Bubble (2005, Steven Soderbergh)

I’m not sure who’s odder, Soderbergh for making it or Coleman Hough for “writing” it. Since much of the actual scene content is improvised, I think I’m going to have to go with Soderbergh. Bubble leaves one with quite a few thoughts–especially if the viewer knows the cast is nonprofessional and turn in better performances than professionals and if the viewer also knows the story behind the film’s release (it was a simultaneous theatrical, DVD, and cable release)–but the primary thought is about Soderbergh. He’s an odd duck. There’s no better description.

Bubble is exceptional because I’ve never seen a film change so much. It’s only seventy-three minutes long and for the first thirty, I wasn’t sure. The great experiment (also from Soderbergh’s perspective, as he’s planning on doing more of these small films with nonprofessionals across America) was failing. It’s a beautiful looking film–Soderbergh shot it in digital Panavision, it’s got a great score and perfect sound design–but it doesn’t work. Then, all of a sudden, it works. When the film synopsis first appeared, it played up the mystery angle (undoubtedly for the theater-goers) and once the mystery shows up, Bubble comes together. But calling the film a mystery would be misleading. Bubble is a film about nothing, where not much happens. Given how much was out of Soderbergh’s control–the improvised scenes, the location shooting–it’s amazing he pulled it off. Unfortunately, once a film becomes so finely tuned, one or two things can knock it down from the perfection pedestal. In Bubble’s case, one is the end credit sequence (stills of doll factory rejects–Bubble finally becomes a “Steven Soderbergh” film instead of a… film). But, more importantly, there’s a shovel scraping against concrete and Soderbergh didn’t cut right after the shovel left ground. Really.

The nonprofessional cast is fantastic, with the best performance being from Debbie Doebereiner, who’s the lead. Second best is the police detective, Decker Moody. The other two really good ones are Dustin Ashley as the male lead and Kyle Smith, who’s only got two scenes, but one of them–between him and Moody–is amazing.

I frequently forget about Soderbergh. I think it’s because he’s not one of those one-a-year guys. He needs to do more films.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by Coleman Hough; director of photography, Peter Andrews; edited by Mary Ann Bernard; music by Robert Pollard; produced by Gregory Jacobs; released by Magnolia Pictures.

Starring Debbie Doebereiner (Martha), Dustin James Ashley (Kyle), Misty Dawn Wilkins (Rose), Omar Cowan (Martha’s father), Laurie Lee (Kyle’s mother) and David Hubbard (pastor).

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Behemoth the Sea Monster (1959, Eugène Lourié)

I’m not sure the British are really suited for giant monster movies. No offense to the Brits, but watching a bunch of folks stand around and keep the stiff upper lip while radioactive monsters from the deep attack London isn’t too much fun. Behemoth might be unique in the giant monster genre in that respect–it’s more interesting before the giant monster shows up. Once the monster shows up, the film slows down to a crawl–the last ten minutes are grueling. Before, during the investigation, Behemoth at least entertains and the director, Eugène Lourié, has some good composition in the British seaside town and particularly during exposition scenes.

Besides starring Gene Evans, more on him in a second, Behemoth has the distinction of being a complete rip-off of the original Godzilla. I didn’t think the British ripped it off until Gorgo, a few years later, but I stand corrected. Behemoth, the monster, comes from the sea, is a dinosaur, has been effected by radiation, and has fire-breath. Even the fishermen angle resembles Godzilla (Godzilla, however, got that aspect of the story from an actual incident). Behemoth doesn’t follow Godzilla’s story structure, nor does it stick with the one it has in the beginning, following two or three characters, characters who disappear as the monster starts showing up.

Gene Evans was a favorite of Sam Fuller and seeing him play a marine biologist would be fun enough, but seeing him play a marine biologist who’s sure of a giant radioactive monster is even better. André Morell plays Evans’s British counterpart–and, if one wants to read enough into a scene, his lover–and Morell gives Behemoth a certain bit of credibility, but it might just be the accent.

I watched Behemoth because it’s one of King Kong special effects producer Willis H. O’Brien’s last films. The stop-motion work isn’t too good, however, and the best special effects in Behemoth are a couple of the rear screen projection shots. They perfectly mix the foreground and background. Maybe it’s the black and white. The film doesn’t handle the special effects well in its structure either. After it ended, I realized Evans never even sees the monster. At least it’s got me curious again about O’Brien’s work, because it certainly hasn’t gotten me wanting to see anymore of Lourié’s.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Eugène Lourié; screenplay by Lourie and Daniel James, from a story by Robert Abel and Alan J. Adler; directors of photography, Desmond Davis and Ken Hodges; edited by Lee Doig; music by Edwin Astley; production designer, Lourie; produced by David Diamond and Ted Lloyd; released by Eros Films Ltd.

Starring Gene Evans (Steve Karnes), André Morell (Professor James Bickford), John Turner (John), Leigh Madison (Jean Trevethan) and Jack MacGowran (Dr. Sampson).


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Born on the Fourth of July (1989, Oliver Stone)

In the last ten years, Tom Cruise has turned in a number of excellent performances (well, four… four is a number) and a bunch of decent ones. He’s only been bad once (of the films I’ve seen). So, Born on the Fourth of July was a jarring reminder to the early period of Cruise’s acting career (before his wingnut career), when he was staggeringly awful. Cruise is so bad for most on Fourth of July, I actually had to look up a good adjective to use to describe that awful acting. Of course, Cruise’s inability fits Stone, maybe even more than Charlie Sheen’s inability fit him. Stone’s shot composition in Fourth of July is beautiful, but absolutely useless for a narrative. It’s slick and colorful, that neo-Technicolor Bruckheimer-produced films use. To get the film to move, since the shots don’t do it, Stone uses a lot of quick editing in Fourth of July, the same quick editing Bruckheimer appropriated a few years later. Maybe it was immediately (I never saw Days of Thunder).

Stone makes Fourth of July as melodramatic as possible, then bumps it up a notch. For a film based on a true story (I’ve read the actual book and a lot of the movie was a surprise to me), it’s beyond any reasonable license. Only at the end, in the last ten minutes, when the character finally gets to be a real person, does Cruise’s acting rise to being near-poor. It’s when the true story becomes somewhat worthwhile… but the film skips the character’s major personal development. There’s nothing about him becoming active in the anti-war movement. One minute he isn’t, the next he is, then the movie ends. Since it’s shed everything else we’ve had to sit through (his family, his girl, his relationship with other vets), Fourth of July hits a reset button and all of a sudden Cruise is a guy in a wig, not the guy who started the movie without the wig, then got it inexplicably later on. Still, it’s ten minutes and it’s laden with Stone’s idea of nuance, so it doesn’t help. It just gets better.

I was going to make note of all the people who starred in Fourth of July and went on to bigger things. Jake Weber even shows up for a shot. Then, I realized Stone used all three of the non-Alec Baldwin brothers and I decided against giving him any credit for casting discoveries. However, a handful of the performances are good. Raymond J. Barry is good as the father and Frank Whaley and Jerry Levine (Stiles from Teen Wolf–I recognized him but didn’t know who it was until I looked it up) are both good as Cruise’s friends. There’s a whole period where Cruise and these guys play their characters in high school and all of them look about ten years too old.

I keep trying to remember other things–the timeline goofs were obvious to me and I was born twenty years after the era depicted–but, in the end, I think I’m sad Oliver Stone doesn’t get to make his movies anymore. He still works, he still writes, but he doesn’t get to do this kind of film anymore and–good or bad–Born on the Fourth of July was a socially relevant piece. During the scenes in the awful veteran’s hospital, my fiancée turned and asked me what I thought vet hospitals looked like today. Stone had a real audience until Natural Born Killers and, while he did manipulate them, he did it for a good cause. I’m not sure there’s been any manipulative filmmaker since who’s been able to reach such a broad audience and actually had something good to say….

Those last few sentences are an observation, not a defense of or recommendation to see Born on the Fourth of July, though I do suppose John Williams’s hideous score needs to be heard to be believed. Oh, and I can’t forget this one. Stone rips off Coppola’s fan as helicopter blade metaphor from Apocalypse Now, but I guess it’s all right, since Spielberg went on to steal a flag shot from Fourth of July for Saving Private Ryan.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Oliver Stone; screenplay by Stone and Ron Kovic, based on the book by Kovic; director of photography, Robert Richardson; edited by David Brenner; music by John Williams; production designer, Bruno Rubeo; produced by A. Kitman Ho and Stone; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Tom Cruise (Ron Kovic), Kyra Sedgwick (Donna), Raymond J. Barry (Mr. Kovic), Caroline Kava (Mrs. Kovic), Jerry Levine (Steve Boyer), Frank Whaley (Timmy), Willem Dafoe (Charlie), Josh Evans (Tommy Kovic) and Jamie Talisman (Jimmy Kovic).


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Game 6 (2005, Michael Hoffman)

In many ways, Game 6 is the Michael Keaton movie I’ve been waiting ten years to see. He’s the lead, it isn’t a comedy, he’s got a grown kid, it ought to be a return to form. It’s a mildly high profile film, or at least it should have been, as Don DeLillo wrote it. It isn’t high profile though. A film written by DeLillo–or any fiction writer of his stature–won’t excite filmgoers, who tend to shun good literature, and won’t excite fiction readers, who tend to dismiss film as a lesser narrative medium. Unfortunately, Game 6 isn’t a positive example of fiction writers doing films. While DeLillo’s script is good and he’s got some great scenes in the film, too much of what’s going on isn’t going on–in prose, looking at a couple guys sitting on a couch on the street can mean something. In a film, it’s a couple guys sitting on a couch on the street. There are a lot of those moments in the film. Still, I wanted it to work. It’s short, eighty-some minutes, but full of content. Had it worked, I’d be ringing a bell (actually, I probably already rung that bell with Personal Velocity and look how well Rebecca Miller turned out).

Game 6 not working isn’t DeLillo’s fault. While the script gets distracted (and too conventional in the end), the film fails because of Michael Hoffman. Game 6 needs a director who can range from conventional to hallucinatory. Hoffman fails. He can’t create a visually interesting film, much less a visually representation of Keaton’s character’s perception of the world around him. With a stronger director, and maybe eighty-sixing the terrible radio jockey dialogue, Game 6 would have worked out. It has an impeccable cast. Keaton hasn’t been this good in ten years and Griffin Dunne hasn’t been this good ever. Then, near the end, DeLillo sticks Dunne in a TV and has him talk to Keaton and Hoffman didn’t think not to do it (as much as it needed a more visually empathic director, Game 6 needed one who could say no to the higher profile writer). Robert Downey Jr. is a little bit less than he can be–he’s fine enough for the film, but he’s on autopilot, as Hoffman can’t direct his most important scene.

Messing up a film set in a day, in New York City, about a bunch of Red Sox fans during the last game of the World Series should be impossible. I suppose it’s not all Hoffman’s fault. DeLillo skimps on the father-daughter relationship stuff and it end being more important than anything else. Hoffman could have fixed it. A better director would have.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Hoffman; written by Don DeLillo; director of photography, David M. Dunlap; edited by Camilla Toniolo; music by Yo La Tengo; production designer, Bill Groom; produced by Amy Robinson, Griffin Dunne, Leslie Urdang and Christina Weiss Lurie; released by Kindred Media Group.

Starring Michael Keaton (Nicky Rogan), Griffin Dunne (Elliot Litvak), Shalom Harlow (Paisley Porter), Bebe Neuwirth (Joanna Bourne), Catherine O’Hara (Lillian Rogan), Harris Yulin (Peter Redmond) and Robert Downey Jr. (Steven Schwimmer).


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