Tag Archives: 2stars

Sylvia Scarlett

Way back in 1935 Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant (An Affair to Remember) were to meet for the first time on screen. The results were not what you’d expect given their better remembered history. In fact, there is no romance between the two.

The object of Hepburn’s attention is not Grant but rather Brian Aherne. She and Grant are really more intended as comedy duo along the lines of Abbot and Costello or William Powell and Myrna Loy. But the movie really doesn’t work very well. Even Edmund Gwenn, who plays Hepburn’s father, is wasted in this film as he flails about and attains no sympathy from us, starting with the first scene. 

So, why watch this film at all? Well, it has three interesting aspects to it. Primarily, Hepburn is dressed as a boy for a good part of the film. It is intended to lead to hijinx and hilarity of mistaken intentions and confused sexuality (all with a laugh, of course). It didn’t work then. It works a little better now as gender roles and societal norms have relaxed. A little better. Hepburn is, mostly, a strong character in this story. But there are no guts to the script and barely a good joke, though Hepburn does a game job of jumping back and forth in her makeup and movement. And with Mel Berns make-up, Hepburn almost passes, looking like a young David Bowie in her drag.

The second bit of trivia for this film is Grant. It was, essentially, his breakout. Not with the film itself, but it was the first time his trademark personality on screen was exhibited and noticed. It led to his subsequent stardom.

The final interesting aspect of this film, especially given this summer’s misfires at the box office, was that Sylvia Scarlett was a massive bomb (losing about 350,000 or over 6M in 2017 dollars) when it released. It almost cost Hepburn her career. 3 years later she would return triumphantly, and with Grant again, in Bringing Up Baby (followed in quick succession by Holiday, Philadelphia Story), and then Woman of the Year.

You don’t often get to see what didn’t work from years past. For good reason they tend to fade and be forgotten. In this case, the star power kept it alive until it found an audience, however tenuously. You’d never expect that George Cukor, who would go on to direct My Fair Lady, Philadelphia Story, and Adam’s Rib, just to name a few, was at the helm of this damaged ship. But he did see the spark in the pairing of Grant and Hepburn and got to use it later on.

Sylvia Scarlett is not a great film, even in retrospect. But it is a fascinating piece of film history, with some moments to recommend it. I have to admit, I had to skip a small chunk of the film near the beginning because it was just so uncomfortably bad. But curiosity had me finish it. I also wonder if, in title and nod to theme, they weren’t playing on the previous year’s Marlene Dietrich success: The Scarlet Empress, but I don’t think anyone is left to ask that one anymore.

 

 

Free Fire

So, if Monty Python and Quentin Tarantino had a co-production to recreate the Black Knight of The Holy Grail as a heist gone wrong, you’d get Free Fire. This is an almost ceaselessly vulgar and violent confrontation at (of course) a gun sale gone wrong. Whether that is a good thing for you or not, is going to be a matter of mood and taste.

Director and co-writer Ben Wheatley reteamed with his High-Rise writer, Amy Jump, to bring this blood-fest to screen. The humor is dark and just as often missed the mark as hits it. On the other hand, the sound effects and engineering are really quite amazing. The biggest directing mistake Wheatley made was never giving us an overhead shot of the participants making their way around the killing field. It would have helped a little with the geography of the fight if folks were more easily located.

At the extreme end of the characters are Sharlto Copley (Chappie), Sam Riley (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). Neither plays a believable character, but they certainly do so with abandon. It is the combination of both of them that is the excuse for the mayhem that follows.

As basic tough guys Cillian Murphy (Peaky Blinders), Jack Reynor (Sing Street), Noah Taylor (Deep Water), Babou Ceesay (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), and Michael Smiley (Luther) fill out the gangs. Each feels a bit like stock characters, but none are overly empty of interest.

But the two that really stand out as characters for me were Armie Hammer (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and Brie Larson (Kong: Skull Island). Each clearly has another life somewhere and all manner of things going on under the surface that we never get to understand, but which make their performances interesting rather than just loud.

Generally speaking, this isn’t a film for the weak of stomach or with sensitive hearing (language or gunfire). It, frankly, isn’t a very good film either, but it certainly will have its audience. I did laugh, on occasion, and winced a great deal through moments…even cheered once or twice quietly inside at the demise of a character or two. But there is little story and little to recommend. It is a vignette drawn out in loving detail for 90 minutes of lead filled hell. If that’s for you, then go for it, but there are plenty of better bullet strewn extravaganzas that actually have characters and plots you can latch onto.

Free Fire

Identicals

I don’t mind weird, but I need a little bit of conclusion with my weird to make it pay off. This really didn’t have that.

Simon Pummell’s first fiction feature has the makings of something intriguing and the trappings of a solid, hard science fiction tale, but lacks answers as it spins out the story. It certainly was visually interesting, though his accompanying script was either cleverly minimal or purposely obtuse. The overall result was…head-scratching.

The film is driven by three main actors, of which Nora-Jane Noone (Brooklyn) is the only one who turns in any kind of performance. It isn’t a brilliant performance, but it has levels and change to it. The two main men, Nick Blood (Bletchley Circle, Agents of SHIELD) and Lachlan Nieboer (Charlie Countryman) are wooden at best and never particularly sympathetic. On the other hand, Tony Way (Edge of Tomorrow) turns in a bit performance that lights up the screen briefly.

Ultimately, this story is either hard sf or purely an allegory about inner struggles. It could be both in better hands, but neither manages to come together. Honestly, save yourself the time unless you really like experimental film that leaves you hanging. Mind you, I don’t think this was intended as experimental. I think Pumell over-cut or under-shot to make his point and got left with a movie without meaning.

Identicals

Alien Arrival (aka Arrowhead)

There is an interesting story somewhere in this script (and probably on the cutting room floor), but it doesn’t really come together on screen. The largely unknown cast is led by Dan Mor as a brooding rebel with mixed and muddled motivations. Pretty to look at, he doesn’t create a character we can invest in or root for because we never understand him or what he wants and needs to do.

Writer/director Jesse O’Brien really attempts to tackle the difficulty of bringing hard science fiction to the screen…with a healthy does of science fantasy on many points. I applaud him for not treating the audience like idiots, and for some interesting moments and storytelling. But, he needed a few more “connect the dots” revelations to help us put together the story he intended to tell. What we end up with is a nihilistic opening chapter in a larger tale about some kind of galactic war that never quite makes any sense. 

I did watch the whole film, because there was just enough to keep teasing me along that there would be answers. Frankly, I’d skip this. But if you are a real fan of Australian science fiction or want to sample a new director and see what he may be capable of down the road, it isn’t entirely unwatchable, just not particularly satisfying.

Alien Arrival

Authors Anonymous

It isn’t that there aren’t some good moments in this Chris Guest wannabe about a writing group, but it is too uneven and unsatisfying to outright recommend. That said, if you are in a writing group, you will probably find a lot that is familiar.

Delivering the comedy is a host of recognizable faces. Kaley Cuoco (Why Him?), Chris Klein (Wilfred), Teri Polo (The Hole), Dylan Walsh (Unforgettable), Tricia Helfer (Lucifer), Meagen Foy (La La Land), among them. And, in one of his last performances, Dennis Farina provides his trademark bruised, tough guy.

Director Ellie Kanner is better known for her casting prowess than she is her directing. I can’t honestly say that either aspect shows itself well in this movie. While the individual roles are cast well, the chemistry of the group is off. You don’t really believe these individuals would associate with one another for a long time. That is as much on first-time writer David Congalton as it is on Kanner. The understanding of the current state of publishing just isn’t there. This feels like it was written more than ten years ago, though it was only completed in 2013.

Part of my problem with this flick the use of improvisation for dialogue. The movie bounces between mockumentary-style interviews and long, fly-on-the-wall moments. As I’ve mentioned before, I often find this mixed approach forced and unsatisfying. Authors was no exception.

It isn’t an unwatchable film, but it just doesn’t really connect for me. Even with the two codas during the credits, I’m left feeling a general wondering at why I spent 90 minutes getting to that point. You may find the humor and situation more engaging than I did, but I can’t recommend it.

Authors Anonymous

Sleepless

Unlikable people doing unlikable things in stupid ways doesn’t add up to a good movie. We don’t even get an anti-hero to latch onto. Jamie Foxx (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and Michelle Monaghan (Pixels) are simply just bad at their jobs, whether or not they are also bad/dirty cops.

To balance that, as inept bad guys we get Dermot Mulroney (August: Osage County) and Scoot McNairy (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), neither of which seems to deserve the empires they lead.  The only truly likable character in the entire film is Gabrielle Union, but she also pulls some stupid moves. Octavius J. Johnson (Ray Donovan), is mostly just a hot potato used to drive the action; his portrayal of the son has little depth and generates little sympathy.

To be fair, all these choices and lacks are the fault of writer Andrea Berloff (Straight Outta Compton) and director Baran bo Odar (Who Am I). The script is ill-conceived and poorly researched while the acting is relentlessly dark with few positive hooks for us to want to hold onto. Even an anti-hero needs to pull our sympathies in some way if we are to commit to them.

The cast was unable to rise above a bad foundation of this film. The idea that it could have a sequel (and boy do they set it up) was simply the bitter icing on the unpalatable cake at the very end. Basically, skip this one.

Sleepless

Road, Movie

The trailer for this film made it look like Cinema Paradiso on wheels… a rather irresistible idea. Instead, it is more like Field of Dreams made by Fellini in India. Not so irresistible (and I like Fellini).

In fact, this movie was ultimately rather unsatisfying, particularly since the main character is such a dick. He starts off a petulant boy in a man-suit and ends up, metaphorically at least, becoming a real, full man. But it wasn’t really sold well enough and we never care about the guy as he is, as I said, such a dick.

The supporting characters don’t add much either, though they aren’t unlikable or unentertaining. But they only exist as guides and bumpers for the main character whose motivations and goals are obtuse, at best, and non-existent at worse.

I will fully admit that perhaps I missed the point or was the wrong audience on this one, so I’m not saying run away unequivocally. There are aspects to this that show ability and intriguing possibility, but for me this never came together and I’d like my time back.

Road, Movie

Taste of Cherry (Ta’m e guilass)

You may recall that  I recently got to see another Iranian film, A Dragon Arrives!, and had mixed reactions. During the introduction to that film, this Palme d’Or co-winner was mentioned, so I decided to continue my understanding and education.

Up front, after watching it, I did look up the critical response to this movie. To say it was divisive is kind. Taste of Cherry is definitely a love it or hate it film. There is a particularly wonderful response by Roger Ebert. I also watched an interview with the director, Kiarostami, who is credited with altering the path and possibility of Iranian cinema with this offering (particularly its subject matter).

So, here’s the thing. Where this film falls apart for me is at the very end. Much like Dragon, it takes a wild left turn to either provide distance or make a point that was utterly lost on me. While I never expected an explicit ending, Kiarostami’s choice was frustrating at best. The lead up to the resolution is either a physical metaphor for the struggle of the main character or a long, drawn out and boring road trip movie on a circular track. Neither is a ringing endorsement, though the first option has a bit more resonance as a manifestation of the rumination involved in the man’s decision (which may be an unintended apologist’s remark).

After listening to the director and seeing the film, I can honestly say I don’t need to see another Kiarostami bit of cinema. From a purely cultural voyeuristic viewpoint, it certainly provides a window on a particular lawn to consider.

Taste of Cherry

The Tree of Wooden Clogs (L’albero degli zoccoli)

I tucked in for this 3 hour, year-in-the-life of late 19th century Bergamo peasants in Italy thinking it was going to be a story; that wasn’t exactly what I got. It is beautifully filmed and it has moments, but doesn’t really satisfy as a story. Because, if it is a story, the only message is that the Church destroys peoples lives, and I don’t really see that as the intended message. What I believe documentarian Ermanno Olmi, wrote and directed instead is a well-researched and nicely depicted slice of life.

Clogs released in 1978 and gathered up a number of awards. Today, if this film were to be made, it would probably have ended up as a mini- or event-series. There are through-lines, but no investment in a character by the audience is rewarded. People go about their lives, and life goes about its pounding of the peasants.

As an artistic achievement, it is quite the accomplishment. Criterion has also done a beautiful job on the restoration of the print and sound. If I had approached it as a documentary, my response may well have been different. If you are fascinated by, or curious about history, particularly the late 1880s in Italy, it is a must see. It is also disturbingly resonant with today’s world in both politics and economy. But as a movie, as a piece of fictional entertainment, it failed for me.

The Tree of Wooden Clogs

Beyond the Edge

I will say this for Beyond the Edge, in a large field of movies about this subject, this one remained interesting up till near the end. At that point, it all goes just a bit weird and confusing as it tries to represent the concepts in question. I really think this is a tale that would have fared better as a short story rather than as a movie. Trying to depict quantum/existential concepts in film is like trying to clearly depict a 9 dimensional object on the 2 dimensional plane of a piece of paper. Only Mr. Nobody really succeeded for me in recent memory, but I still give this one props for trying.

First time director and co-writer Zellen probably should have tackled something a bit less complex for his first outing. The result wasn’t unwatchable, just not particularly satisfying. I will say that the effects, design, and some of the moments were impressive for a low-budget indie.

To be fair, when one of your main actors is a massive B-Movie face, Casper Van Dien, and you even have Adrienne Barbeau showing up, you know it is also a little tongue-in-cheek by design. Van Dien knows this and really has some fun with his role. (And, yes, I’m aware that Van Dien also has some solid credits.) So does Sean Maher (Firefly) playing opposite him. Maher has the harder job of the two and manages fairly well. However, since so much is not clarified, it isn’t easy to judge all of his efforts.

Overall, there are some interesting aspects and a good tackle at a challenging subject. For a rainy Saturday, or if you’re totally at loose ends for a choice, go for it. Otherwise, well, I wouldn’t say I want my two hours back, but I probably could have made a stronger selection. I will say that I’d watch for Zellen in the future to see what he has learned and what he comes up with next. It took guts to do this film and do it as well as he did.

Beyond the Edge