Category Archives: Drama

Inherit the Viper (2019, Anthony Jerjen)

Inherit the Viper is an unfortunately titled but acceptably mediocre crime drama about rural siblings Margarita Levieva, Josh Hartnett, and Owen Teague running an opioid business. Levieva’s the merciless boss, Hartnett’s the reluctant muscle, Teague’s the enthusiastic but uninvolved teenager. Everything’s going fine—well, outside the occasional fatal overdose for customers—until Teague decides he’s got to go into business for himself. Only he’s not very bright and his idea is to steal his family’s product to sell on the side, forcing Levieva (who wanted to get Teague involved) and Hartnett (who didn’t) to make some tough, momentous decisions. Renewed interest from local law enforcement (Dash Mihok) and a justifiably enraged recent widower (Brad William Henke) complicate matters.

So, a fairly standard family crime drama.

Andrew Crabtree’s script throws a lot at the characters but in targeted bursts. Viper never overreaches. Crabtree and director Jerjen never do anything they aren’t sure they can successfully execute. The film’s got some great production values—Jerjen, cinematographer Nicholas Wiesnet, editors Gordon Antell and Kiran Pallegadda put some drone shots to great use for establishing shots, showcasing the desolate, failed rural community. Jerjen’s composition for the talking heads scenes, which are most of the film until the final third or so, is usually the same parallel shot, giving the actors each their space. Even though Jerjen’s got the patience for the talking heads and showcasing the actors (really, the film often plays like a demo reel for its stars more than a serious dramatic effort), he never gets in close enough to really look. When Levieva finally shows her humanity, when Hartnett finally shows his fear, Jerjen doesn’t have any way to help the actors rise above the script, which is fairly pat as far as character motivation and development go. Both the script and the direction posit the characters as somewhat tragic, even though the point of Levieva is she would reject that tragedy and it would be consuming the soulful Hartnett, who has a much better understanding of the world—ostensibly due to his time in Iraq War II, but more because the script needs it—than his peers.

Well, except of course how the film then positions other people as the good folks just facilitating the opioid ring without actually getting their hands too dirty (special guest star Bruce Dern plays a bar owner and friend of the family’s absent, smalltime crook dad).

Instead of Levieva or Hartnett, the film focuses on Teague. It’s both a trope—the child grows up—and the most economical. Hartnett getting more of a focus would mean more to do with pregnant girlfriend Valorie Curry and, even though the film starts spotlighting Levieva, she barely gets any character development throughout. And, when she does, it feels like the film’s trying too hard. Because to transcend the material, the script would need to be better and there’d need to be more of a budget (the film looks great, moves well but it’s obviously streamlined as can be). Jerjen does what he can with the constraints the production’s got and it works. The drone shots do get tiring by the end but more because they never really impact how the narrative plays; they’re always technically solid. Especially set against Patrick Kirst’s score.

For over half the film, Viper acts like it isn’t going to rest the whole thing on whether or not Teague can carry it through the third act to the finish, then it hands it off to Teague and, sure, he can get it to the finish but… not spectacularly. It’s a pass and no pass situation. Teague passes, adequate, no reason to rejoice.

Levieva’s the film’s best performance, even with her character going off some rails in the third act. Hartnett’s good, but it’s a propped up majorly supporting role; Teague’s not compelling enough, Hartnett picks up the slack for it. It’s unclear whether Jerjen would be able to do more. He’s got a lot of technical chops as a director and he’s pretty good with the actors, but Viper never seems thoughtful enough. Jerjen’s successfully realizes the script but without any imagination. It’s like he’s too good, technically, to have to be inventive.

Inherit the Viper—the title’s even worse once you find out what it means—isn’t bad, it’s just rote, even with its cast’s solid efforts.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Anthony Jerjen; written by Andrew Crabtree; director of photography, Nicholas Wiesnet; edited by Gordon Antell and Kiran Pallegadda; music by Patrick Kirst; production designer, Tracy Dishman; costume designer, Emily Batson; produced by Michel Merkt and Benito Mueller; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Margarita Levieva (Josie Conley), Josh Hartnett (Kip Conley), Owen Teague (Boots Conley), Valorie Curry (Eve), Dash Mihok (Kyle), Chandler Riggs (Cooper), Brad William Henke (Tedd), and Bruce Dern (Clay).


To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, Robert Mulligan)

During To Kill a Mockingbird’s exceptional opening titles, I wondered how it was possible the film was going to look so amazing yet had no reputation for being some exquisitely, precisely directed piece of cinema. Then up came Stephen Frankfurt’s credit for title design, which kind of dulled my excitement for a moment. Could Mulligan maintain what Frankfurt set up—along with composer Elmer Bernstein, who’s score is essential to the film–with these opening titles?

Short answer, yes. The first hour of Mockingbird is, while obviously not as fastidiously executed as the opening titles (which examine the various contents of a child’s mementos box), is exquisite. Mulligan, Bernstein, cinematographer Russell Harlan–Mockingbird is a gorgeous black and white—screenwriter Horton Foote, and actors Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, and John Megna create this bewitching window into a memory of childhood. An uncredited Kim Stanley narrates from—presumably—the present; she’s grown-up Badham, who’s just about to start school (South in the early thirties, guessing first grade versus kinder); Alford’s her older brother, Megna’s the new kid on the block, an out-of-town visitor. Her dad’s a widower, respected lawyer Gregory Peck. They’re not rich but they’re respected. They’ve got a Black housekeeper (Estelle Evans), who Peck treats with as much respect as if she were his white housekeeper slash babysitter. It’s a progressive block. They’re not country white trash. The first hour has a little about race, but a lot of it is about how tomboy Badham learns about class differences and societal norms.

The first hour is this lovely, mostly lyrical look into Badham and Alford’s childhood. Running through the distant background is Peck’s subplot about defending a Black man accused of rape. The kids aren’t allowed in the courthouse (by Dad Peck); Foote and Mulligan gradually introduce the subplot. And the idea of Peck as the lead. Until the second hour, it’s from Badham and Alford’s perspective. A little bit too much from Alford’s given Badham’s literally the narrator but thanks to Mulligan’s gentle, deliberate direction of the kids’ perceptions of events, Harlan’s great photography (which is even better at night), and Bernstein’s music, it gets a pass; narrative-wise. The film’s got enough going for it, you can give it slack for not sticking close enough to Badham.

In fact, the film’s got so much going for it, you want to give it that slack even after it becomes obvious it’s never looping around to Badham again. Even with further narration breaks, once the film starts straying from Badham’s perspective, it never comes back. It goes to Alford, then Peck—albeit for the continuous second act courtroom sequence—then back to Alford in an almost peculiar way (the film avoids Badham during the court scenes), then to Peck for the finale because he’s got top-billing. Though not in a significant way. Even though he’s top-billed, even though he’s got the lengthy court scene mostly to himself, Peck always feels like a special guest star. “And Gregory Peck as Atticus (Dad).”

Whenever Peck comes into the film in the first act, the kids bring him in somehow. Either they call him into the scene or go find him or call him into the scene… but it starts with the kids. Foote and Mulligan keep that perspective in the second act, just before the trial starts, when the kids go and stand by Peck as he’s standing off against a white trash lynch mob. It’s a good segue to the courtroom and Peck taking over the narrative. It makes sense; his subplot’s been building and the trial is occupying the children’s minds too.

So during the trial—Brock Peters plays the accused, not actually appearing onscreen until his day in court—the kids (Badham, Alford, and Megna) watch from the second floor balcony, where a kindly Black minister (Bill Walker) they know gets room for them. The trial seems to take less than a day. 1930s South. Every once in a while as Peck tries to convince his fellow white people Black people are people too and you can’t frame them for rape just because you’re an asshole, the film cuts up to Alford watching his dad crusade, presumably inspiring him. Megna gets some reaction shots too, which makes it seem like as long as Southern Whites aren’t white trash they won’t be racist but… I don’t know, aspirational 1962 film. The film’s got a few moments of bald-faced white saviorism but since it’s 1962, it’s not like the Black characters appear enough to be shown in specific suffering. It’s a weird way to get a pass but… it works.

But no shots of Badham. Not even after the end of the trial. Not right away. And they’re way overdue. We don’t get any idea how Badham experiences the trial, other than she’s tired when it’s over. It’s all about Alford. And not from Badham’s perspective.

The third act epilogue, which resolves everything and ends in a nice narration bow from Stanley and very deliberate, effective direction from Mulligan, somehow centers on Badham but, again, not her experience of it. Mulligan and Foote commit to one way of doing a big scene, maybe the only way they could do it in 1962, and it’s a well-executed scene with some great filmmaking… but it doesn’t do anything for Badham or give her much to do. Then it tries to wrap it up with Peck and it’s… awkward. Not even because of the narration.

Lots of great performances but the kids are where it’s at. Badham and Alford are phenomenal. Megna’s really good too but he’s more functional. The film takes its time with Badham and Alford’s character development, showcasing it, which just makes downgrading them in the second half even worse. Evans is good (there’s a film in her perspective of the events), Peters is excellent, Frank Overton’s good as the police chief. James Anderson’s terrifying though a little thinly written, which is weird given how the film goes out of its way to empathize with “redeemably racist” white men, as the victim’s father. Collin Wilcox Paxton is okay as the victim. If the film ended strong for Badham, she’d get a pass… but she’s another example of how Foote and Mulligan try to avoid giving the female characters too much focus.

To Kill a Mockingbird is an excellent film. But there are some asterisks after that positive adjective.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Mulligan; screenplay by Horton Foote, based on the novel by Harper Lee; director of photography, Russell Harlan; edited by Aaron Stell; music by Elmer Bernstein; produced by Alan J. Pakula; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Mary Badham (Scout), Phillip Alford (Jem), Gregory Peck (Atticus), Estelle Evans (Calpurnia), John Megna (Dill Harris), Brock Peters (Tom Robinson), Frank Overton (Sheriff Heck Tate), Rosemary Murphy (Maudie Atkinson), Collin Wilcox Paxton (Mayella Violet Ewell), James Anderson (Bob Ewell), Ruth White (Mrs. Dubose), Robert Duvall (Arthur Radley), Richard Hale (Nathan Radley), Steve Condit (Walter Cunningham Jr.), Crahan Denton (Walter Cunningham Sr.), Bill Walker (Reverend Sykes), and Paul Fix (Judge Taylor); narrated by Mary Stanley.


Restoration (1995, Michael Hoffman)

Restoration is two parts period drama, one part character study, one part comedy. It’s often tragic, both because of events occurring and because it takes place in 1665 England and 1665 wasn’t a great time to be alive given the state of medical knowledge versus, you know, disease. Or mental health. The general complete misunderstanding of mental health (though at least they don’t think people are possessed with demon) plays a big part in the dramatics, the comedy, and the character study. There’s always the possibility for comedy… until the plague shows up. Once the plague arrives, it’s full dramatics for a while. The film doesn’t lose its sense of humor, just—appropriately—doesn’t employ it.

The film tells the story of 17th century medical doctor Robert Downey Jr. (who does an amazing job playing English). Despite innate medical talents, Downey doesn’t like how it’s the 17th century and people die from terrible things all the time. It’s a downer. So when he lucks into a court appointment for the King (a delightful Sam Neill), he takes it. It means he gets to drink and carouse and not go bankrupt from it like if he were a working stiff. Things get complicated when Neill then makes Downey marry one of his mistresses (Polly Walker) to legitimize her because Downey immediately falls for her. This portion of the film, after the gruesome medical realities of the opening, is the most comedic. Especially after Hugh Grant shows up as a portrait painter who annoys Downey so Downey annoys him back. Downey’s also got a sidekick—an affable Ian McKellen—during this sequence.

But it’s 1665 and Downey’s in his position by grace of the King and when the King decides no more grace… down Downey falls. He ends up in the 17th century equivalent of a sanitarium, run by Quakers—Downey’s best friend, David Thewlis is a Quaker, which the film actually never plays for jokes when contrasting Thewlis and Downey in the first act. In fact, Downey’s played for the laughs. A fantastic Ian McDiarmid runs the sanitarium and Meg Ryan is one of the… well, patients. They call them “inmates” though; not treating them unkindly but bound by the Quakerism when it comes to trying to help them. Outsider Downey’s the one who has the idea maybe people suffering mental health problems can (and should) be helped. If one of the better off patients who’s clearly suffering from profound depression and happens to look like Meg Ryan… well, bonus.

The plague’s arrival changes everything—again—and puts Downey through multiple harrowing experiences, some small, some big, some internal, some external. Rupert Walters’s script is never particularly outstanding, but the plotting and pacing are fantastic. Restoration moves at a steady clip, knowing exactly when it needs some humor, knowing exactly when it needs some sympathy. Hoffman’s direction of the actors is quite good, making up for his mostly mediocre composition. He and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton do a fine job showing off the beautiful, ornate Eugenio Zanetti production design—the film’s got some great sets, gorgeous costumes, and so on—but Hoffman’s pretty obvious with all of it. He’s clearly more confident with the lighter elements than the more serious ones. It works out but it’s where Restoration feels like a missed opportunity. Hoffman feels essential when it comes to the performances, but not with the film’s visuals.

Downey’s character only develops because of the people he encounters in his life—Thewlis, Walker, Ryan, Neill, McKellen, Grant—but none of the supporting parts are substantial. Neill has a lot of screen time, but he’s a plot foil. He’s the King after all. Ryan’s kind of got the biggest supporting part, but not really any more screen time than any of the other supporting parts. Her performance (as an Irish woman) is fine; she’s very likable. She and Downey definitely work well together. But not a great part, as written.

Everyone’s good—Walker, Thewlis, Grant. No matter what they do, funny, sad, whatever, it’s all about how they play off Downey anyway. The film’s narrative distance is superbly steady in its tracking of Downey.

James Newton Howard’s score is good. Appropriately lush and dramatic. Restoration is a well-executed production.

The key is Downey, who’s essential to the film’s success even though he shouldn’t be—i.e. that quarter character study. Downey’s experience of the film’s events and how they affect him is the film’s greatest achievement. Downey’s performance sets the tone, everything else has to meet that level. Great performance in a solidly but not superlatively written or directed film. The film’s all about Downey, letting it hinge entirely on his performance. And he excels.

Thanks to Downey, and also Hoffman, Walters, Ryan, Neill, and everyone else in various degrees, Restoration’s consistently successful.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Hoffman; screenplay by Rupert Walters, based on the novel by Rose Tremain; director of photography, Oliver Stapleton; edited by Garth Craven; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Eugenio Zanetti; costume designer, James Acheson; produced by Sarah Black, Cary Brokaw, and Andy Paterson; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Robert Downey Jr. (Robert), Sam Neill (The King), David Thewlis (John), Polly Walker (Celia), Meg Ryan (Katharine), Ian McKellen (Will), Hugh Grant (Finn), and Ian McDiarmid (Ambrose).


Becket (1964, Peter Glenville)

Becket has some genre constraints. Significant ones. It’s a king-sized 70mm Panavision English history epic only it doesn’t feature any big battles. In fact, it goes out of its way not to show battles. It’s also an early sixties historical epic and it’s trying to be a little edgy in how it shows the relationship between King of England Peter O’Toole and his friend and advisor Richard Burton, the title character. Burton doesn’t just help O’Toole drink and carouse, he also advises him with matters of state, giving better advice than anyone else. Are they lovers? Queen Pamela Brown certainly implies it, but she’s also a shrieking evil harpy of a royal who wants to infest the kingdom with her idiot sons. Becket’s real clear—O’Toole might be a tyrant and a rapist, but his wife is even worse; England would be worse off with her having a say.

The film’s a toxically masculine take on certain aspects of toxic masculinity but not others. If O’Toole and Burton were lovers in the film, it’d probably make them more likable. Without, the film just implies Burton helps O’Toole rape comely subjects, sometimes taking part, sometimes not. O’Toole, being a Norman, doesn’t look on the Saxon peasants as human beings—but, you know, does and chooses not to so he can abuse them—and Burton, the only good Saxon in all England, helps him along. See, Burton’s an amoral collaborator. Being amoral and without honor means he can collaborate with a free heart, making him a great sidekick for O’Toole, both socially and politically. The scenes where Burton debates the Church on O’Toole’s behalf—the film’s set in the 12th century, before England split from the Roman Catholic Church—are fantastic. 1160 is about the last time a bunch of ignorant White men debating each other had much purpose and it’s great material for Burton. He excels at being intellectually superior. While O’Toole excels at having fun. Unfortunately, Burton’s arc takes into spiritual superiority, which Becket avoids almost as much as it avoids whether or not Burton and O’Toole got horizontal. O’Toole goes from having funny to being a maniacal, drunken jerk… O’Toole excels at it as well; the second half of Becket is all about the response to the title character, not about the title character’s experiences.

To stop having trouble with the Church, O’Toole—and the actual, you know, King Henry II—gives Burton—Becket—the job of Archbishop of Canterbury, making him the head of the Church in England. O’Toole assumes Burton’s going to be his old self, Burton instead decides he’s got to do it legit and devout. He doesn’t so much find God—or at least not in an overt way, Becket’s not getting into that part—as he finds a moral center. Is he arguing one amoral, exploitative system against another? Sure, but he’s ignorant of the Church’s crimes while party to the State’s. It gives Burton a great part—for a while—because he can sell the heck out of holier than thou; intellectually so, then spirituality so. Shame the movie dumps him in the last third or so.

It’s obviously going to happen—the movie opens with O’Toole talking to Burton’s coffin (spoiler alert)—but when the movie shifts focus from Burton to O’Toole, while introducing nagging wife Brown and nagging mother Martita Hunt, not to mention awful royal sons, it’s clear early on we’re never really getting back to Burton. His experience—in the film named after his character—isn’t important. He goes off and does monk-y things. Even when he’s convinced of his inevitable martyrdom, it comes at the literal end. Nothing of his experience of living with it. Becket, Becket decides, is a mystery. Even if Burton was doing a perfectly good job of explaining him.

It’s like the film doesn’t want to think too hard about anything. Other than giving its stars some good scenes. It’s a historical epic, after all. Director Glenville’s pretty plain, direction-wise; when he does have a really good shot, it’s a surprise. Geoffrey Unsworth’s photography is solid, but for an epic, not a character drama. Glenville’s not directing a character drama, but the stars are acting in one. The film, based on a stage play, never feels stagy enough. Good epic music from Laurence Rosenthal. Becket’s an event instead of an achievement, leveraging Burton and O’Toole without ever facilitating them.

John Gielgud’s awesome as the King of France. Otherwise no one in the supporting cast is really up to Burton or O’Toole’s level. Definitely not Burton’s monk sidekick David Weston, who’s… fine. Fine for a not entirely unsuccessful historical epic.

Burton and O’Toole could do more with more. They do quite well with what they have but Burton getting the second-half shaft causes unsurmountable damage.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Glenville; screenplay by Edward Anhalt, based on Lucienne Hill’s translation of the play by Jean Anouilh; director of photography, Geoffrey Unsworth; edited by Anne V. Coates; music by Laurence Rosenthal; production designer, John Bryan; costume designer, Margaret Furse; produced by Hal B. Wallis; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Peter O’Toole (King Henry II), Richard Burton (Thomas Becket), David Weston (Brother John), Donald Wolfit (Bishop Folliot), Martita Hunt (Empress Matilda), Pamela Brown (Queen Eleanor), Siân Phillips (Gwendolen), Gino Cervi (Cardinal Zambelli), Paolo Stoppa (Pope Alexander III), and John Gielgud (King Louis VII).