Category Archives: ★★★★

The Heiress (1949, William Wyler)

My favorite moment in The Heiress is when Olivia de Havilland has a slight tremor, watching someone walk away after she’s just told them off. It’s this fantastic glimpse into her character. The film has something of a double twist ending, so it’s going to be hard to talk around various spoilers but suffice it to say de Havilland’s always got her guard up. You just don’t realize how guarded—shielded might be the better term—until later in the film. de Havilland goes through the film without a real confidant; there’s no opportunity to address de Havilland’s perception of the events. There are the occasional minor reveals in dialogue to provide character texture, nothing more. Otherwise, you’ve just got to trust de Havilland and director Wyler, without much to go on in the former’s case.

Wyler’s visibly breaking his ass from the start to do everything just right, however. Heiress is a play adaptation (of a novel) and de Havilland’s home is the main setting—with some big field trips away—but the house is the thing. Wyler and cinematographer Leo Tover compose these constrained, framed shots, which can’t be claustrophobic because de Havilland’s doesn’t feel trapped in the house. Quite the opposite, but Wyler and Tover still have to contend with the physical realities. Luckily the house is big enough and the floor plan’s right they can use tilts, drawing the audience’s attention to the importance of the passive information those shots cover.

It’s important later when characters are being (possibly) duplicitous and their body language is important. Heiress could open with a disclaimer informing the audience to watch people’s hands or they’re going to miss big plot moments.

Heiress runs almost two hours and the first ninety minutes or so has its own three act structure, based on the characters’ expectations. It starts with de Havilland getting ready for a party. It’s 1850, she’s the unmarried daughter of wealthy doctor Ralph Richardson, her mother is long dead and Richardson has done a crap job raising de Havilland for a combination of reasons but they mostly boil down, generally, to men are trash and, specifically, Richardson is an egomaniac. So his devil goatee is perfect. His sister, Miriam Hopkins, is a recent widow and has come to live with them, giving de Havilland a friend (though not confidant). Hopkins encourages de Havilland, something Richardson never does.

de Havilland’s shy, socially awkward, funny, smart, thoughtful, and kind. No one cares about those things in 1850, unfortunately; she’s supposed to be glamorous and sharp-witted. There’s some suggestion de Havilland’s the ugly duckling daughter of a famed beauty (who Richardson still blathers about), but basically she’s a “plain Jane” because she doesn’t pluck her eyebrows.

Enter Montgomery Clift, charming, well-spoken, and broke. It’s 1850 so it’s still possible to turn your blood blue in a single generation but Clift is more interested in enjoying life then working. He starts courting de Havilland, who’s immediately enamored because Clift’s a stone fox, but Richardson thinks he’s a gold digger. Clift’s interiority gets just as little reveal as de Havilland’s, which is important later on. Hopkins is on Clift’s side, which encourages de Havilland. For ninety minutes, Heiress is mostly about their courtship and its result. The last thirty isn’t epilogue but a complete readjustment of the narrative structure. The characters (and audience) thought the story was one thing, but it’s really another. Great work from Wyler on making that transition successful. Subtle and nimble.

Great performances from the four principals. The characters are constrained by “society” decorum, affecting options, decisions, reactions. Outside the box thinking is never an actual possibility so it’s never discussed but it’s considered and only in the actors’ expressions (or body language). Heiress is never a stagy play adaptation, but it’s still very much a stage adaptation. Wyler showcases the actors’ essaying of the roles, getting into the minutiae of the performances.

So they’ve got to be great.

And they are. de Havilland’s the best. She’s got an exceptionally difficult arc. Clift’s excellent, Richardson’s excellent, Hopkins is excellent. Even though it’s prime showcase for Clift, he doesn’t get the range of material as Richardson. And Hopkins gets all the subtly, because she’s all in on 1850s society thinking and she needs the world to make sense in those constraints.

Great photography from Tover, nice cutting from William Hornbeck; Harry Horner’s production design is key. And the Aaron Copland score is wonderful. Even if he didn’t really do all of it (Heiress had some behind-the-scenes turmoil). The screenplay, by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz (who also wrote the source play), is excellent. Wyler, obviously, does superb work.

The Heiress is outstanding.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz, based on their play and a novel by Henry James; director of photography, Leo Tover; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Aaron Copland; production designer, Harry Horner; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Sloper), Montgomery Clift (Morris Townsend), Ralph Richardson (Dr. Austin Sloper), Miriam Hopkins (Lavinia Penniman), Vanessa Brown (Maria), and Betty Linley (Mrs. Montgomery).



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To Die For (1995, Gus Van Sant)

To Die For’s got one of those effortlessly smooth but obviously intricate narrative structures. Screenwriter Buck Henry is adapting a novel, which author Joyce Maynard structured with many different first person accounts. Van Sant and Henry and editor Curtiss Clayton keep the sense of different perspectives—including some interview sessions where someone is obviously making a documentary, maybe not even necessarily the same documentary between interviewees—but the film’s never actually first person. There’s always a narrative distance. Because To Die For only shows so much of its characters. They’re all still mysteries at the end. The film’s got a very definite, very dark sense of humor and it’s never clear just how much Van Sant and Henry are bending reality.

For example, Tim Hopper and Michael Rispoli’s almost entirely dialogue-free police detectives. They’re absurdly intense, emphasis on the absurd. Only Van Sant never plays them for laughs. They cut through the film, their absurd unreality somehow realer than what’s been going on in the film.

To Die For is about cable access weatherperson Nicole Kidman seducing a teenage boy (Joaquin Phoenix) to kill her husband (Matt Dillon). The first act of the movie covers the basic setup and then how Kidman and Dillon got together and how their families clash. Dillon’s Italian, Kidman’s a WASP. It’s quite wonderfully never clear what attracted Kidman to Dillon. Apparently she really did “go wild” for him, but then he got in the way of her career. In addition to her nightly weather duties, Kidman’s making a documentary about local teenagers, including Phoenix. Once Dillon decides it’s time for Kidman to start popping out babies—he gave her a year—well, Kidman starts having sex (apparently a lot of sex, which isn’t initially clear and adds a bunch of layers to things in hindsight) with Phoenix, the end plan being getting Phoenix to kill Dillon.

The film almost entirely shows Kidman’s planning the murder from Phoenix and Alison Folland’s perspectives. Folland is one of the other teenagers in the documentary. Kidman’s documentary, not the pseudo-documentary narrative device. Casey Affleck is the third kid. Folland just wants a friend, Phoenix is in love, Affleck is an ass. They’re all poor, all neglected or abused, all dumb. Affleck gets assigned the project (by Henry, who cameos as their school teacher), but Folland and Phoenix sign up. They’re the only two in the class who don’t see Kidman is a little too much. There’s something clearly off about her.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, that off is she’s an undiagnosed sociopath, something no one suspects—including her—because her parents have spoiled her for so long. Their pampering of Kidman hid it, which the film momentarily and brilliantly addresses when Kidman freaks out dad Kurtwood Smith, who until then seems like it’s completely aware of her peculiar personality. Kidman’s obsessed with wanting to be a newscaster, which motivates every action until she realizes she doesn’t have to be a newscaster to be famous. It’s another of the film’s awesome little character development moments, when Van Sant and Henry reveal they’ve been discreetly layering in an arc, using the pseudo-documentary structure to give it some extra kick. Sometimes for humor (not laughs, humor), sometimes just because.

There are seven concurrent narrative layers. They all take place sometime after the events. There’s Illeana Douglas (as Dillon’s sister who always knew Kidman was bad news); she’s being interview for a documentary. There’s Phoenix in prison. There’s Folland not in prison. Then there’s the parents on a daytime talk show—just the straight talk show footage—Smith and Holland Taylor as Kidman’s parents, Dan Hedaya and Maria Tucci as Dillon’s. Susan Traylor plays Kidman’s sister, who never has anything to say but always has this knowing look. There’s Wayne Knight as Kidman’s boss at the TV station. Then there are the flashbacks. And, finally, there’s Kidman narrating to the camera.

Only she’s not confessing so her material is very different. The reality she presents is very different from what we see transpire. Maybe it’s never clear with Taylor, but Smith seems to know Kidman’s guilty.

Listing the best performances in the film is basically just like listing the cast. Kidman and Phoenix are both phenomenal. And even though they have a bunch of scenes together and Kidman’s manipulating him and Phoenix is bewitched, their character arcs are entirely separate and so are their performances. They don’t have “chemistry” because it’s not possible for them to have it in those conditions. Folland’s great. Douglas is great. Knight’s great. Smith’s great. Affleck, Dillon, Hedaya, Taylor, Tucci; they’re all good. They just can’t compare. They don’t get the material, though there’s always this implicit material. Like Traylor’s looks, whatever they mean.

Good photography from Eric Alan Edwards, good production design from Missy Stewart, perfectly matched Danny Elfman score (it’s a constant, emotive, supportive but never ambitious score). To Die For’s technicals excel. Everything about it excels, especially Kidman, especially Phoenix, especially Van Sant, and especially Henry.

It’s gang busters.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Gus Van Sant; screenplay by Buck Henry, based on the novel by Joyce Maynard; director of photography, Eric Alan Edwards; edited by Curtiss Clayton; production designer, Missy Stewart; music by Danny Elfman; produced by Laura Ziskin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Nicole Kidman (Suzanne Stone), Joaquin Phoenix (Jimmy Emmett), Alison Folland (Lydia Mertz), Casey Affleck (Russel Hines), Illeana Douglas (Janice Maretto), Wayne Knight (Ed Grant), Kurtwood Smith (Earl Stone), Holland Taylor (Carol Stone), Dan Hedaya (Joe Maretto), Maria Tucci (Angela Maretto), Susan Traylor (Faye Stone), Tim Hopper (Mike Warden), Michael Rispoli (Ben DeLuca), Gerry Quigley (George), Buck Henry (Mr. H. Finlaysson), and Matt Dillon (Larry Maretto).


My Scientology Movie (2015, John Dower)

My Scientology Movie almost ought to be called Our Scientology Movie as much of the film plays like a buddy movie between documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux and ex-Scientology chief enforcer Marty Rathbun. Theroux doesn’t want to make a buddy movie with Rathbun, he wants to go and tour the Scientology campus and interview Scientology head man David Miscavige. Who’s also Tom Cruise’s BFF. But more on Tom Cruise later.

Only Miscavige doesn’t give interviews and Theroux can’t tour the campus. So then he starts talking to the only people he can—ex-Scientologists. He meets up with an actor, Steven Mango, who used to be a member and gives Theroux some of the scoop. Rathbun comes in once Theroux comes up with a plan to make the documentary without interviews of any active Scientologists. He’s going to take existing interview footage of Miscavige (along with leaked, wacky, kind of scary really promotional videos from inside the Church) and hire actors to do scenes as Miscavige. Rathbun’s going to be there to help cast the part, since he was that aforementioned chief enforcer. He got things done for Miscavige. Like hiring private investigators to stalk people. After Rathbun fell out with Miscavige, he left the Church and wrote some tell-alls and pissed them off for years. Including during the filming of this movie. They show up to harass him, which gets to be one of the wackier ways the Church responds to the documentary. On one hand, whenever they’re dealing with Theroux without Rathbun, they threaten Theroux with made-up laws and promises to drop a dime so the cops can come out, read Theroux’s permit, leave the scene. Watching Theroux address the never-identified as Church employees Church employees is fairly disquieting, as the Church employees come off like they’re Bond henchmen. Only Blofeld never shows up. Oddjob never even shows up. Theroux’s biggest back and forth is with a woman hired to pretend to be producing a documentary about “people” and film Rathbun and Theroux from across the street.

Most of the interactions Theroux has with the Scientologists come off like candid camera moments. Not the ones Rathbun has with them—like I said, they’re chill with Theroux with Rathbun, but when Rathbun’s all alone, they go wild. Theroux’s got a reserved take on Rathbun—it’s not a functional buddies buddy flick—but Rathbun comes off really sincere. All of the ex-Scientologists do, especially when they’re trying to show Theroux how stoic they can appear (thanks to all their Church trainings).

So Theroux and Rathbun first do a casting call for Miscavige, eventually going with the utterly fantastic Andrew Perez. Theroux runs a pretty chill in-movie movie production where the actors don’t really seem to worry about much except having a good time; only Perez is always on. He’s always intense. You get to watch him prepare for this performance and then give it. His brief Miscavige “moments” are the tapioca balls in the film’s boba. They’re just so good. It’s immaterial to the film whether or not Perez nails not just “the scene” but his process leading up to it, but he always does. So good.

But even though Theroux’s getting the Church’s attention, it’s not getting him anywhere getting on campus much less an interview with Miscavige. He and Rathbun are just going to have to keep going with their reenactment production. They want a Tom Cruise, because there’s this disturbing promotional video Cruise did for the Church and it’s like couch-jumping then stopping to rip the couch apart with your bare hands and maybe bite a cushion just to be sure. Rob Alter is the Tom Cruise. He’s good too.

And Theroux’s interviewing other ex-Scientologists. One (Marc Headley) takes Theroux (and Movie) on some road trips, which then become a regular occurrence because Theroux really pisses them off whenever he shows up at the movie production company compound.

Like, it’s a Roger Moore James Bond movie. It’s like if they’d done Diamonds Are Forever with Moore. It’s goofy. Then you remember it’s real and it starts getting really scary. Because the Scientologists aren’t out to destroy the world or turn it into a giant diamond or whatever, they’re trying to save it from itself. Movie knows it has to frequently remind it’s real life. It’s not fantasy. At all.

Lawyers get involved, sending Theroux what amounts to a high school trash talk note about his new friend Rathbun. So Theroux tries to respond to the letter and can’t get anyone to take it. So the Church’s lawyers want to send trash talk notes but not receive presumably lawyerly responses?

So maybe it’s like a conspiracy movie spoof and a seventies James Bond movie.

And Theroux—despite having a lot of dry laughs—isn’t out to do a hit piece. Not an exceptional one. He doesn’t get into any rumors, any conspiracy theories, blackmail theories. There’s nothing about how Battlefield Earth is just a thin fictionalization of Church history. Theroux’s really interested in how Church founder L. Ron Hubbard saw himself as a big-time movie director because he directed the Church’s inspirational movies. Theroux’s looking for a Hollywood connection, especially since the “clearing” procedures the film shows (advised by Rathbun) often seem like acting class exercises. Theroux can’t quite get there, but when he can’t make it, it’s not like he falls back to easy targets. He does it straight and… ahem… clear. He tried to make this movie, he couldn’t for these reasons, here’s what he did.

My Scientology Movie raises a whole lot of questions and provides very few answers. Theroux, director (and co-writer) Dower, editor Paul Carlin, cinematographer Will Pugh, they make a great picture. Awesome music from Dan Jones too. Jones never takes anything too seriously and the “sci-fi movie” motif he brings back time and again is more endearing than a dig.

It’s superb.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Dower; written by Dower and Louis Theroux; director of photography, Will Pugh; edited by Paul Carlin; music by Dan Jones; production designer, Alessandro Marvelli; produced by Simon Chinn; released by Altitude Film Distribution.

Starring Andrew Perez (David Miscavige) and Rob Alter (Tom Cruise); presented by Louis Theroux.


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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).