hard to imagine any of the Wonder Boys listening to Bob Dylan.

Going through the acting again. Douglas and Maguire are phenomenal. McDormand’s great. Downey’s good. Rip Torn’s fun. Holmes gets a crap part. Richard Thomas gets cast way too perfectly as a cuckold.

Wonder Boys is, problems and all, outstanding. It’s just frustratingly close to exceptional and when Hanson and Kloves so completely bungle the third act… it takes some real damage. But it’s still outstanding though. And Douglas and Maguire’s performances are exceptional… the parts just don’t end up being so.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Curtis Hanson; screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by Michael Chabon; director of photography, Dante Spinotti; edited by Dede Allen; music by Christopher Young; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; produced by Hanson and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Michael Douglas (Grady Tripp), Tobey Maguire (James Leer), Frances McDormand (Sara Gaskell), Robert Downey Jr. (Terry Crabtree), Katie Holmes (Hannah Green), Rip Torn (Q), Richard Knox (Vernon Hardapple), Jane Adams (Oola), Alan Tudyk (Traxler), and Richard Thomas (Walter Gaskell).


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).



What We Do in the Shadows (2014, Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi)

What We Do in the Shadows is strong from the first scene. An alarm clock goes off at six. A hand reaches over to hit snooze. Only it’s six at night and the hand is reaching from a coffin. Shadows’s a mockumentary (though I sort of want to start calling them docucomedies after this one); the unseen documentary crew’s subjects are four Wellington, New Zealand vampire flatmates—directors Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, Jonny Brugh, and Ben Fransham. The vampires have promised not to eat their documenters.

But there’s a lot of eating. Shadows is straight comedy. It’s funny when Waititi can’t figure out how to properly eat a victim, even though he’s almost four hundred years old. See, Waititi (as Clement tells the camera during the first act setup) was a dandy. Waititi is Interview with the Vampire, Clement is London After Midnight in terms of look while Vlad the Impaler (actually poker) in backstory. Brugh’s just a vampire. Fransham is Nosferatu, in some great makeup.

Waititi is the Felix, Brugh’s the Oscar, Clement’s in between. He does his chores, but he thinks Waititi is too much. Fransham is in a cement crypt in the basement and basically just eats people. He never cleans up either; his hallway is strewn with spinal cords and bones. It’d probably bother Waititi more if Brugh weren’t causing such problems upstairs. Plus, neither Brugh or Clement want to take the time to cover furniture before killing their victims. The blood’s getting on the nice furniture.

The first act sets up the life of modern Wellington vampires. How they get their victims—either seduction or Brugh having his familiar, Jackie van Beek, procure them—and how they socialize (they can’t get into many night spots because they need to be invited in). van Beek ends up introducing Cori Gonzalez-Macuer to the fellows, giving the film its main narrative. Gonzalez-Macuer becomes a vampire and, for about three minutes, it seems like the film might move to his perspective but no. Young know-it-all vampires are dopes; Gonzalez-Macuer is a dope and the film’s more about how the flatmates deal with having him around.

It’s not too bad, however, because he’s got a really cool friend (Stu Rutherford) who comes along. Rutherford’s human, but he’s so cool nobody’s going to eat him. Especially not after he shows the vampires how to use the Internet.

The film’s got a built-in structure—the documentary is about this annual undead ball and they’re going with the vampires. The ball shows up late in the film and, while it functions as the climax (or immediate precursor to it), it never feels that heavy. The “documentary” doesn’t change in tone. There’s no added emphases. Action just plays out like action plays out the rest of the time. The film’s meticulously edited, with this occasional asides to subplots. The asides are so successful you want the documentary filmmakers to show up just because they’ve got such an interesting take on their subjects. They’d be interesting characters. And not just because they’re so dispassionate about all the killing.

The killing is incidental.

All of the performances are great. Directors (and writers) Clement and Waititi are the best. Clement’s got something of a less showy role (though a more showy wardrobe) but gets to have some subtext while Waititi plays for more obvious laughs. He’s got his own subplot, but it doesn’t do anything until the end, when it’s just for a great laugh or two. Lots of great laughs in Shadows. Meanwhile, Clement’s subplot turns out to be tied to the main narrative. It’s complicated for the narrative but not so much for Clement, who instead has to imply a bunch in his performance. It all works out just right, of course, because Clement and Waititi do a fantastic job with Shadows. They’ve always got the right tone, the right joke, the right plot development.

Brugh, Gonzalez-Macuer, and van Beek all give strong performances. Brugh’s Oscar Madison so he’s mostly for a certain kind of laughs, but he’s also got great quirks. Gonzalez-Macuer is a sincere doofus. van Beek quietly suffers (she wants to be a vampire but Brugh keeps putting it off because vampires are shitty to their familiars).

There are a lot of vampire movie references in the film, including ones you might miss even if you’ve seen the movie. It’s more important to get the reference being a reference than to actually get the reference. The film leverages obvious genre tropes for humor, not specific references. Shadows is exceptionally well-executed.

And the special effects are perfect too.

Also—superb supporting performances all around, particularly Karen O’Leary as one of the cops who gets called out to check on the vampire house; superb supporting performances are no surprise because everything in What We Do in the Shadows succeeds.

Clement and Waititi, their costars, their crew—everyone does spectacular work.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi; directors of photography, Richard Bluck and D.J. Stipsen; edited by Tom Eagles, Yana Gorskaya, and Jonathan Woodford-Robinson; music by Plan 9; production designer, Ra Vincent; produced by Emanuel Michael, Waititi, and Chelsea Winstanley; released by Madman Entertainment.

Starring Jemaine Clement (Vladislav), Taika Waititi (Viago), Jonny Brugh (Deacon), Cori Gonzalez-Macuer (Nick), Stu Rutherford (Stu), Ben Fransham (Petyr), Jackie van Beek (Jackie), and Elena Stejko (The Beast).


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