Category Archives: ★

Street Smart (1987, Jerry Schatzberg)

Somewhere around the halfway point in Street Smart, when both female “leads” get reduced to a combination punching bag–figuratively and literally–and damsel, the movie starts to collapse. It doesn’t collapse in a standard way. It doesn’t give too much to either of its dueling stars, Christopher Reeve and Morgan Freeman; instead, it gives them less. It collapses out of a kind of inertia. After promising sensational developments, it offers none.

Except, of course, Reeve embracing his mediocre (but good looking) white guy privilege. Like everything else in the ending, however, Street Smart doesn’t really want to pursue it. It just wants to be over.

Lots happens in the third act–assaults, murders, two jail sequences for Reeve (though the second is after the movie’s stopped treating him like a protagonist)–and none of it gets any resolution from the characters. The film skips over their reactions to their subsequent actions. It rushes through the most intersting part of the story, when Reeve’s hubris brings suffering on everyone.

The film starts with Reeve as a floundering New York (sadly filmed in Montreal because Cannon) magazine reporter. Despite going to Harvard and being good looking, Reeve can no longer hack it. The managing editor, Andre Gregory, thinks he’s boring. Until Reeve sells them on a lifestyle piece on a Times Square pimp. They buy it. Only problem, Reeve doesn’t know any Times Square pimps to write lifestyle pieces about. He does, however, take Times Square working girl Kathy Baker out for ice cream.

So Reeve makes up the story. Girlfriend Mimi Rogers is supportive, as Reeve losing his job means they can’t pretend to be successful yuppies anymore.

Simultaneously, Times Square pimp Freeman has just accidentally killed an abusive john. The D.A., Jay Patterson, is out to get him. Patterson is everything Reeve isn’t. Patterson’s not good looking, but he’s honest and hard-working. He’s also cruel as shit. Reeve’s not cruel. He learns to be cruel (not thanks to Patterson, who keeps getting him thrown in jail, but Freeman, but it’s in the dreadful third act so who cares).

Patterson wants Reeve to snitch on Freeman. Only Reeve doesn’t know Freeman. Until Freeman finds out Baker knows Reeve and then decides to use him as a defense witness. Reeve needs Freeman to convince Gregory he’s got a real pimp. Reeve and Freeman have a successful reciprocal relationship, complicated when Reeve gets too close to Baker and vice versa.

The one thing Street Smart never does–oh, I forgot, Reeve also becomes a TV news reporter because he’s rather good looking and photogenic–but the one thing the film never does is show Reeve reacting to where he was wrong in his fiction. He sees Freeman’s real life, in some of the film’s best scenes–even when it’s over dramatic, the acting is superb (director Schatzberg realizes then forgets the cast is best when in frame together)–but he never really reacts to it.

He’s got the Baker subplot instead.

And Baker’s great. It’s just not great for the movie.

Most of the acting is excellent. Freeman is phenomenal. If he doesn’t give the best performance in sunglasses ever in Street Smart, he’s got to come close. Patterson’s great. Baker’s great. Reeve’s quite good some of the time. The rest of the time the writing’s just too thin. And he and Rogers have zero chemistry.

Rogers isn’t good. She’s occasionally okay, but it’s a crap part. Gregory is annoying. It seems unlikely such a nitwit could run a successful magazine, even if he’s rich and white.

Erik King is pretty good as Freeman’s sidekick. Anna Maria Horsford is awesome as Freeman’s “business manager.” She only has a couple scenes but she’s so good.

Schatzberg’s direction never makes much impression either way. Given the film’s Montreal shooting location, I guess it’s impressive how well he makes the film feel like New York. Adam Holender’s photography should get some of that credit as well. It’s not great cinematography and he really should’ve worked with Schatzberg on some of the establishing shots, but it’s convincing.

Robert Irving III’s score is a little much. Miles Davis contributing results in some nice trumpeting, but not much in the way of effective movie scoring.

Street Smart has some great acting going for it and a lot of interesting character intersections. It’s a bit of a cowardly script. It runs away from the race angle; brings it up, then (impressively) runs away from it, enough fingers to fill ears and cover eyes. Basically it just needed a strong rewrite–or a stronger director–but it’s a Cannon production. Its producers don’t care about making a good movie, just selling one.

So, for a movie about a mediocre white guy’s bullshit catching up with him and forcing a metamorphosis (for better or worse), it’s a fail. But for a Cannon production, it’s pretty amazing.

1

CREDITS

Directed by Jerry Schatzberg; written by David Freeman; director of photography, Adam Holender; edited by Priscilla Nedd-Friendly; music by Robert Irving III; production designer, Dan Leigh; produced by Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan; released by Cannon Films.

Starring Christopher Reeve (Jonathan), Morgan Freeman (Fast Black), Kathy Baker (Punchy), Jay Patterson (Pike), Mimi Rogers (Alison), Erik King (Reggie), Anna Maria Horsford (Harriet), Shari Hilton (Darlene), Frederick Rolf (Davis), Michael J. Reynolds (Sheffield), and Andre Gregory (Ted).


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Loving Vincent (2017, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman)

Loving Vincent is the story of the man in the yellow suit (not to be confused with the Man in the Yellow Hat, which is sort of unfortunate because monkey) and his quest to deliver Vincent Van Gogh’s last letter.

The title comes from how Van Gogh signed letters to his brother–“your most loving brother.” The man in the yellow hat, played by Douglas Booth, has a letter for Theo. It’s a year after Van Gogh’s death. Little does Booth know his quest will reveal Theo’s died as well. Upon that discovery, Booth heads to Auvers-sur-Oise, where Van Gogh lived for the last two months of his life.

There, he finds himself in the middle of a mysterious suicide, which Booth turns into an unsolved murder. Loving Vincent, the film, is very wishy washy on having any kind of opinion on the matter. In fact, as Saoirse Ronan chastizes Booth, you’re not supposed to fixate on how Van Gogh died, but how he lived. Oddly, until that point (and even a little later), the film fixates on how Van Gogh dies. It’s constantly pivoting to avoid having to fixate on his living.

First and foremost, the flashback sequences are always narrated–Van Gogh appears all the time, played by Robert Gulaczyk–but he’s never the protagonist, always the subject. The film, I might have mentioned earlier, is the first entirely handpainted motion picture. Ninety-five minutes, 65,000 frames, all oil painted. The actors were filmed in front of green screens. Booth’s quest looks like a Van Gogh painting. In fact, his quest just introducecs him to the other subjects of actual Van Gogh paintings so it’s a Van Gogh painting subject team-up movie.

Except the flashbacks are entirely black and white. And very, very realistic. And directed in an entirely different manner than the present action of the film. There’s a lot of first-person camera work in the flashbacks, which makes things rather urgent, but never visually interesting. Visually competent to be sure, but never visually interesting. All the visual interesting stuff is in the present, for feckless Booth to encounter.

If Loving Vincent were more concerned with being educational–if it were purely educational–it’d be a lot more successful. Instead, the writers–co-directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman as well as Jacek Dehnel–settle on this didactic tone at the end, condescending to Booth for his interest. As well as the audience’s because if they’re not interested in what Booth’s interested in, there’s no narrative. The movie ends with a song–addressing Vincent Van Gogh–about how he’s now loved, even though he wasn’t when it mattered. Again, if it were an IMAX movie, if it were educational… sure.

But as historical fiction? It’s a bit much.

The direction is a lot of the problem. Kobiela and Welchman are dull in the present. They set up shots like paintings, which then look like paintings, but they’re dramatically inert. You watch Loving Vincent for the visuals (and the visual references), not much else. Except, of course, Chris O’Dowd showing up as a fifty year-old Frenchman with a huge beard (bigger than Van Gogh actually painted it) and O’Dowd’s charming Irish accent.

The accents–well, no one except Gulaczyk has what could might called an authentic accent. It’s a bunch of British actors playing French people with distinct British accents. Gulaczyk might not even being doing a Dutch accent, it might just be his Polish accent, but at least it’s not English.

Acting-wise, Booth is okay. He gets better as the film goes along. The first act is rough as the film sets him out on this quest. John Sessions is fun. Aidan Turner’s all right. Jerome Flynn is all right. He’s not in it enough after all the emphasis the narrative puts on the character; he plays Van Gogh’s doctor for those last two months. He also suffers from the most egregious style shift. In the same scene, thanks to different painters (there were 125 painters who worked on the film), Flynn’s head changes size dramatically between shots.

In the bigger supporting roles–the above actors really only have one scene, except Booth, of course–there are Saorise Ronan as Flynn’s daughter and the object of Van Gogh’s affections, there’s Helen McCrory as Flynn’s disapproving housekeeper, and then Eleanor Tomlinson as the innkeeper’s daughter (where Van Gogh stayed those last two months). McCrory’s an evil harpy without a character. Her animation is also overly brusque, like she’s not worth the attention. Even though the film uses her multiple times as an expository tool.

Ronan’s not great. She’s okay. Eventually. Her animation gets a lot more attention, but none of it to rendering any kind of visual performance. There’s nothing to meet Ronan’s dialogue delivery.

Tomlinson’s great. She and Booth have actual chemistry, something Loving Vincent’s lacking the rest of the time. It’s because Tomlinson even gets a character. She’s got more depth than anyone else, including “protagonist” Booth. Booth gets some backstory and subplots, but nothing consequential. The movie’s not about the characters, it’s not about the crossover, it’s about how the audience cares too much about how Van Gogh died and not enough about how he lived.

So it’s weird the movie’s all about how he died.

The oil painted frames are the draw. Though the film never does anything with it CGI couldn’t do. And the decision to avoid trying to show Van Gogh in the world as he saw it (i.e. his paintings) is a major cop out. One the film tries to cover with a couple readings of his letters.

Again, as a purely educational film, it’d be awesome. But with the attempted narrative? A beautiful technical achievement. And not much else.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman; written by Kobiela, Welchman, and Jacek Dehnel; directors of photography, Tristan Oliver and Lukasz Zal; editors, Kobiela and Justyna Wierszynska; music by Clint Mansell; production designers, Matthew Button, Maria Duffek, and Andrzej Rafal Waltenberger; produced by Sean M. Bobbitt, Ivan Mactaggart, and Welchman; released by Altitude Film Distribution.

Starring Douglas Booth (Armand Roulin), Chris O’Dowd (Postman Joseph Roulin), Jerome Flynn (Paul Gachet), Saoirse Ronan (Marguerite Gachet), Eleanor Tomlinson (Adeline Ravoux), Helen McCrory (Louise Chevalier), John Sessions (Père Tanguy), Aidan Turner (boatman), and Robert Gulaczyk (Vincent van Gogh).


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Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert (2018, David Leveaux and Alex Rudzinski)

The opening of Jesus Christ Superstar is the only place the three leads really interact. Jesus, Mary, and Judas all interact. Through and behind the songs, this quick narrative plays out. In addition to showcasing the performers–John Legend is Jesus, Sara Bareilles is Mary, Brandon Victor Dixon is Judas–and giving them brief solos, the sequence also establishes certain aspects (and limits) of the adaptation. Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert is both stage production and filmed performance of stage production. Sometimes the direction syncs, sometimes it doesn’t.

For example, director Rudzinski (who directed the filming) is far more interested in the physicality–and implied physicality–of Bareilles and Legends’s relationship. How they move and touch. Whereas Leveaux, who directed the stage production, isn’t really interested. Leveaux isn’t interested in how the cast emotes. Otherwise you wouldn’t have the guy at the end blinking rapidly to show interest in levitating messiahs.

Rudzinski, on the other hand, is very interested in the emoting. Sometimes way too interested in it. Well, only when the stage production is in a lull. Rudzinski can direct movement, he can’t direct lull. The opening is good, the finale is great (because it fully showcases Dixon), and the “Arrest” direction is truly awesome. Leveaux and Rudzinski do it as reporters sticking microphones and cameras in Legend’s face. But Leveaux has a lot of lulls. And Rudzinksi can’t really direct them.

Partially because Legend’s not great at the close-up acting. Dixon’s great at it. It’s hard to believe Dixon is going through all that work when no one’s even going to see him from the audience (but the camera sees this performance). Bareilles is somewhere in between. Her numbers usually stay in long shot, the close-ups saved for the more personal moments with Legend. Singing-wise, Dixon and Bareilles are good. Bareilles has one great number, but not the previous one, which is way too restrained.

Legend’s fine. It’s not a particularly great part. And he does look like he wandered off a Star Wars set. His followers look like an eighties multi-racial (but mostly white) movie gang. The priests look like something out of a Matrix sequel. The sets are scaffolding but generically urban. It looks very eighties. Down to the multi-racial gang.

But Legend’s fine. He just doesn’t impress like Bareilles or, particularly, Dixon. Though “The Temple” is pretty awesome in Live. It works out.

Jin Ha is great. Norm Lewis is almost as great. Jason Tam’s way too much just there. Erik Grönwall isn’t good. Ben Daniels is good but not great. He’s ostentatious in the wrong way. Similar to Alice Cooper, who’s cameoing. Thanks to the filmed live nature of Live in Concert, you even get to see him going around the front of the stage for the audience. He takes a victory lap for what amounts to stunt miscasting. He’s okay, but it’s a lousy “King Herod’s Song” number.

They should’ve gotten David Lee Roth.

The end is really impressive, starting with “Superstar.” Leveaux saved all the flash for the finale; the flash is big enough scale, Rudzinski can get a lot of coverage. It works out. Because so long as Jesus Christ Superstar doesn’t mess up a few things, it’s always going to work out.

Dixon should’ve gotten to dance through the whole thing. And Legend needed an acting coach. Or Leveaux needed a better take on the character.

And David Lee Roth. He would’ve been so good.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by David Leveaux and Alex Rudzinski; written by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice; produced by Neil Meron, Marc Platt, and Craig Zadan; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Brandon Victor Dixon (Judas), John Legend (Jesus Christ), Sara Bareilles (Mary Magdalane), Ben Daniels (Pontius Pilate), Norm Lewis (Caiaphas), Jin Ha (Annas), Jason Tam (Peter), Erik Grönwall (Simon), and Alice Cooper (King Herod).


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Stardust (2007, Matthew Vaughn)

Stardust has a problem with overconfidence. The overconfidence in the CG is one thing, but would be easily excusable if director Vaughn didn’t double down and go through tedious effects sequences. Ben Davis’s photography keeps Stardust lush, whether in the magic world or the real world–but that lushness doesn’t help with the CG. The CG is excessive and exuberent–it’s always supposed to be obvious–it’s just not good enough. The CG, technically, isn’t there.

The other overconfidence is the stunt casting.

The film starts in a prologue setting things up. England. Nineteenth century. There’s a small English town with a nearby wall. No one can cross the wall. There’s a nonagenarian (David Kelly) who wields a staff to keep people away. One day, intrepid young man Ben Barnes crosses the wall and gets seduced by a mystery woman.

Nine months later, he gets a baby. Eighteen years later, the baby has grown into “protagonist” Charlie Cox. Stardust, from its narration (by Ian McKellen, natch), is going to be about Cox embracing his destiny as a hero. Until then, he’s just going to make a fool of himself for town beauty Sienna Miller. Cox wants to marry Miller, Miller wants to marry Henry Cavill. But then they see a falling star and Cox gets Miller to promise to through Cavill over for him if he gets her the star.

Except it’s not just a falling star, it’s also the ruby necklace of the King of the magic world, called Stormhold. Stardust doesn’t get into the nitty gritty, like how can this magical world exist across a wall in England and what would’ve happened to it in the hundred years between the movie’s present action and its release date. Because it’s just fantasy. Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman don’t have to take any responsility for character if they keep it just genre.

The scene setting up Stormhold is where the stunt casting starts. Peter O’Toole is the dying king, Rupert Everett is his presumed heir. Presumed because O’Toole’s sons have to kill one another for the throne. The ghosts of the defeated princes hang around and watch the film’s events, sometimes offering commentary. They’re fun ghosts, even if they were all trying to kill one another and the film’s heroes.

In the biggest of the prince roles is Mark Strong. He’s not stunt casting. He’s got Inigo Montoya’s hair and Count Rugen’s personality.

So the star falls. Except since it lands in magic land, it’s not a hunk of space metal, it’s Claire Danes. Stars are sentient and they watch the earth because human beings’ love is unique throughout the cosmos. Vaughn and Goldman’s dialogue, which is so entirely expository it’s an accomplishment, is about as obvious and artless as that sentence. Vaughn seems to think he can get away with it because of Davis’s photography, the CGI, and Ilan Eshkeri’s enthusiastic, original, and not great, not bad score. He’s wrong.

Anyway. Cox finds Danes and kidnaps her. He’s going to let her go after he brings her to Miller. Danes points out the questionable behavior of kidnapping someone for a gift, but Cox doesn’t care. His character to this point is: half-prince of magic land, personal failure (he wasn’t good in school at anything, including fencing), and just fired shop boy. Cox doesn’t even get to dwell on being half-magic. He’s too busy dragging Danes through the woods.

Oh, and Danes has the necklace.

So Strong and the other princes are looking for the necklace. Because O’Toole says they don’t just need to kill each other, they also have to get the necklace.

And then Michelle Pfeiffer is a witch looking for Danes to kill her and eat her heart to make herself young. Pfeiffer’s got two sisters, Joanna Scanlan and Sarah Alexander, who ought to be stunt casting and aren’t. The makeup on the witches is decrepit faces, but not overly so on the bodies. Like Vaughn didn’t want to be too gross. The witches get played for laughs occasionally, so they can’t be too visually unsettling.

Pfeiffer is terrible with Scanlan and Alexander. Maybe she can’t figure out how to act under the makeup. Once she gets out on her own (and out of the makeup), she slowly gets better. By the end of the movie, she’s almost good, even with some makeup back. She has zero chemistry with Scanlan and Alexander, which doesn’t help things.

Of course, Vaughn doesn’t direct for that sort of thing. Chemistry. Pah. Danes falls for Cox after he saves her from Pfeiffer’s inital trap and Danes decides to help him win Miller’s hand, delivering herself as a gift. Because she really, deep down, loves Cox. Danes, I mean. She’s sacrificing herself. It might make sense if Danes had her stars watch earth because of perfect human love monologue early on, but it’s end of the second act stuff. She’s just making poor choices as far as anyone knows until then.

She also has a unicorn for a while.

Eventually Danes and Cox end up on Robert De Niro’s sky pirate ship. De Niro should be Stardust’s stunt casting at its worst. He’s a closest, effeminate, aging, anglophile gay sky pirate. He has to hide everything from his crew of tough sky pirates. They mine lightning to sell to Ricky Gervais (who’s actually the worst stunting casting). They capture Danes and Cox and De Niro confides in the young couple.

He teaches them to dance, he teaches Cox how to sword fight, he does a makeover on Cox, giving him some romance novel cover hair. He also gives them new outfits.

So then they’re ready for the multiple showdowns–Strong and the princes, Pfeiffer and the witches, Melanie Hill’s traveling salesperson witch who has enslaved Cox’s mom (Kate Magowan). But Cox isn’t look for his mom, because he forgot about her once he kidnapped Danes and he never comes back to it.

Cox is a bad kid. No spoilers, but Nathaniel Parker (as the grown-up dad) gets a shockingly thankless part. You’d think being raised by a single dad in nineteenth century small village England would have an effect on Cox’s character, but since he doesn’t get a character until he gets the hair cut… you’d be wrong.

There’s also a thing where Vaughn’s “magical” direction of magic land is exactly the same as his idealized English village. Cox is just traveling through Disney movies, one without magic to one with magic.

Cox never gets to be the protagonist. Top-billed Danes doesn’t either. They both play second fiddle to the bigger name stars, Pfeiffer and De Niro. Where it’s unfair is how Strong gets to do his own thing without Pfeiffer or De Niro and isn’t even a serious antagonist.

Cox and Danes are fine. Their writing is often lousy. De Niro is not fine. It’s an insensitive, if enthusiastic, caricature. Vaughn’s poor direction of actors is most obvious with De Niro. De Niro’s vamping it up and Vaughn directs it all to beg for a laugh. Ha. Robert De Niro is a miserable, closest gay guy who’s worried his only friends will ostracize or kill him if they know he’s gay. But, hey, it’s De Niro in drag.

Then there’s how Danes is a simply damsel, even if she’s an anthropomorphized luminous spheroid of plasma. Cox is the hero prince, even if he’s been passive in every single one of his scenes. Vaughn needed some confidence in his leads.

Stardust is occasionally amusing, when the bad performances and bad writing aren’t too overwhelming. Danes and Cox are quite likable. The movie’s just got a weak script and lacking direction.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Matthew Vaughn; screenplay by Jane Goldman and Vaughn, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman; director of photography, Ben Davis; edited by Jon Harris; music by Ilan Eshkeri; production designer, Gavin Bouquet; produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Michael Dreyer, Gaiman, and Vaughn; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Charlie Cox (Tristan Thorn), Claire Danes (Yvaine), Robert De Niro (Captain Shakespeare of the Caspartine), Michelle Pfeiffer (Lamia), Mark Strong (Prince Septimus), Sienna Miller (Victoria Forester), Melanie Hill (Ditchwater Sal), Ricky Gervais (Ferdy), Kate Magowan (Princess Una), Joanna Scanlan (Mormo), Sarah Alexander (Empusa), Jason Flemyng (Prince Primus), Rupert Everett (Prince Secundus), Nathaniel Parker (Dunstan Thorn), Henry Cavill (Humphrey), David Kelly (the Wall Guard), and Peter O’Toole (the King); narrated by Ian McKellen.


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