The Driver (1978, Walter Hill)

There are limits to how much patented Walter Hill machismo one person can take and The Driver pushes its limit early on. Well, maybe not too early on, since the movie runs ninety minutes. It doesn’t help Ryan O’Neal doesn’t talk, Isabelle Adjani chokes through her English dialogue, and Bruce Dern turns in an exceptionally lousy performance. Dern’s bad acting is is a giant flare warning one away from The Driver. No one trying to make a good film–I mean Adjani’s character could just be learning English too–would allow Dern’s performance. But Hill isn’t trying to make a good movie. He’s trying to make a tough, macho movie, making his casting choice of O’Neal hilarious.

O’Neal’s not particularly bad–since he doesn’t have much dialogue, there’s a lot less of a chance it’s going to be as terrible as the other characters’ dialogue–but he looks lost. His expression reminds of a deer trapped in the headlights, or an actor who stumbled on to the wrong set one morning and couldn’t get off.

Hill spent a lot of time choreographing his chase scenes, but they’re not any good. They’re gimmicky and boring. He reduces the police cars to objects, not vehicles containing people, in an attempt to desensitize the viewer for when O’Neal causes the cop cars to flip over or crash. Then he makes the cop hunting O’Neal (Dern in that atrocious performance) a vicious, corrupt bastard, so the audience will immediately side with baby-face O’Neal. I mean, he was in Paper Moon, after all.

Maybe if Hill’s direction weren’t so artless, The Driver would be a little more tolerable. There’s a mythic director’s cut to the film, running thirty minutes–thirty terrible minutes, I’m sure–longer. I can’t imagine how much more bad dialogue, boring action and lousy performances one film could contain. Dern’s real bad in this film, I’m not exaggerating; it’s one of the worst performances I can remember seeing from a movie not lensed in someone’s backyard. And even the music’s bad. But on the plus side, I think the opening titles were competently presented. No visible misspellings or capitalization errors.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Walter Hill; director of photography, Philip Lathrop; edited by Tina Hirsch and Robert K. Lambert; music by Michael Small; production designer, Harry Horner; produced by Lawrence Gordon; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Ryan O’Neal (The Driver), Bruce Dern (The Detective), Isabelle Adjani (The Player), Ronee Blakley (The Connection), Matt Clark (Red Plainclothesman), Felice Orlandi (Gold Plainclothesman), Joseph Walsh (Glasses) and Rudy Ramos (Teeth).


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The Cobweb (1955, Vincente Minnelli)

A more appropriate title might be The Trouble with the Drapes, but even with the misleading moniker, The Cobweb is a good Cinemascope drama. Cinemascope dramas went out some time in the mid-1960s. Vincente Minnelli is great at them. In The Cobweb, he turns a little story (I can’t believe it’s from a novel–it must have had a lot more on the characters, since the present action is incredibly limited) into a big movie. Richard Widmark doesn’t hurt. Even as a caring psychiatrist, Widmark amplifies the film. Nothing he does–except for one scene, his performance is understated–but something about his presence. His and Lauren Bacall’s. They signal big Cinemascope drama. So does Leonard Rosenman’s score. Rosenman brings the music up for all the characters’ emotions and, since some of the characters do a lot solo, there’s quite a bit of the music. Only once does it get a little too much, when Gloria Grahame (as Widmark’s wife; Bacall’s the nurse he likes too much) is freaking out. Oddly, the dialogue plays against the omnipresent music. The Cobweb has very delicate–and very good–dialogue. It’s one of the reasons the film succeeds: good dialogue performed by good actors makes even the most banal story involving. Of course, it doesn’t hurt The Cobweb pulls itself out from its third act spiral.

There’s not much going on in the film–it really is all about the fallout of buying new drapes for a psychiatric clinic–and it’s the characters keeping it moving. At the end, there needs to be a resolution and so–I assume it’s from the book, but it’s funny enough it might be a filmic innovation–things get resolved. Cinemascope dramas always resolve nicely at the end, part of the genre requirements. But The Cobweb‘s resolution is too easy. It’s too abbreviated. But at the last moment, in a very nicely timed scene, it pulls off a great close.

John Houseman produced the film, which might account for Mercury Theatre member Paul Stewart’s too small role, and maybe Houseman’s involvement accounts for some of the gentleness in the picture. The scenes with Widmark and his son playing chess or talking are some of the film’s most effective, because they’re–for the majority of the running time–the only real insight we get in to Widmark’s feelings. The rest of the time, until he and Bacall get inappropriate, he’s too busy worrying about his patients. Grahame’s really good in a difficult, unlikable role, and managing to keep the character sympathetic by the end of the film is a real achievement on Grahame’s part. Bacall’s good tog, but her character gets reduced into an “other woman” role (but she has a great exit). Other exceptional performances (they’re all good) are Charles Boyer and Lillian Gish. Boyer has a slightly more difficult role, but Gish is more impressive, maybe just because I’m unfamiliar with her work.

There’s a little bit too much going on in The Cobweb. There’s easily material for three films in here–Widmark and Grahame, Bacall’s character needs a whole picture, and John Kerr and Susan Strasberg’s mental patient romance deserves one too (Kerr’s real impressive and it’s he and Grahame who get the film off to its good start). It’s an imperfect Cinemascope drama, though a great example of one, but still a satisfying experience.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Vincente Minnelli; screenplay by John Paxton, from a novel by William Gibson; director of photography, George J. Fosley; edited by Harold F. Kress; music by Leonard Rosenman; produced by John Houseman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Richard Widmark (Dr. McIver), Lauren Bacall (Meg Rinehart), Gloria Grahame (Karen McIver), Charles Boyer (Dr. Devanal), Lillian Gish (Victoria Inch), John Kerr (Steven Holte), Susan Strasberg (Sue Brett), Oscar Levant (Mr. Capp), Tommy Rettig (Mark), Paul Stewart (Dr. Wolff), Jarma Lewis (Lois Demuth), Adele Jergens (Miss Cobb), Edgar Stehli (Mr. Holcomb), Bert Freed (Ave Irwin) and Fay Wray (Edna Devanal).


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The Bourne Ultimatum (2007, Paul Greengrass)

The only good thing about The Bourne Ultimatum, besides Joan Allen, who can apparently survive (and fluorish in) anything, is how rabidly anti-Republican the film’s details get. The film’s CIA bad guys in this one are using the “war on terror“ to assassinate US citizens. I haven’t read an outcry about it, so I imagine it isn’t my being more adept at recognizing the parallels (or propagandizing), but rather the stupidity of American filmgoers.

But besides that aspect, Ultimatum is a heinous piece of work. For the first half, while nothing happens except a travel video, I kept thinking about Paul Greengrass’s attempt at cinéma vérité, specifically–if it’s supposed to be ultra-real, why is there a musical score blaring the entire time. I mean, it must have occurred to someone, right? I can’t imagine sales of The Bourne Ultimatum score are profitable enough to excuse an enormous conceptual mistake.

It soon becomes clear Ultimatum is following all the set pieces of the second movie (I can’t remember the title right now), only with different details. There’s even the part where the girlfriend’s going to die, only with minor deviations. Then Bourne gets to New York and there’s a neat tie-in to the end of the second movie and then it’s over after a chase scene. It’s not just absent any character development, it’s absent any palpable content.

Watching the film, having seen Matt Damon most recently acting well in Ocean’s Twelve and even better in Syriana, I realized this Bourne performance–absent any humanity–is really a Marky Mark impression. But not Marky Mark in actual films, rather Marky Mark in previews to his films. Or it’s Damon’s audition tape for Terminator 4. After the first half hour or hour or three days, however long the film goes before they get to New York, I kept waiting for Damon to act. And I’m still waiting.

Like I said, Allen is good. I agreed to see the film because David Strathairn’s probably never been bad. And now I can’t make that statement anymore. It’s not his fault; he’s just playing a Republican, so he too is absent any humanity. I felt really bad for him, it’s a considerable slight against his body of work. Albert Finney’s pretty lame too, but his quality resurgence is recent; there have to be some real stinkers in there over the course of his career. Allen and Strathairn really deserve a good movie (a good John Sayles movie maybe). Julia Stiles shows up for a bit and she’s okay. The character revelations about her and Damon are probably illegal but who cares. Scott Glenn has a small role and he’s awful. Greengrass appears not to care whether or not his actors act well. But if he’s missing the thing about there not being a musical score in real life, worrying about acting is a bit too much to ask.

The action scenes are generally terrible. There’s a car chase identical to the one in the second movie, there are some fight scenes (again, probably identical, I wasn’t paying attention–they’re trying to endure). The script’s not simply unimaginative, it’s particularly terrible. It’s obvious and predictable, with terrible dialogue and ludicrous character developments and reactions.

I didn’t expect it to be so boring, but then I didn’t expect it to be a rehash of the second movie either.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Paul Greengrass; written by Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi, based on a story by Gilroy and the novel by Robert Ludlum; director of photography, Oliver Wood; edited by Christopher Rouse; music by John Powell; production designer, Peter Wenham; produced by Frank Marshall, Patrick Crowley and Paul L. Sandberg; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Matt Damon (Jason Bourne), Julia Stiles (Nicky Parsons), David Strathairn (Noah Vosen), Scott Glenn (Ezra Kramer), Paddy Considine (Simon Ross), Edgar Ramirez (Paz), Albert Finney (Dr. Albert Hirsch) and Joan Allen (Pamela Landy).


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Head Over Heels (1979, Joan Micklin Silver), the director’s cut

Chilly Scenes of Winter (the title of the 1981 director’s cut of Head Over Heels) painfully chronicles the year in a man’s life after he loses his girlfriend. Painfully is my chosen word for a couple reasons. First, because Joan Micklin Silver doesn’t disguise how messed up John Heard’s character is over the break-up and is just in general. Heard’s character is either the romantic lead in a film from 1979 or he’s the prime serial killer suspect in one from 1999. He lives in a big house, sometimes alone, sometimes letting his friend (a wasted Peter Riegert) stay. He’s got a mother with issues–Gloria Grahame is fantastic–and a step-father he cannot connect with, though the step-father is always trying; the character’s natural father died when he was a child. He’s a weirdo who stalks his ex, who’s returned to her husband. Silver and Heard display all those facets honestly and instead of making for a strange viewing experience, the honestly is a welcome surprise.

The other reason I used the word “painful” is because Chilly Scenes is from a novel and Silver retains a lot of the first person narration. For a ninety-two minute film to waste as much time as this one does filling in back-story with narration from Heard, not to mention the scenes where he talks to the camera or describes how he’s feeling… At times it’s embarrassing for Heard, who does a great job otherwise, with a very difficult role. The viewer doesn’t know the truth. I hate to describe him as an unreliable narrator, but it’s obvious he’s supposed to be one. He practically wears a T-shirt proclaiming the status. Mary Beth Hurt’s character is very obviously messed up and, while the viewer isn’t supposed to think Heard’s taking advantage of her impaired condition, it’s clear she’s emotionally absent. Much like Grahame’s character, but there’s no correlation spelled out in the film. I’m not sure about the novel (though I’d guess it’s in there, in neon).

Heard and Hurt’s scenes are entertaining and full of chemistry, until Heard starts to get scary and it all goes on for too long. And to make something go on for too long in a ninety-two minute movie is something.

The best stuff in the film is the present action, not the flashback, especially the stuff with Kenneth McMillan as the stepfather. The scenes where Riegert and Heard have fun are great too. The movie needed to be centered around his developing relationships with other people, not some malarkey he narrates over and over. It’s like a bad song in a lot of ways, but all the performances are good and Silver is a fine director. She just didn’t break away from the source material enough–it’s one of those films where it might be a close adaptation, which is not the same thing as a good adaptation.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Joan Micklin Silver; screenplay by Silver, based on a novel by Ann Beattie; director of photography, Bobby Byrne; edited by Cynthia Schneider; music by Ken Lauber; produced by Mark Metcalf, Amy Robinson and Griffin Dunne; released by United Artists.

Starring John Heard (Charles), Mary Beth Hurt (Laura), Peter Riegert (Sam), Kenneth McMillan (Pete), Gloria Grahame (Clara), Nora Heflin (Betty), Jerry Hardin (Patterson), Tarah Nutter (Susan), Alex Johnson (Elise), Mark Metcalf (Ox), Angela Phillips (Rebecca) and Griffin Dunne (Mark).


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