Lorenzo's Oil (1992, George Miller)

I’m not sure when Lorenzo’s Oil lost me. The opening credits are set in East Africa, the focus is on Lorenzo–for those who don’t know, who don’t remember the previews if not the film, Lorenzo is a kid who gets a rare disease–and the film takes a lyric quality. George Miller was a good, straightforward workman on the Mad Max films, but on Lorenzo’s Oil, he adopts camera angles and lighting techniques out of an early Hitchcock film and applies them–in color–to his film. At times, these methods are successful, but that opening scene promises something more than Lorenzo delivers. That opening scene suggests the film will have some enthusiasm for film and for the beauty it can display… and Lorenzo’s Oil (and Miller) never deliver it.

The problem, of course, is the reality. In reality, Lorenzo’s parents had passion for their son and they fought and these (somewhat) average people developed a treatment for the disease. The film latches on to those people’s struggles and triumphs and doesn’t create anything for itself. It manipulates the audience. The scenes with the kid in pain are excruciating to watch, so excruciating I wonder if Miller used them to compensate for the flatness coming from Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon for the first quarter of the film. As Lorenzo’s parents, Nolte and Sarandon spend the first quarter as the film’s peripheral subjects. They guide the audience through Lorenzo’s diagnose–since the kid’s pain is so intensely displayed, it’s for the audience, not for the audience to see the parents react to… Only in the second and third acts does Nolte get any personality. He’s playing an Italian and for that first flat quarter, it’s Nolte fighting against having to do an accent. Eventually, he gets it and just in time, since Sarandon finally gets a personality too–she goes somewhat nuts.

Since Lorenzo’s Oil is based on a true story and it’s based on an inspiring true story and it’s informing people about a disease affecting kids, there’s no chance it can really examine what’s going on. Sarandon’s mother abandons everyone in her life (except the husband), throwing out her sister (an excellent Kathleen Wilhoite), and instead of looking at the real human conflicts going on, Lorenzo’s Oil does a lot of fades to black. Because those have a lot of emphasis. Sarandon isn’t any good, but I’m not sure how much of the performance is her fault. It’s impossible to imagine her and Nolte–as a married couple–doing anything but what they’re doing at each and every moment in the film. They’re automatons, moving in the film to make it go where it needs to go. Nolte’s best scenes are the ones with Wilhoite or some of the other supporting cast members, whenever he gets away from Sarandon and Lorenzo’s Oil begins to feel like a narrative again.

It’s a piece of propaganda and it’s propaganda for a good cause, it’s just not a particularly good film. At times, with some of Miller’s camera angles, I kept thinking of Scorsese’s Cape Fear, especially since Nolte was occupying the same space… until the end, when Miller ripped of The Elephant Man, which I found unbelievably bold.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Miller; written by Nick Enright and Miller; director of photography, John Seale; edited by Richard Francis-Bruce, Marcus D’Arcy and Lee Smith; production designer, Kristi Zea; produced by Doug Mitchell and Miller; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Nick Nolte (Augusto Odone), Susan Sarandon (Michaela Odone), Peter Ustinov (Professor Nikolais), Kathleen Wilhoite (Deirdre Murphy), Gerry Bamman (Doctor Judalon), Margo Martindale (Wendy Gimble), James Rebhorn (Ellard Muscatine), Ann Hearn (Loretta Muscatine) and Maduka Steady (Omuori).


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Fighting for Love (2001, Joe Ma)

Watching Fighting for Love is frustrating. Rapid-fire dialogue–straight out of a Howard Hawks comedy–is difficult to get in subtitles, especially poorly translated ones. Still, the charm of the actors comes through and Fighting for Love is probably the best mediocre romantic comedy I’ve seen in a long time, at least of the recently-made (since 1998) ones. I initially queued the film right after I saw Yesterday Once More and went through Netflix for other Sammi Cheng films. Since Yesterday tried to be serious, it didn’t offer the best precedent for Cheng. She’s charming and funny and touching in a way we don’t have right now in American cinema. As goofy as Fighting for Love gets, Cheng is never otherworldly. Her problems are never two-dimensional, on celluloid. The problem could be–I don’t really think it is, but I’m acknowledging the possibility–with American female actors, we’re a little too aware of their reality and can’t disconnect enough to connect with their films….

Once I had queued Fighting for Love, I realized the Tony Leung it starred. There are two Tony Leungs, Chiu Wai and Ka Fai. I don’t know who had the name first (and I’m too lazy to look it up). Chiu Wai, who appears in Fighting for Love, is the Tony Leung from In the Mood for Love and 2046 and Hard-Boiled. I’m a Tony Leung fan and so I was looking forward to the film. While he’s older than Cheng, their age difference doesn’t really affect the film. He does look rather silly surrounded by all the much younger actors playing his siblings, but I let it pass. The story’s a general romantic triangle (his girlfriend’s out of town and they have to fall in love while she’s gone, yada yada yada). It doesn’t matter. It’s a romantic comedy, the predictability isn’t an issue. There are some nice moments between Leung and Cheng and funny ones too and those scenes are what romantic comedies are about.

The most particular thing about the film–and I wasn’t expecting it–was the quality improvement throughout the second half. It didn’t do anything particularly special, it just laid on those nice scenes. By the end of the film–where, of course, there was a final cute joke–the varnish was nice and shiny.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Ma; written by Ma, Chow Yin Han and Lam Oi Wah; edited by Cheung Ka-Fai; produced by Carl Chang; released by Film Power Company.

Starring Tony Leung Chiu Wai (Veg Cheung), Sammi Cheng (Deborah), Niki Chow (Mindy), Joe Lee (Camel) and Li Fung (Deborah’s mom).


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The Punisher (1989, Mark Goldblatt)

Back in the late 1980s, The Punisher was part of that period’s comic book movie wave. Most of these films had little to do with Batman’s success and most of them failed, both commercially and artistically. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, of course, succeeded financially. Watching this Punisher film (I have no interest in the new one) again–I’ve seen it multiple times, as the teenager looking for the action film where cars inexplicably blow up, and again as an adult, when it came out on DVD–I noticed just how much of it did succeed. The key to The Punisher is forgiveness. One has to forgive the bad opening credits (with tinted action shots from the film), the direction, and the music. Once those three factors are forgiven, and the viewer can accept the film as a 1980s action film, The Punisher can offer a lot… really. Well, at the least, it can offer quite a bit.

Director Mark Goldblatt edited a number of 1980s action films–The Terminator and Commando–and The Punisher is a well-edited action film. It’s Goldblatt’s direction. He doesn’t know how to frame a shot, doesn’t know how to move a camera, doesn’t know how to direct actors. His previous directing experience including second-unit work on Robocop and it shows in The Terminator. There are some very Robocop-influenced shots in the film… The lack of good framing hurts The Punisher the most (except the terrible score), since there’s only one bad principal performance–Nancy Everhard is way too spunky. The rest of the performances are good. Jeroen Krabbé is particularly excellent in the film–oh, another problem with the film, though it’s not really its fault–the costumes, bad 1980s jackets and such. Sorry. Krabbé wears a terrible denim jacket at the end and I couldn’t let it go. But anyway, he’s great as the crime boss. Louis Gossett Jr. is great as well, as the Punisher’s old partner. As for Dolph… Dolph’s pretty good. He’s not great (his accent breaks in at a few inopportune moments), but he’s got a few great scenes in the film, particularly when he’s working with kids and he and Gossett have a good scene together. He also manages to deliver the Punisher sound bites well.

There’s a certain amount of right-headedness working for the film. The wrong-headedness, which runs rampant of course, includes the Punisher running around with Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum. It looks really silly. The film works because of the writing. Boaz Yakin has probably dropped the credit from his filmography (maybe not though, I mean, Dirty Dancing 2 is on there), but it’s a well-constructed script. The film moves fast (though it’s not particularly engaging for much of the middle), slowing down for the occasional action sequence, but Yakin gives the characters some meat, particularly Gossett’s. He lets Gossett tell a character-defining story, a device I always like. Given how much Garth Ennis’s relatively recent (three years?) handling of the Punisher character has changed my view of the character, its limits and its possibilities, Yakin does a great job. The film puts the Punisher alone a lot, something comic book movies have never been comfortable doing, and it works out. Lundgren does make some silly expressions, but the emphasis (and his performance) work out, overall.

There are fifteen more minutes of The Punisher out there (I always expected a special edition DVD to tie-in to the recent adaptation, but it never happened) and they might be what the film needs–more scenes without guns. The film’s a difficult proposition in the first place and the handling of it, given its era and the budget and the cast and crew, has a lot of problems. So its relative successes become prominent. They make it a memorable film, which is odd–remembering a Dolph Lundgren film because it works… to a degree.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Goldblatt; written by Boaz Yakin, based on the Marvel Comics character created by Gerry Conway, John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru; director of photography, Ian Baker; edited by Tim Wellburn; music by Dennis Dreith; production designer, Norma Moriceau; produced by Robert Mark Kamen; released by New World Pictures.

Starring Dolph Lundgren (Frank Castle), Louis Gossett Jr. (Jake Berkowitz), Jeroen Krabbé (Gianni Franco), Kim Miyori (Lady Tanaka), Bryan Marshall (Dino Moretti), Nancy Everhard (Sam Leary), Barry Otto (Shake), Brian Rooney (Tommy Franco) and Zoshka Mizak (Tanaka’s Daughter).


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The Freshman (1925, Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor)

The Freshman has one of the most peculiar approaches to storytelling I’ve seen. It has very little establishing exposition–a few lines on a title card about maybe four of those exposition title cards throughout–and its scenes are gag-centered and the film is these gags strung together. Maybe the approach isn’t so peculiar (arguably, it’s the same approach used in say… The Waterboy), but The Freshman is successful and other films with such strings are not.

Most of the success is due to Harold Lloyd. He plays an incoming freshman desperate to be popular, but he’s full of geeky ideas of college he’s picked up from a movie. The Freshman is so lean, it doesn’t even bother giving Lloyd fellow geeks to hang around (he’s the star after all), just the antagonists, who vary in terms of hostility. There’s only one real bully in the film, actually, but it’s not too concentrated on Lloyd making friends with specific folks, just in general. Also in The Freshman is the touching love story between Lloyd and a town girl, played by Jobyna Ralston. There’s little tension to the love story–by the hour-mark, the two are a couple–and it gives Lloyd his confidant, as well a greater goal.

The gags vary in terms of athleticism. There’s a football game and a football practice and I kept remembering M*A*S*H throughout those scenes, but otherwise Lloyd’s not doing much in the way of acrobatics. The comedy’s not particularly physical and it made me wonder why if the film even qualifies as “slapstick.” It’s a real achievement how affecting the film ends up being, given how hard-pressed I am to think of any characters besides Lloyd and Ralston’s who leave any impression. Besides the two of them, I think the football coach gets the most screen time, though he’s not really a character….

Lloyd’s films are finally readily available (I remember, when I worked at a video store in the late 1990s, they were not, nor was there any hope for them to be) and The Freshman is a good entry point to silent films for newcomers. The Freshman moves incredibly fast–since it is that gag string–and it’s constantly entertaining. It does demand close attention, as Lloyd’s a busy comedian, but in structure, it has more in common with modern comedies than other silent comedies do.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor; written by Taylor, John Grey, Tim Whelan and Ted Wilde; director of photography, Walter Lundin; edited by Allen McNeil; produced by Harold Lloyd; released by Pathé.

Starring Harold Lloyd (The Freshman), Jobyna Ralston (Peggy), Brooks Benedict (The College Cad), James Anderson (The College Hero), Hazel Kenner (The College Belle), Joseph Harrington (The College Tailor) and Pat Harmon (The Football Coach).


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