Category Archives: ★★

John and Mary (1969, Peter Yates)

Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow are John and Mary, respectively, and they’ve just woken up after spending the night together. They met at a singles bar. Is it going to be a one night stand or is it going to be something more?

Both come with some baggage, though of different varieties. Farrow’s last serious relationship was with a married politican (Michael Tolan); they spent a lot of their time hiding from his family. Hoffman, on the other hand, had a model ex-girlfriend (Sunny Griffin) who moved in with him and wasn’t a good cook. Seeing as Hoffman’s a neat freak and a control freak, it didn’t work out.

John Mortimer’s screenplay uses a handful of techniques to fill in the backstory. For a while, there’s narration from both Hoffman and Farrow–the film takes place over a day, with the narration mostly taking place in the morning–then there are flashbacks (featuring Tolan and Griffin) and daydreams. Director Yates plays with how the flashbacks and daydreams relate to the present action–he and Mortimer end up using them to generate confusion to cause suspense for the viewer, which is effective enough… only it’s a little cheap.

Despite excellent cinematography from Gayne Rescher and production design from John Robert Lloyd–most of the present action takes place in Hoffman’s apartment, with the flashbacks (and daydreams) expanding to New York City–Yates doesn’t have a tempo for any of it. Farrow’s more compelling than Hoffman, but not because of her writing or because of how Yates directs her; she’s sympathetic. From the start, Hoffman’s a jerk. And as the film peels back the onion, he gets jerkier as things progress.

Yates and Mortimer lean the film’s entire weight on the effectiveness of third act reveals, only all those reveals are with the time shift gimmicks. There aren’t any character development reveals. Sure, it’s only a day, but Hoffman and Farrow’s performances don’t gain anything from all the flashback exposition. That particular failing is more Mortimer’s fault than Yates’s, however.

Though if Yates had come up with better–read, any–integration of the film’s various moving parts, he’d probably have been able to compensate.

Instead, John and Mary gets by thanks to Farrow and Hoffman’s performances. She’s got a better character, turns in a better performance. He’s Dustin Hoffman, he’s got some inherent likability–even if the film does sledgehammer away at it, particularly in the first act. When he does get big moments in the script, no one really knows what to do with them. They’re all kind of trite; someone–Yates, Mortimer, or Hoffman–needs to have a handle on the character. None do. Yet Hoffman is still able to get through. He wouldn’t be able to without Farrow.

John and Mary’s not bad. It’s just not successful. Yates is way too blasé about the whole thing.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Yates; screenplay by John Mortimer, based on the novel by Mervyn Jones; director of photography, Gayne Rescher; edited by Frank P. Keller; music by Quincy Jones; production designer, John Robert Lloyd; produced by Ben Kadish; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Dustin Hoffman (John), Mia Farrow (Mary), Michael Tolan (James), Sunny Griffin (Ruth), Stanley Beck (Ernest), and Tyne Daly (Hilary).


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Alien (1979, Ridley Scott), the director’s cut

Ridley Scott’s director’s cut of Alien feels like vaguely engaged exercise more than any kind of devout restoration. Its less than artistic origins–Scott cut it together a combination, apparently, of fan service and studio marketing needs–actually help it quite a bit in the first act. Scott’s new cut rushes things, though it doesn’t really rush them anywhere. At the beginning, it’s kind of neat to see how he’s able to move things faster (so long as you’re generally familiar with the film and its plot), only once he runs out of story, Scott and the film stumble repeatedly.

This Alien maintains establishing shots and transition shots; Scott and new editor David Crowther hurry the actual scenes, cutting into performances. John Hurt is deemphasized, Ian Holm is more emphasized. Even though there might be more Sigourney Weaver, it takes her even longer to assume the lead role because with an increased presence for Holm, the dynamic changes. And Scott and Crowther don’t really adjust for it later, because they’re not cutting for performances, they’re cutting getting in new footage. In trying not to be sensational, Scott just makes it even worse. He doesn’t account for what his new pace is doing to how the film plays on its own, not as a special feature.

The collision of Holm and Weaver doesn’t pace well, for instance, but once its resolved, Alien: The Director’s Cut finds its footing once again. Sure, it loses it again and never quite recovers, but it loses it in the place where Alien just loses its footing, the third act. There are some “director’s cut” specific problems in the third act, which hurt the pacing and the overall experience because it’s clear when inserted footage is taped in–Crowther’s editing doesn’t match Terry Rawling’s at all, which is another big problem. It’s disjointed. In the first act, it’s kind of charming; after over an hour, it’s just tiresome.

Maybe the greatest disservice of Alien: The Director’s Cut is to the Jerry Goldsmith score. It feels more rushed than anything else. Goldsmith creates this sterile calm, a disappointing tranquility, and Scott and Crowther don’t have any time for it.

Scott should’ve just let the additional footage bloat Alien. The trims he makes elsewhere aggravate quickly before ultimately failing. At least bloated, the film would have some personality. Instead, it feels like Scott trying to turn Alien into more of a crowd-pleaser. But for a limited, familiar audience. He’s not trying to make a better film.

Luckily, the pieces are still strong. Holm, Weaver, Yaphet Kotto, Tom Skerritt, all great. Veronica Cartwright gets more to do and has less of a character as a result. Weaver experiences something similar; Scott hacks at her and Skerritt’s scenes just enough to weaken them both. Weaver’s performance deserves a lot more respect, frankly. It takes her too much for granted.

And somehow Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton lose their mojo in the new cut. Most of the content remains, but none of the personality. Again, Crowther’s using a dull hatchet on Rawling’s delicate scalpel cuts.

Alien, the director’s cut, isn’t so much a missed opportunity as a pointless endeavor. But it could have turned out a lot worse. Scott’s lack of ambition might be the saving grace.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ridley Scott; screenplay by Dan O’Bannon, based on a story by O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett; director of photography, Derek Vanlint; edited by Terry Rawlings, Peter Weatherley, and David Crowther; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Michael Seymour; produced by Gordon Carroll, David Giler, and Walter Hill; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Tom Skerritt (Dallas), Sigourney Weaver (Ripley), Veronica Cartwright (Lambert), Harry Dean Stanton (Brett), John Hurt (Kane), Ian Holm (Ash), and Yaphet Kotto (Parker).


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Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring (1971, Joseph Sargent)

Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring opens with a montage sequence. Sally Field is hitchhiking cross country (supposedly, it’s all California) while audio of her calling home to her parents–after running away to become a hippie–and letting them know she’s all right. The exact amount of time she’s away, where she went, how she left, never gets addressed in the film; probably for the better. But that opening–followed by Field sneaking back into her house and her family going about their morning routine before finding her peacefully asleep in her bedroom–does frame Field as the subject of the film.

Turns out it’s a red herring. Director Sargent, writer Bruce Feldman, and Field have a far more ambitious plan. Sargent, thanks to his actors, Feldman, and particularly editor Pembroke J. Herring, sets about deconstructing the nuclear family. There are frequent short flashbacks–presented as Field’s memories–revealing the family’s history and how it affects Field and little sister Lane Bradbury. Dad Jackie Cooper’s loving as long as no one bothers him and everyone listens to him. Mom Eleanor Parker is underwhelmed too, but she and Cooper have separate beds and he makes good money, so with frequent alcohol, she’s coping. Bradbury, it turns out, is on a similar path as Field took, though with drugs, which apparently wasn’t Field’s problem.

Feldman writes long scenes, which Sargent initially brackets with these uncomfortable panning shots. Maybe is a TV movie and it takes Sargent about fifteen minutes (of its seventy-and-change run time) to get comfortable having to pan to do establishing shots. By comfortable, I mean he stops trying to force wide establishing shots.

Anyway. The long scenes, as the family drama starts to play out, soon reveal just how much Field has changed. The movie’s not about her, the movie’s about this messed up family she’s rejoining. And Field’s performance just gets better and better throughout, as she understands more and more, no longer the teenager, not an adult in her parents’ understanding but certainly from her (and the viewer’s) perspective. Especially once the film gets to her parents’ party with their horrifically shallow friends.

At the same time, Field’s hippie boyfriend (David Carradine in an affable performance) is stealing various work vehicles to get back to her. Most of his character development happens in those flashback scenes, which doesn’t seem like it’s enough but turns out to be just right. Sargent really knows what he’s doing with the pacing of character development. Not just with Field (though, obviously, most with her), but also with Carradine and Bradbury.

Parker and Cooper get established first, which seems like an odd choice given how the emphasis flips, but it too works out. It’s their lives being deconstructed after all. Field and Bradbury are just the victims of their failures.

Cooper’s great, Parker’s great. Nobody’s as great as Field, who asserts herself into the protagonist role without any direct help from Feldman’s teleplay, albeit enabled by Sargent’s spot-on direction. And Sargent and editor Herring establish this choppy, confrontational rhythm to Maybe. Sure, some of the hippie stuff comes off a little washed out thanks to TV and general squareness–and the Linda Ronstadt songs are forced over the action–but Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring works out pretty darn well.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Joseph Sargent; teleplay by Bruce Feldman; director of photography, Russell Metty; edited by Pembroke J. Herring; music by Earl Robinson; aired by the American Broadcasting Company.

Starring Sally Field (Dennie), Lane Bradbury (Susie), Eleanor Parker (Claire), Jackie Cooper (Ed), and David Carradine (Flack).


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Wonder Woman (2017, Patty Jenkins)

Wonder Woman has one set of official, awkward bookends and one set of unofficial ones. The former does lead Gal Gadot no favors–after spending a moving building a character, it goes all tabula rosa and turns Gadot into little more than a licensing image. The latter does the film no favors. The latter is lousy CG composites. Wonder Woman is full of them, but none of them are worse than the first one and the last one. They jarringly destroy any verisimilitude director Jenkins and Gadot (in the case of the closing bookend) have been working towards. At least in the prologue–which comes after the first bookend (Allan Heinberg’s script is never plotted well)–there’s the rest of the film. But to close on being yanked out of the picture? It’s the final kick in Wonder Woman’s shins.

After the silly opening frame, bad composite or not, Wonder Woman gets off to a strong start. Connie Nielsen is queen of the Amazons, Robin Wright is general of the Amazons. Lilly Aspell and Emily Carey play the younger versions of Gadot but they’re not the point. Nielsen and Wright are the point. Nielsen’s solid, Wright’s awesome. The costumes are a little questionable, as they’re on an island paradise and Nielsen’s in furs? But it’s good.

Then it’s time for Gadot to take over the role and for Chris Pine to literally fall into her lap. Everything starts moving rather quickly–Pine’s arrival, a battle scene with the Amazons versus German soldiers, Gadot and Nielsen bickering, Gadot heading into the world of man. She can never return to her family, but it’s okay because she’s got a mission. It’s World War I and she’s got to save the world, based on bedtime stories Nielsen told Aspell. Turns out they’re the Amazon equivalents of Santa Claus, which should break some of the film’s logic but no one seems to care.

It’s unfortunate Gadot and Nielsen–and Gadot and Wright–never really get scenes together. It’s always plot perturbing scenes, nothing to build the relationships. Again, Heinburg’s script is never plotted well. Ever.

Anyway, Gadot and Pine have immediate chemistry and for a while Wonder Woman is able to coast. Sure, the CGI London is small and weak, but World War I is a great setting for human sadness. The film oscillates between introducing Gadot and Pine’s ragtag team of personable sidekicks–Lucy Davis, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, David Thewlis–and showing Gadot all the horrors people inflict on other people. Ostensibly it should add to some character development for Gadot, but Heinburg and Jenkins don’t ever let it go towards character development.

I mean, they’re going to wipe the slate clean in the end, so why bother.

Tossed into this mix is Danny Huston and Elena Anaya as a German general and his pet scientist, respectively, who are trying to make a mustard gas variant to get through gas masks and kill everyone. And Gadot and Pine only have forty-eight hours to stop them.

Eventually, they get to the Front–where the film introduces Eugene Brave Rock as the last throwaway sidekick, an American Indian who’s a black market profiteer selling to both sides, even though the Germans are really, really, really, really bad guys in Wonder Woman. There Gadot gets to show off her superpowers for the first time, though only in one sequence–albeit an pretty awesome one, save the weak CG composites of course–before the film starts its downhill run into the third act.

Most of the action–including Gadot and Pine sailing from “Paradise Island” to England–takes place in four or five days. And the big battle finale, with its numerous revelations and plot twists, takes up maybe a quarter of the film. Then it’s time for the closing bookend, which echoes one of the weakest revelation sequences from the finale, and the movie’s over.

Gadot’s good, regardless of the film eschewing the idea she’s supposed to be developing a character. Pine’s good. Davis, Taghmaoui, Bremner, Thewlis, and Brave Rock are good. Everyone’s good. The acting isn’t an issue, it’s the writing and the pacing. And the film’s reliance on some shallow, manipulative (and not even good manipulative) radio show positive message philosophy to wrap things up nice and tidy. Except Wonder Woman is supposed to be, at least on some level, a war movie–seeing sweet little Aspell get wide-eyed and excited at the prospective of war is something else–and the tidy finish rings false.

Better special effects would’ve helped. Not setting the last battle sequence entirely at night and in confined spaces would’ve helped too. A lot of things–like a better screenwriter than Heinburg, a better cinematographer than Matthew “shooting through pea soup” Jensen, a better score than Rupert Gregson-Williams can deliver–would’ve helped. Jenkins does fine with what she’s got. And editor Martin Walsh is all right.

The Wonder Woman action guitar riff (which isn’t even original to this film) is dumb.

The film ends up completely wasting Huston and Anaya. Anaya, actually, twice gets to be a metaphor for the script’s utter lack of integrity.

Still, it could be much worse. The bookends are almost threats to how much worse it could’ve been. But it’s a complete disservice to Gadot, who more than proves herself a capable lead.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Patty Jenkins; screenplay by Allan Heinberg, based on a story by Zack Snyder, Heinberg, and Jason Fuchs, and characters created by William Moulton Marston; director of photography, Matthew Jensen; edited by Martin Walsh; music by Rupert Gregson-Williams; production designer, Aline Bonetto; produced by Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Zack Snyder, and Richard Suckle; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Gal Gadot (Princess Diana of Themyscira), Chris Pine (Steve Trevor), Danny Huston (General Ludendorff), Elena Anaya (Dr. Isabel Maru), Connie Nielsen (Queen Hippolyta), Robin Wright (General Antiope), Lucy Davis (Etta Candy), Saïd Taghmaoui (Sameer), Ewen Bremner (Charlie), Eugene Brave Rock (The Chief), and David Thewlis (Sir Patrick Morgan).


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