Tag Archives: Columbia Pictures

The Critic (1963, Ernest Pintoff)

At just about three minutes of “action,” The Critic is the perfect length. It opens with some abstract animation–black shapes dancing around variously colored backgrounds, as active (versus tranquil) classical music plays. The designs get more complex, but for the first thirty seconds (so fifteen percent of the action), Critic plays it straight. It’s some abstract animation short. Not too complicated, but lively.

And then Mel Brooks asks, “What the hell is this?”

And The Critic starts on its path to sublimity.

For a while, it’s just Brooks talking about the action on screen. Dot moving over here, dot moving over there. Some shapes getting jiggy.

Brooks’s character is a cranky, impatient old Russian guy and we’re hearing his thoughts. It’s perfectly fine. Brooks is funny, it’s not going to go on very long, it’s all good.

Only we’re not hearing his thoughts. Or, more, we are hearing his thoughts. But so are all the other people watching the short film with him.

He’s in a theater, talking out loud. That detail gives The Critic the extra oomph it needs and pushes it up and over. It’s awesome.

Brooks ad-libbed the whole thing too. Apparently, the filmmakers didn’t even show him the short before he recorded.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Ernest Pintoff; written by Mel Brooks; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Mel Brooks.


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The Buddy Holly Story (1978, Steve Rash)

There are three different things going on throughout The Buddy Holly Story. Well, more than three but there are the three big different things. There’s Robert Gittler’s screenplay, which has one narrative gesture for most of the film. There’s Gary Busey’s lead performance, which is resolute in both its sincerity and its anti-inscrutability. And there’s Rash’s direction, which enables both the script and the performance, but also leverages them to manage the scale.

Rash has a very determined narrative distance with The Buddy Holly Story. It’s Buddy Holly’s story. It’s Busey’s story. If he’s not in a scene, he’s about to be. Even when it’s not his scene, it ends up being his scene, because it’s all about him. Well, his performance. But Busey doesn’t do exposition. The performance doesn’t suggest a propensity for it, the script doesn’t pursue it. The other members in the band are there for exposition. Lovable standing bassist Charles Martin Smith and big but not dumb drummer Don Stroud. Even Amy Johnston, as Busey’s hometown girlfriend, expounds so Busey doesn’t. So the script’s got its own distance to its protagonist.

Because what the film becomes–and stays for quite a while–is these three guys journey into and through stardom. But not the pluses of stardom and not even the minuses (they’re implied and off-screen). They’re moving through the practicalities of it all. They’re at an information disadvantage, going from Lubbock to New York City by way of Nashville. Their actions can influence the trajectory but those actions tend to be reactions. Bluntly, the film positions the band as underdogs, even though they’re objectively not.

American music in the fifties had an enumeration of creatively significant artists working independently, simultaneously, and in both active and passive conjunction. Lots of big things happened in music, including Buddy Holly and some of the other musical acts portrayed in the film. Rash and Gittler consciously keep the characters’ anticipation and trepidation separate from the audience’s. The film is very sad. But it’s not sentimental. It’s sad. It’s guardedly, but enthusiastically nostalgic.

But it’s also very softly lighted–by Stevan Larner–on these often empty sets. Joel Schiller’s production design is great but outside musical set pieces, a lot of the film is just the three guys in sparse interiors. Usually without natural light sources. If there were fluorescent lights all over the place in the fifties, The Buddy Holly Story would be mostly in fluorescent lighted rooms with Busey discovering how far his creative ambitions can go and how to get them there and Stroud and Smith trying to keep up.

There are also bigger scenes, but they’re near vignettes. Like when Busey and the boys go play the Apollo and the white manager (Dick O’Neill) is terrified of putting up the three white boys from Texas for his black customers. The micro-subplot where Busey and the boys tour with Sam Cooke (Paul Mooney). They’re these clumps of larger scale scenes with the band scenes–which do eventually involve other supporting cast members, but as background–handling the narrative progress.

Then in the mid-to-late second act the film spotlights Busey as he branches off from the musical journey plot line to romance Maria Richwine. And the spotlight stays on Busey even away from those scenes. The film doesn’t really change its narrative distance, just its focus… by fading out around Busey. But never isolating him.

It’s a neat trick. Rash and Gittler do a lot with a lot. They’re even able to get away with the obviously historical location footage from establishing shots later on. It’s almost a gradual trust issue. The film doesn’t exactly lull its audience, but it invites a comfortable relationship.

Because the film is a true story and it’s a tragedy and even if you’re going into it completely unaware as a viewer, the filmmakers are aware and they take on certain responsibilities. And everyone making Buddy Holly Story–Rash, Gittler, Busey, Stroud, Smith, and whoever else–are embracing those responsibilities. The film’s astoundingly self-confident from the first scene. It’s never showy but it never meanders either. It doesn’t wander. Rash is guiding that flow, with a variety of styles, and each one has to hit just the right tone.

Not always easy when there are budgetary restrictions. Some of those interiors are sparser than they ought to be.

When the Story gets to the end, the film does just the right thing. It’s not an entirely unexpected thing, it’s not a surprise, but it’s neither the most or least obvious. But then Rash and Gittler haven’t been worried about the audience’s expectations, they’ve been tracking Busey’s. So it’s sort of the inevitable right thing. And you want it to go on forever.

The acting’s all good or better. Busey’s phenomenal. Then there’s the lip-synching. There isn’t any. So that enthusiastic nostalgia without any betraying of the verisimilitude and whatnot. Because Rash and Gittler are taking it seriously.

So it’s like it should be a surprise The Buddy Holly Story is such a success, but it also couldn’t be anything but.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steve Rash; screenplay by Robert Gittler, based on a story by Alan Swyer and a book by John Goldrosen; director of photography, Stevan Larner; edited by David E. Blewitt; music by Joe Renzetti; production designer, Joel Schiller; produced by Fred Bauer; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Gary Busey (Buddy), Maria Richwine (Maria), Charles Martin Smith (Ray Bob), Don Stroud (Jesse), Conrad Janis (Ross Turner), William Jordan (Riley), Amy Johnston (Cindy Lou), Dick O’Neill (Sol Gittler), Neva Patterson (Mrs. Ella Holly), Arch Johnson (Mr. Lawrence Holly), Gloria Irizarry (Mrs. Santiago), and Paul Mooney (Sam Cooke).


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La Bamba (1987, Luis Valdez)

La Bamba is a perfectly adequate biopic of fifties rock and roll singer Ritchie Valens, who died at seventeen in a plane crash. Very twenty-five year-old Lou Diamond Phillips plays Valens. He’s adequate. He lip-synchs all right, though the performances (Los Lobos covers Valens’s songs) almost never sound right acoustically. When Phillips shows off his skills to his garage band, for instance, it clearly wasn’t recorded in a garage. But whatever. It’s perfectly adequate.

Ditto the supporting cast. Esai Morales is Phillips’s older half-brother, who’s narratively responsible for everything in the movie–he moves Phillips and mom Rosanna DeSoto (who’s obviously way too young to be their mother) from a migrant community in Northern California down to the Los Angeles area at the beginning of the movie. He brings Elizabeth Peña along too. Peña was Phillips’s love interest before Morales arrives. One look at Morales, however, and she dumps the ostensibly younger Phillips. By the time the film’s jumped ahead after the move, Morales is an abusive drunken pot runner.

Despite bookending the movie and being responsible for so much, Morales doesn’t get to do much. No one really gets to do much in director Valdez’s script, of course. Morales has amazing illustrating abilities, which La Bamba promotes into a second act subplot to apparently fill time, because it goes nowhere. It’s a vehicle for Morales’s eventual breakdown about being jealous of Phillips. It’s a dramatically inert breakdown; it’s fairly clear early on no one’s going to give a standout performance or have some amazing part. Sure, Morales has more to do than almost anyone else, but Valdez doesn’t give him anything. Valdez also isn’t great at directing his actors.

He’s adequate. Enough.

Besides Morales and Peña (who really gets squat), DeSoto doesn’t have an arc outside being Phillips’s fiercely supportive mom. She has three younger children she’s raising, who she never has any significant scenes with. Or even insignificant ones with the baby, who disappears after a while. Then there’s Danielle von Zerneck as Phillips’s girlfriend. Her racist dad (Sam Anderson) doesn’t like her dating a Hispanic kid, though it’s never clear the dad finds out he’s Hispanic just brown. He eventually has problems with Phillips for playing rock and roll more than anything else.

von Zerneck and Phillips have no chemistry but muscle through their subplot–it’s barely a subplot, she’s a narrative prop–all right. The period costumes and cars do some of the heavy lifting; Vincent M. Cresciman’s production design is good.

Joe Pantoliano is similarly fine–and similarly a narrative prop–as the record guy who discovers Phillips.

Valdez’s direction, outside his disinterest in his actors’ performances and some blocking issues cinematographer Adam Greenberg really should’ve corrected, is… you guessed it… perfectly adequate. When Phillips finally performs the title track, the scene’s more effective than usual but only because, well, it’s La Bamba. It’s a great song.

Unfortunately La Bamba, the movie, is lukewarm. And really, really comfortable never being anything but.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Luis Valdez; director of photography, Adam Greenberg; edited by Don Brochu and Sheldon Kahn; music by Carlos Santana and Miles Goodman; production designer, Vincent M. Cresciman; produced by Bill Borden and Taylor Hackford; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Lou Diamond Phillips (Ritchie), Esai Morales (Bob), Rosanna DeSoto (Connie), Elizabeth Peña (Rosie), Danielle von Zerneck (Donna), and Joe Pantoliano (Bob Keane).


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Venom (2018, Ruben Fleischer)

For most of the movie, Venom’s greatest strength is its potential. It certainly seems like lead Tom Hardy can do anything but as things progress, it becomes more and more obvious the potential is an illusion. Director Fleischer just hasn’t done a big action sequence yet, so the movie hasn’t shown its hand–Fleischer’s action sequences are awful–and there’s literally nothing Hardy can do. He’s along for the ride down the proverbial drain.

Of course, even when Venom seems like it might go well–and for a while, it’s shockingly all right–there’s the problem of the villain. Riz Ahmed is a billionaire super-genius who’s funding space exploration to bring organisms back to Earth to try to cure cancer. All of his experiments involve killing San Francisco’s homeless population and Ahmed has one of the worst written god complexes in motion picture history. Venom’s script is frequently bad, but the better actors work through it, as they get no help from Fleischer who’s concentrating on… something. Nothing good, nothing relevant, but presumably something. Ahmed’s terrible though. He’s the worst performance until the “surprise”–but credited–end credits cameo. And Ahmed’s quite bad throughout, so for the surprise cameo to be worse? Well, it’s an achievement of sorts.

The movie starts with a private spaceship crashing in Malaysia. Ahmed’s spaceship. It picked up some alien lifeforms–symbiotes, which are kind of like CGI slime but never green–and one of them escapes. Meanwhile, Hardy is an investigative reporter with his own TV show, which has opening titles where Hardy rides his motorcycle around San Francisco looking tough.

This opening is not where Venom shows potential. It’s all quite awkward and flat, also introducing Michelle Williams as the fiancée Hardy will betray to get dirt of Ahmed and Jenny Slate as one of Ahmed’s scientists. Once Hardy betrays Williams–for nothing, his network fires him for not brown-nosing Ahmed–Venom skips ahead six months. Hardy is now unemployable, broke, living in a bad neighborhood and a gorgeous, enormous San Francisco apartment, and feeling sorry for himself. And even though he says he’s given up on helping people, he’s really nice to his new supporting cast, primarily homeless lady Melora Walters and convenience store owner Peggy Lu.

It has somehow taken that escaped alien in Malaysia six months to get to an airport, but it’s finally on its way to Frisco to confront Ahmed, which has been its plan since… the second or third scene in the movie. Again, bad script.

Like when Hardy meets up again with Williams, who has moved on and is now dating nice guy surgeon Reid Scott. Though she apparently hasn’t gotten a new job. Because in Venom’s San Francisco, you can apparently just not pay rent.

Eventually Hardy breaks into Ahmed’s brodinagian research facility and picks up a symbiote of his own. Shockingly light security–including no security cameras–and the safety protocols for the hostile alien life forms are rather lax as well. Hardy and the alien talk to each other–Hardy, with some modification, also voices the alien (Venom, who comes from a planet where all the creatures were named by eight year-old boys)–before Ahmed sends his private security force (led by paper thin Scott Haze) after the new partners.

There’s also some stuff where Hardy gets help from Scott and Williams for his alien problem, which is where the film’s best. The character drama isn’t well-written or well-directed, but Hardy, Williams, and Scott all give good performances. So they get it through. They’re all likable, all sympathetic, all wasted.

The movie’s got three big action set pieces, four if you count a motorcycle and drone chase through San Francisco. Incidentally, that chase sequence is where it becomes obvious Fleischer’s never going to deliever good action. It just gets worse after that one. When it’s the alien in control–when the alien takes over, he’s like seven feet-tall and eats people’s heads–the film loses the Hardy grounding, which does help it. It can’t save it, but it does help it. Including Hardy’s voiceover talking to the alien always feels forced. Though the talking between Hardy and the alien always feels forced. Even when Hardy’s good. Crappy dialogue. Again, bad script.

Technically, Venom’s perfectly competent. It’s got no personality, but it’s competent. Well, some of the digital mattes are really bad; the digital effects are never great. Fleischer actually seems to get that shortfall. Even after the movie’s done hiding the shark and Venom is out of the water, the alien is a special effect not a character. He’s always turning back into Hardy in between action requirements.

For the first forty-five minutes, I was surprised how… mediocre it seemed like Venom was going to turn out. Then it started getting bad and just kept getting worse.

Given its subject matter and artistic ambitions (wokka wokka), Venom shouldn’t be a disappointment. But thanks to Fleischer and–to a lesser extent Ahmed)–it sure manages to be one.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ruben Fleischer; screenplay by Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, and Kelly Marcel, based on a story by Pinkner and Rosenberg and the Marvel Comics character created by David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane; director of photography, Matthew Libatique; edited by Alan Baumgarten and Maryann Brandon; music by Ludwig Göransson; production designer, Oliver Scholl; produced by Avi Arad, Amy Pascal, and Matt Tolmach; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tom Hardy (Eddie Brock), Riz Ahmed (Carlton Drake), Michelle Williams (Anne Weying), Jenny Slate (Dr. Dora Skirth), Reid Scott (Dr. Dan Lewis), Peggy Lu (Mrs. Chen), Scott Haze (Treece), and Melora Walters (Maria).


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