Fearless (1993, Peter Weir)

I try not to concern myself with the Academy Awards these days. I scoff at the thought of them actually awarding quality, but I’m still pleased when someone like Clint Eastwood wins and perplexed when something like Crash does too. So I’m a little surprised at my reaction to Rosie Perez in Fearless. I’m enraged she didn’t win back in 1994, absolutely enraged. Not only is she outstanding, amazing and… oh, what was the word I banned from The Stop Button for overuse. Oh, incredible. Not only is she all those things, Peter Weir gave her the direction for an Oscar-winning role. He shines a light on her and says, “Look how great she is.” And she didn’t win. And she disappeared into direct to video (at best) obscurity by 1997.

As for the rest of Fearless, it’s probably Jeff Bridges’ finest work. The film shifts from being all Bridges to being all about Bridges by the end and, since some of the shift gives time to Perez, it’s not bad, but the film never really establishes what’s so wrong with him. There’s a big revelation towards the end and it’s not particularly effective, nor does it make much sense. It’s a case of a T-intersection and the story took the one leading toward an affirming ending, which isn’t a bad thing, it’s just not as interesting in this particular story. Some of the problem comes from the lack of emotional backstory on Bridges and his family. Isabella Rossellini plays his wife and it’s impossible to imagine them together outside the film’s present action. Any successful scene with Rossellini, all the work comes from Bridges, Perez, or the music. Her performance is the film’s biggest handicap.

The music–I thought it was Gabriel Yared, but it turned out to be Maurice Jarre, which surprised me since Jarre tends to have a (classy) “cool” sound–makes the last act work. Peter Weir loves his symbolism, but in the last act, he really gets going and there are a couple times he hits the audience over the head so hard, they’re seeing stars. For the rest of the film, he does a great job. But, since it’s Weir… well, I got worried he might Owl Creek Bridge the film. I actually was worried about it from the beginning, something on the back of the laserdisc set off the warning light. I’ll ruin it for everyone–no, it’s not an Owl Creek Bridge. Instead, it’s a rewarding experience.

The writing’s excellent in spots, but Weir’s getting such great performances out of his cast, except Rossellini, it doesn’t really matter. Tom Hulce is great as a slimy lawyer and Debra Monk and Deirdre O’Connell are particularly good. A young and only okay Benicio Del Toro shows up for a bit too. Obviously it was before discovered his niche of the grumble-talk.

I’ve been waiting thirteen years to see Fearless. Back when it came out, I liked Jeff Bridges for some reason. Maybe because my mom likes him. I never got around to it on tape, then it came out pan and scan on DVD. I got the widescreen laserdisc on remainder back in 1999 or 2000 and just now got around to watching it. Even with Rossellini, it was worth the wait.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Weir; written by Rafael Yglesias, based on his novel; director of photography, Allen Daviau; edited by William Anderson; music by Maurice Jarre; production designer, John Stoddart; produced by Paula Weinstein and Mark Rosenberg; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Jeff Bridges (Max Klein), Isabella Rossellini (Laura Klein), Spencer Vrooman (Jonah Klein), Rosie Perez (Carla Rodrigo), Tom Hulce (Brillstein) and John Turturro (Dr. Bill Perlman).


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Memories of Murder (2003, Bong Joon-ho)

So all Song Kang-ho needs is a good movie… Well, not quite. In my Foul King post, I accused Song of being the weak link in Korean cinema and maybe he’s not. Maybe he just makes some bad choices. Still, in Memories of Murder, he plays a well-intentioned buffoon of a detective facing a rural serial killer. Memories runs strong for the majority of the film, but it’s based on a true story and that reality mucks up the denouement. It’s a mix of a mystery, thriller, and a comedy, but in the end it needs to be a drama about men working together and the film hasn’t been building for that conclusion.

Bong Joon-ho is a wonderful director and his sense of composition and timing makes Memories work, then he goes and breaks a big rule. Never have someone look into the camera unless it’s going to work. He does it and it doesn’t work and it hurts the film. Otherwise, he’s great. Memories has a quietness about it when it’s among the rice paddies or in the fields or anywhere in outdoor rural settings. When it gets to the town or city, Bong loses the film. For example, the rural town is never visually defined. It doesn’t seem too rural, as it’s got a huge factory district and such. The lack of establishing shots only becomes a problem when he’s moving from country to town.

The script is a more complicated matter. The film has two and a half protagonists, Song, a city detective played by Kim Sang-kyung, and another rural thug cop played by Kim Roe-ha. The thug cop is hardly a character at times, more just a reminder of Song’s character’s mindset before he realized his tactics weren’t going to stop the killings. The real killings took place over five years. In the film, it seems like six months at best. There’s never any look at the city detective–who the film follows once he arrives–outside his police work and there’s never any hint he exists outside the police station.

While inside the police station, everything–writing, directing, acting–works great. When it’s about the investigation of the crime, it works great. But when it gets to cinematic moments (except a great chase scene), Memories of Murder trips. It’s a slick looking film–lush colors and perfect film stock–so any grittiness has to come from the characters, and the actors don’t really have any to offer. Kim Sang-kyung is fine through most of the film, but when it’s most important for him to be really good, he isn’t. He doesn’t have any subtext (which, oddly, Song does).

In the end, the film can’t escape the realities of the actual murder investigation. While it doesn’t let the audience predict (unless the viewer knows something about the case), Bong doesn’t prepare the film for where it goes. The end is a disconnect from what came before and it’s too bad, because until the third act, Memories was going to be outstanding. Instead, it’s just really good.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bong Joon-ho; written by Bong, Kim Kwang-rim and Shim Sung Bo; director of photography, Kim Hyeong-gyu; edited by Kim Seon Min; music by Iwashiro Tarô; production designers, Ryu Seong-hie and Yu Seong-hie; produced by Cha Seoung-jae, Kim Moo Ryung and No Jong-yun; released by CJ Entertainment.

Starring Song Kang-ho (Detective Park Doo-Man), Kim Sang-kyung (Detective Seo Tae-Yoon), Kim Roe-ha (Detective Cho Yong-koo), Song Jae-ho (Sergeant Shin Dong-chul), Byeon Hie-bong (Sergeant Koo Hee-bong), Ko Seo-hie (Officer Kwon Kwi-ok), Park No-shik (Baek Kwang-ho), Park Hae-il (Park Hyeon-gyu) and Choi Jong-ryol (Du-man’s father).


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One Crowded Night (1940, Irving Reis)

One Crowded Night opens strong enough–a Mojave desert motel and lunch counter, run by a family with a past, with employees with romantic woes. It’s an RKO B-picture, as the most recognizable people in the cast are bit players from bigger films. It’s filmed on location (at the motel) and it starts centered around Anne Revere’s character, which gets it that “strong enough” comment. Revere plays a woman whose husband’s in prison and she’s dropped out from her former life. At first, it sounds like he did it, then we find out he was framed. Once I heard it was an unjust imprisonment, I knew Crowded Night was going to get into trouble, but she’s real good anyway. Unfortunately, she doesn’t remain the focus… especially not after the husband shows up.

If it had been about the women, Crowded Night could have been excellent. All of the female actors are good, with Revere and Billie Seward standing out. Seward’s particularly exceptional. Crowded Night was one of her last films, after a number of Westerns, and it’s worth seeing just for her performance. Another reason it should have concentrated on the women is the men. None of the male actors are good, only a couple are mediocre–though Steve Pendleton approaches having a good scene–and the two most important, Charles Lang and Paul Guilfoyle, are terrible.

The film’s constructed to solve a problem–it’s a sixty-eight minute deus ex machina, in fact–and all the added complications take away from what works. Oddly, the film was never predictable past the unbelievably fortuitous set-up. Characters remained in peril throughout, making for a tense last ten minutes. The director, Irving Reis, did go on to bigger films, which is no surprise, since much of One Crowded Night is well-directed. At first I thought it wasn’t, then I realized it’s just the editing. The film has the worst cuts between shots I’ve ever seen. They’re eyesores and until I caught on, I blamed it all on Reis. Actually, the bad taste from the edits was carrying over into his good work.

So, for a sixty-eight minute B-picture, One Crowded Night is fine. Seward and Revere make up for the film’s acting and writing deficiencies and Reis is just a bonus.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Irving Reis; screenplay by Ben Collins and Arnaud d’Usseau, based on a story by Ben Holmes; director of photography, J. Roy Hunt; edited by Theron Warth; produced by Cliff Reid; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Billie Seward (Gladys), William Haade (Joe Miller), Charles Lang (Fred Matson), Pamela Blake (Ruth Matson), J.M. Kerrigan (Brother ‘Doc’ Joseph), Paul Guilfoyle (Jim Andrews), Anne Revere (Mae Andrews), Gale Storm (Annie Mathews), Dick Hogan (Vince Sanders), George Watts (Pa Mathews), Emma Dunn (Ma Mathews), Don Costello (Lefty), Steve Pendleton (Mat Denlen), Casey Johnson (Bobby Andrews), Harry Shannon (Detective Lt. McDermott) and Ferris Taylor (Detective Sgt. Lansing).


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Blondie (1938, Frank R. Strayer)

When I was in middle school, I read most of the comic strips in the newspaper, Blondie being one of them. I remember seeing, in the TV listings around the same time (probably a little later), some station running a bunch of Blondie movies at five o’clock in the morning. I missed taping them, but they’ve since shown up on DVD (some of them–I guess the series has twenty-seven entries). This first film, which I wasn’t expecting much from, is actually fairly good. There are a number of problems, the most damaging being the kid. First–as a relatively modern reader of the Blondie strip, I wasn’t aware of its classical content–is the name: Baby Dumpling. I’m not sure I ever got over it, but the silliness dulled as the movie went on. However, the kid playing the kid, Larry Simms, comes off like a little shithead, not an adorable troublemaker.

The film’s at its best when it’s out of the house and doing comic strip-sized gags. There are a number of three panel gags in the film–until the last act, most of the film is these gags, actually–and they work well for the most part. When in the house, Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake are less successful together then they are alone. For whatever reason, doing the comic strip gags doesn’t work with the two of them. When the film’s acting like its own animal, they’re all right. Lake isn’t particularly good, though he’s a decent physical comedy actor (which is why the scenes with him alone work better) and Singleton ranges in quality too, best when she’s putting up with him, which is the Blondie character’s defining trait. The film’s best scene is a quiet one, when they both check in on the baby. Watching the film, even today, one is participating in the concept–the adaptation of the Blondie comic strip, which has its own set of rules, rules a regular film does not have–and the baby checking scene really breaks free of the concept. It gives the characters real character, as opposed to the two dimensional adaptation.

The best performance in the film is Gene Lockhart, who plays a captain of industry obsessed with tinkering. In a film with so many mediocre performances, Lockhart immediately stands out as giving an excellent performance. I kept waiting for him to come back around.

As for the writing and directing… well, the writing’s all right. It’s certainly not as innocuous as I expected and I did laugh a few times. The director, Frank R. Strayer, is adequate. He’s better outside than in, but the film doesn’t offer many of those opportunities.

I wasn’t expecting much from Blondie (in fact, I was expecting to turn it off), but it’s a nice enough way to spend seventy minutes.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Frank R. Strayer; screenplay by Richard Flournoy, based on the comic strip by Chic Young; director of photography, Henry Freulich; edited by Gene Havlick; music by Leigh Harline and Ben Oakland; produced by Frank Sparks and Robert Sparks; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Penny Singleton (Blondie), Arthur Lake (Dagwood Bumstead), Larry Simms (Baby Dumpling), Gene Lockhart (C.P. Hazlip), Ann Doran (Elsie Hazlip) and Jonathan Hale (J.C. Dithers).


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