Tag Archives: Clea DuVall

Lizzie Borden Took an Ax (2014, Nick Gomez)

A horrific crime. An infamous suspect. An unrelenting prospector and his search for the truth. Or not. I mean, technically most of the above statements could be used to describe Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, but none of them accurately captures the ninety-one minute TV movie.

There is some time spent on the crime. But Stephen Kay’s insipid teleplay already assumes Lizzie Borden’s guilt. It’s not about how or why Borden (Christina Ricci in a vacant performance) might have done the deed, but it’s also not much about how Ricci “got away with it.” There’s a trial sequence. It’s the worst part of the movie, which is saying a lot. Maybe because you finally get to see unrelenting prospector Gregg Henry come up against Kay’s bad writing. The writing lays waste to Henry, who ought to have some phenomenal part and instead doesn’t. According to the film, he doesn’t have much interest in truth. He’s justice-minded, sure, but without any convincing reasons for his passion. Once it’s clear Henry’s not getting any more character or any better scenes, he fades into the background.

Or it’s Steve Cosens’s lousy interior photography at the trial. Henry fades into that drab. But he could’ve had a good part. If the writing were better, if the direction weren’t weak. Director Gomez actually shows some interest at the beginning, when they’re recounting the murders. It’s not effect interest–the way he’ll frame a static shot to bring out the period details–but it’s an interest. It’s better than when he flubs a jump scare. Once he flubs the jump scare, it’s even more all over for Lizzie Borden. There’s just nothing to take seriously about it.

Ricci doesn’t have a character to play. Kay and Gomez have so little interest in Borden as a protagonist, they’re unwilling to commit to any characterization. At least Clea DuVall, as Ricci’s sister, gets to have emotional breakdowns. Ricci isn’t even allowed affect. No personality, no affect. Gomez’s direction is really bad. It’s goofy TV movie stuff a lot of the time, but it’s a goofy TV movie script so what else is he going to do with it, but Gomez doesn’t even help the actors. It’s so bad.

Also contributing to the endless depths of bad is the soundtrack. Lizzie Borden, set in 1892 New Jersey, has a hip, modern, country-twinged white man blues rock soundtrack. No women, however. The trappings of Ricci’s nineteenth century female are best exemplified through crappy songs. That anachronism is the only one in the movie. Unless you count Kay’s unbelievable court proceedings as anachronistic.

The guys have better parts. Shawn Doyle and Billy Campbell get through Lizzie Borden unscathed. They don’t try to hard, they phone it in, but they phone it in professionally. The parts are also better because they’re infinitely thin. Campbell’s the family lawyer who’s now defending Ricci. You’d think he might have some reaction to it. But no.

Oh. Right. The trial. The trial is terrible. The writing’s terrible, the direction is terrible. Gomez can’t get any intensity out of the proceedings, partially because Kay’s a bad writer, but also because there’s nothing to be intense about. The case hasn’t been made interesting. The characters haven’t been made interesting. It’s just awful stuff.

Stephen McHattie is the father. Historically, he seems like he was a bastard. Kay and Gomez make McHattie a bit of a grumbler, but he’s no bastard. Ricci might be a succubus though. It’s discomforting to what degree Gomez and Kay refuse to empathize with or even consider Ricci’s reality.

There are some terrible small supporting performances but it’s hard to blame the cast. It’s all Gomez and Kay.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Nick Gomez; written by Stephen Kay; director of photography, Steve Cosens; edited by Henk Van Eeghen; music by Tree Adams; production designer, James McAteer; produced by Michael Mahoney; aired by Lifetime.

Starring Christina Ricci (Lizzie Borden), Clea DuVall (Emma Borden), Gregg Henry (Hosea Knowlton), Stephen McHattie (Andrew Borden), Shawn Doyle (Marshall Hilliard), Sara Botsford (Abby Morse Borden), Hannah Emily Anderson (Bridget Sullivan), Andrea Runge (Alice Russell), and Billy Campbell (Andrew Jennings).


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But I’m a Cheerleader (1999, Jamie Babbit)

But I’m a Cheerleader is too short. It runs eighty-five minutes, which would be fine if the narrative fit into director Babbit’s affected, aspirationally camp style. But Brian Peterson’s script is front heavy. And Jules Labarthe’s cinematography is too flat. Rachel Kamerman’s production design is loud, but Labarthe shoots it too shallow. He’s also not great at lighting actors between shots. Even if he were, Cecily Rhett wouldn’t be good at cutting those shots.

Cheerleader is utterly sincere, which is great, but Babbit and Peterson don’t take the film through that sincerity as it develops. After a deliberately paced two-thirds, all of a sudden Cheerleader is in a rush to finish. The script has taken a traditional romantic comedy direction–down to a deus ex conclusion so spared down it utterly lacks the needed spectacle. Peterson’s script doesn’t lay the groundwork for it until the second half, which is a whole other problem. The film doesn’t flow well.

It wouldn’t help if Cheerleader accomplished affected camp. It doesn’t need to be camp. It accomplishes something else entirely, this amazing relationship between Natasha Lyonne and Clea DuVall, which turns out to be the point of the script. Only it doesn’t seem like it was always the point of the script, because the original point of the script was Lyonne’s character development; her personal growth arc gives way to traditional rom-com stuff.

Lyonne’s a high school cheerleader who finds herself whisked away to a “brainwash the gay away” camp. Parents Bud Cort and Mink Stole are upset previously prim, proper, and Protestant Lyonne now wants to eat tofu. And then there’s her Melissa Etheridge poster. So they call RuPaul (out of drag and quite funny) to consult. He’s an “ex-gay” who works at the camp (run by Cathy Moriarty).

But Lyonne doesn’t think she’s gay. So there’s character development on that plotline. And there’s development on her plotline with her parents. And there’s development on her plotline with DuVall, the semi-goth rich girl who isn’t trying to get rid of her gay, just learn how to hide it. The last plotline doesn’t just tie into Lyonne’s own sexuality plotline, but also her parents plotline and her life and values in general. In the midst of the affected camp, with Lyonne looking like a sixties cheerleader doll, she and DuVall have these terribly lighted, terribly edited, wonderful moments.

Lyonne’s fine in the lead. She gets better as her character becomes more proactive, but DuVall’s spellbinding. She’s (maybe) the object of Lyonne’s affection and Babbit does a great job presenting her and developing her from Lyonne’s perspective. While it’s not camp or affected and often feels like a different movie, their chemistry makes Cheerleader quite special for a while.

Then comes Peterson’s disastrous third act. It happens gradually too, almost forecasting itself. There’s just no way for Babbit and Peterson to get the film across the finish line in the eighty-five minutes so they grab what they can and wrap it up quick. Peterson throws out distractions in almost every scene–which can be cute, like ex-ex-gays Wesley Mann and Richard Moll bickering–but don’t end up doing anything. It’s filler, because the film’s lost Lyonne’s character development. She’s a protagonist with a stalled arc.

Moriarty’s all right. The script stops giving her anything extra after the first act setup and, given the outrageously pink (and overtly homoerotic) mansion interiors, Moriarty should have a lot extra. Instead, she just has son Eddie Cibrian, who’s a buff temptation for all the gay boys at the camp. There’s a big supporting cast of “campers” and they’re all fine. Melanie Lynskey gets more to do than most, she’s good.

Babbit wants to have the freedoms of affectation while retaining sincerity. Only Cheerleader doesn’t get to sincerity through affectation, it’s something Babbit and Peterson just drop into the affectation and try to make room. It doesn’t work, which is a shame, because DuVall and Lyonne deserve a better film. Babbit seems like she wants to deliver one too.

But I’m a Cheerleader is cute and fun. And sweet. But it could’ve been something much better.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jamie Babbit; screenplay by Brian Peterson, based on a story by Babbit; director of photography, Jules Labarthe; edited by Cecily Rhett; music by Pat Irwin; production designer, Rachel Kamerman; produced by Andrea Sperling and Leanna Creel; released by Lions Gate Entertainment.

Starring Natasha Lyonne (Megan), Clea DuVall (Graham), Cathy Moriarty (Mary Brown), Melanie Lynskey (Hilary), RuPaul (Mike), Bud Cort (Peter), Mink Stole (Nancy), Dante Basco (Dolph), and Eddie Cibrian (Rock).


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Ghosts of Mars (2001, John Carpenter)

Ghost of Mars has a lot of earnestness going for it. Director Carpenter needs quite a bit his cast and he supports them even when they’re clearly not able to succeed–especially lead Natasha Henstridge. He takes the project seriously, his cast takes it seriously. Sure, it doesn’t exactly work out, but it’s not from lack of effort.

Some of the problem is the editing. Carpenter and editor Paul C. Warschilka do these crossfades, which might be an attempt to obfuscate the low budget. And Carpenter pushes with the crossfades at the start. Then he drops them once the action gets going. They’re only for the lead-up to the action, when Ghosts is more horror than action. At least in terms of strange creatures lurking in the night and Carpenter trying to disturb the viewer instead of enthrall them. In a strange turn, instead of tasking cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe with hiding the low budget and instilling mood, Carpenter relies on Warschilka.

It actually might be for the best, given the acting.

So Henstridge. While she’s not good and she’s sometimes bad, she tries hard at playing her part. She’s a badass future cop on Mars who has to save the day, teaming up with Ice Cube’s outlaw. Cube’s all right. He maybe gives the best lead performance, but he doesn’t have much competition. Jason Statham isn’t any good, though he eventually becomes likable. Clea DuVall is in a similar situation. She’s not good–her part is even worse than Statham’s–but she’s immediately likable. Thanks to the editing. Joanna Cassidy’s probably the best performance and she’s very supporting. Pam Grier sort of troopers through it. She knows how to do the material, she knows how to direct attention.

But then there’s the narrative construction. Carpenter doesn’t waste time establishing the characters as sympathetic, instead he uses a framing device to interest the viewer in the story. Again, it’s somewhat effective just because it covers Henstridge’s acting failings. It also shakes up the narrative a bit. Carpenter’s not as interested in being interesting as encouraging interest. Not just in terms of the rising action, but in the ground situation. Ghosts of Mars goes out of its way to be unique, even when it doesn’t help the narrative or the character development. The setup for the Mars society is all unnecessary filler. It distracts and just gives the actors problems.

Overall, Ghosts of Mars isn’t a success, but it’s a decent enough diversion. Carpenter and the cast put enough into it to get over the many bumps in the production. It’s more of an accomplishment, given its constraints, than anything else.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Carpenter; written by Larry Sulkis and Carpenter; director of photography, Gary B. Kibbe; edited by Paul C. Warschilka; music by Carpenter; production designer, William A. Elliott; produced by Sandy King; released by Screen Gems.

Starring Natasha Henstridge (Lieutenant Melanie Ballard), Ice Cube (Desolation Williams), Jason Statham (Sgt. Jericho Butler), Pam Grier (Commander Helena Braddock), Clea DuVall (Bashira Kincaid), Liam Waite (Michael Descanso), Joanna Cassidy (Whitlock) and Rosemary Forsyth (Inquisitor).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | JOHN CARPENTER, PART 4: THE MUNDANE YEARS.

Argo (2012, Ben Affleck)

Ben Affleck is a calm, assured director; Argo is something of a distant film. He never lets himself take the spotlight, but he also doesn’t let any of the supporting cast take it either. He casts the film beautifully–whether it’s Clea DuVall and Scoot McNairy as some of the people Affleck’s trying to rescue or John Goodman and Alan Arkin as Affleck’s Hollywood sidekicks–every performance in Argo’s perfect.

And Kyle Chandler too. Can’t forget him. He’s amazing in his handful of scenes.

But the perfection–the end credits roll with pictures of the actual people and the film went out of its way to cast on look–comes at a price. Affleck never lets loose. Every moment of Alexander Desplat’s score fits, but he never gets enthusiastic. The most stylish thing in the film is the seventies era Warner logo at the opening. Otherwise, Affleck is way too precise.

The result is an exceptional docudrama; but Affleck’s methodical and procedural approach hurts it a little. The one place Affleck does create something singular is with his recreations of the Iran hostage crisis. If his character’s attempts at rescuing the stranded people is the film’s main emphasis, the recreation comes second. The plight of the people? A distant third.

The postscript has the film’s most personality. Director Affleck gleefully calls back to his own childhood; he does it in a very controlled setting, however. He never lets the technical enthusiasm loose to infect Argo, which is too bad.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ben Affleck; screenplay by Chris Terrio, based in part on a book by Tony Mendez and an article by Joshuah Bearman; director of photography, Rodrigo Prieto; edited by William Goldenberg; music by Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Sharon Seymour; produced by Grant Heslov, Affleck and George Clooney; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ben Affleck (Tony Mendez), Bryan Cranston (Jack O’Donnell), Alan Arkin (Lester Siegel), John Goodman (John Chambers), Victor Garber (Ken Taylor), Tate Donovan (Bob Anders), Clea DuVall (Cora Lijek), Scoot McNairy (Joe Stafford), Rory Cochrane (Lee Schatz), Christopher Denham (Mark Lijek), Kerry Bishé (Kathy Stafford), Kyle Chandler (Hamilton Jordan), Chris Messina (Malinov), Zeljko Ivanek (Robert Pender), Titus Welliver (Bates), Keith Szarabajka (Adam Engell), Bob Gunton (Cyrus Vance), Richard Kind (Max Klein), Richard Dillane (OSS Officer Nicholls), Omid Abtahi (Reza Borhani), Page Leong (Pat Taylor), Farshad Farahat (Azizi Checkpoint #3) and Sheila Vand (Sahar).


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