Tag Archives: Jeremy Thomas

Creation (2009, Jon Amiel)

Creation is the not the story of how Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) and the ghost of his oldest daughter (Martha West) collaborated in the writing of On the Origin of Species. That story would make a much better movie.

The film opens with a title card explaining it will be about Darwin writing that book, released in 1859. Some conversation early on places the present action in 1858. So a year. At this point, it’s been twenty years since he published Voyage of the Beagle. Some of those adventures show up in flashback–a flashback’s flashback–as Bettany recounts stories to West.

Well, at the beginning. Then not. The Beagle flashbacks are the biggest budgeted sequences in Creation and director Amiel treats them as set pieces. Only then such flashbacks (in flashbacks) stop and so do set pieces. Instead, it’s just Bettany hanging around at home, making churchy wife Jennifer Connelly real upset with his blasphemous manuscript and research. It seems like this narrative floundering is covering a lot of time but it turns out it isn’t. Amiel and screenwriter John Collee are terrible at pacing. Why do they need pacing when they can have Bettany talk to West (not an actual ghost, just a narrative contrivance). If only the exposition moved the film along.

After a promising first act, Creation settles into that “ghost” story. Amiel and Collee tease out details of West’s death in the present while flashing back, at first, to unrelated family bonding scenes. The flashbacks eventually get confusing because Bettany’s makeup for Darwin age forty-nine is bald with stringy hair, very pasty skin, a paunch. The film skips back seven and eight years to the West flashbacks–those seven actual years in between Darwin’s daughter’s death and the Species’s completion are apparently empty of worthy story material. Darwin age forty-two makeup is bald with stringy hair, mildly pasty skin, general nineteenth century upper class flab. It’s not hard to tell them apart, but only because Bettany’s good. But in terms of filmmaking–Amiel’s direction, Jess Hall’s flat photography–well, it’s good they have Bettany.

Also because it’s an entirely thankless part. Collee’s script is deceptively worse than first impression. It’s not bland biopic stuff, it’s bland biopic stuff without any characters. Amiel, whose direction is never better than mediocre (outside the special effects sequences of animal decomposition and so on), he at least tries occasionally. He really likes his close-ups. So the actors can spout either ominous lines (because of hiding daughter West’s fate in flashback) or exposition.

While Bettany’s got it bad, he at least gets to walk around in his make-up. Connelly is left to take care of the kids and give disapproving looks when Bettany doesn’t take his “war on God” seriously. And Connelly never really gets a role. She ends up with one poorly written, well-acted scene. It’s exceptionally impressive filmmaking from Amiel, Hall, and editor Melanie Oliver. It’s this entirely manipulative, cheap, soapy scene and it still works. Because Bettany and Connelly. Connelly gets some character motivation at what might as well be the end of the movie. There’s still more movie and it’s bad, but that moment is when Creation could’ve got out in the black.

But it doesn’t. Because Amiel and Collee are entirely artless with Creation. They want all to benefits of melodramatic contrivances without ever embracing those contrivances. There’s also the issue of how the film characterizes the religious. Caricaturizes. Connelly and Jeremy Northam (extended cameoing as the village clergy) are inappropriately villainized. But meaning they need to be villainized differently. There’s no dramatic fodder in it as is.

Bettany’s good. Not great. Better than decent or fine. West is decent. Connelly is problematic; the part’s crap. Northam’s cameo is too thin. Ditto Toby Jones. He’s bombastic though. Energy is a lot in Creation, as the film stops producing any once the second act hits. Benedict Cumberbatch is good. He tries.

If there’s a great film about the final year of Darwin writing Species, Creation sure ain’t it. Amiel’s just too bland a director to save the film from the script. It could’ve at least maintained mediocre, but as it becomes more and more clear how bad Collee’s plotting and pacing is going to get… well, mediocre’s way out of reach.

The awful Christopher Young score doesn’t help either.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jon Amiel; screenplay by John Collee, based on a story by Amiel and Collee and a book by Randal Keynes; director of photography, Jess Hall; edited by Melanie Oliver; music by Christopher Young; production designer, Laurence Dorman; produced by Jeremy Thomas; released by Icon Film Distribution.

Starring Paul Bettany (Charles Darwin), Jennifer Connelly (Emma Darwin), Martha West (Annie Darwin), Jeremy Northam (Reverend Innes), Benedict Cumberbatch (Joseph Hooker), Jim Carter (Parslow), Bill Paterson (Dr. Gully), and Toby Jones (Thomas Huxley).


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Blood and Wine (1996, Bob Rafelson)

Boiling them down, three things ruin Blood and Wine. Stephen Dorff, the script and the approach. The last two are complicated, because it’s hard to see determine where the script and the approach differ. Blood and Wine was, at the time of its release, promoted as the conclusion of an informal trilogy for Rafelson and Nicholson–Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens and this one. It isn’t. Blood and Wine is no character study. It’s an attempt at extracting the thriller elements from a film noir. In that aspect, it’s at least interesting. Rafelson gives the characters, who are still essentially archetypes, some more time to become full. Jennifer Lopez gets the most of this attention, playing the femme fatale, only with depth. Lopez’s Cuban accent comes and goes, but her performance is strong more often than it is weak.

Rafelson’s direction is brilliant. Nicholson is great. Judy Davis is great. Michael Caine is astounding–it’s hard to believe he gave this astounding performance then almost immediately started hacking it out. Seeing Dorff with these actors–though the majority of his scenes are with Lopez, who’s far better than he is, but not astronomically–is uncomfortable. Watching Davis (in her, unfortunately, glorified cameo) act opposite him… it’s incredible she was able to keep a straight face. She’s giving this layered, textured, beautiful performance and he’s got less screen presence than a wilted tulip. He’s just awful. Much of Blood and Wine can be spent imagining someone else in his role and how much more successful the film would have turned out.

But it isn’t just Dorff being a terrible actor, it’s how loose the script gets when it concerns he, Davis (as his mother) and Nicholson (as his step-father). Dorff’s an indeterminate, younger than Lopez in the film–at times it seems like he should be a teenager, then he drinks a beer in a bar so it seems like he should be at least twenty-one. The script makes him hostile to Nicholson–and turns him into an adaptive killing machine like Michael Biehn in The Terminator–so Blood and Wine flops when it tries to position the two as some kind of (albeit dysfunctional) father and son.

The scenes where Nicholson is caring for Davis, who he mistreats, are stunning. Or when he and Caine (as his partner in crime) are on a road trip, peerless. The scene where Nicholson cares for the ailing Caine… it’s wonderful. It’s a shame the film acts like Dorff and his romancing of his step-father’s girlfriend Lopez (which fails because Lopez isn’t visibly any older than Dorff) is a better plot thread.

The end of the film–it’s hard to say if Blood and Wine is too long, because it’s entirely too crappy in general by the final third, to really concentrate on assigning specific blame–is a misfire, almost a damning one. I had to force myself to remember how well Rafelson made the film and what beautiful performances sixty percent of the cast turned in.

Both Harold Perrineau and Mike Starr are good in smaller parts–especially Perrineau. Michal Lorenc’s music is wonderful, as is Newton Thomas Sigel’s photography. The editing–from Steven Cohen–occasionally has some bumps, like maybe Rafelson didn’t get enough coverage.

It’s an incredible disappointment.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Bob Rafelson; screenplay by Nick Villiers and Alison Cross, based on a story by Villiers and Rafelson; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by Steven Cohen; music by Michal Lorenc; production designer, Richard Sylbert; produced by Jeremy Thomas; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Jack Nicholson (Alex), Stephen Dorff (Jason), Jennifer Lopez (Gabby), Judy Davis (Suzanne), Michael Caine (Vic), Harold Perrineau (Henry), Robyn Peterson (Dina Reese), Mike Starr (Mike) and John Seitz (Mr. Frank Reese).


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Everybody Wins (1990, Karel Reisz)

What a weird movie. Debra Winger cannot act. Don’t know exactly why Terms of Endearment worked, but she cannot act. She’s really terrible in this one. Arthur Miller adapted his play, which was from 1982–except it was a one act play. Somewhere in the adaptation, Everybody Wins becomes a ludicrous attempt at a thriller. It’s set in a Connecticut town, which looks a lot like Pennsylvania in the film, and Reisz gives the setting absolutely no personality.

Winger convinces Nick Nolte to investigate a case, except she’s a total flake and doesn’t tell him anything about the case until the last fifteen minutes. So, right away, it’s unbelievable for Nolte, playing a renowned investigator, would put up with Winger. Most of their scenes involve her hiding something from him, but he sticks around… because if he left, it’d be a one act movie. Will Patton shows up for a bit and he’s fine. He and Nolte have an interesting relationship for a few scenes. Poor Jack Warden stuck in a nothing role, just to pop in whenever you’ve forgotten he’s in the movie.

It’s not really a case of the film being predictable, but once some of the clues come out, it’s unbelievable Nolte the investigator wouldn’t piece anything together. Except he pieces absolutely nothing together–in the entire film–which dismisses it as a mystery or detective film. There’s no real jeopardy involved, so it’s not a thriller either. Winger’s so terrible it’s not a romance. The film’s only interesting with Nolte and Patton and Nolte and Judith Ivey, who plays his sister (the character’s got an interesting history, but none of it, apparently, gets to come through in the film).

I’ve seen Reisz and Nolte’s other collaboration, Who’ll Stop the Rain, and I guess Everybody Wins is better. Everybody Wins is shorter and, for the first half, it’s just boring, not particularly bad. In fact, I think some of the beginning might even be good. Nolte’s does a good job, but it’s definitely one of his autopilot performances. Reisz has some good moments (just can’t make the setting stick until the end, when it’s too late to fix the film). There’s even homage to Who’ll Stop the Rain, which I can’t believe anyone would pick up on, but who knows, maybe there’s somebody else out there going through all of MGM’s Nick Nolte releases too.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Karel Reisz; screenplay by Arthur Miller; director of photography, Ian Blake; edited by John Bloom; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Peter Larkin; produced by Jeremy Thomas; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Debra Winger (Angela Crispini), Nick Nolte (Tom O’Toole), Will Patton (Jerry), Judith Ivey (Connie), Kathleen Wilhoite (Amy), Jack Warden (Judge Harry Murdoch), Frank Converse (Charlie Haggerty) and Frank Military (Felix).


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