Category Archives: ★½

The Man with Two Brains (1983, Carl Reiner)

The Man with Two Brains does not age well. It’s a case study in not aging well, even more so because when the three writers—director Reiner, star Steve Martin, and George Gipe—can’t figure out how to do an ending so they just do an extended fat joke… well, it’s hard to continuing giving the film a pass. Not after a racial epithets joke, which the film doesn’t even realize is lazy.

Because it does recognize its easy jokes. There are a lot of easy, easy, easy jokes Brains wants to get away with and it usually is able to do it thanks to Martin or co-star Kathleen Turner, but the finale doesn’t use anyone well. In fact, it’s a call back to a completely different section of the film they probably don’t want to be recalling.

The movie’s got a really peculiar structure. The first act is about Martin falling for evil gold digger Turner (not knowing she’s an evil gold digger) and her refusing to consummate the relationship. So boss Peter Hobbs (who’s pleasantly sturdy and game for even the fail jokes) sends Martin off to Europe for a conference; a little continental seduction and so on.

In Europe, Martin meets mad scientist David Warner, who’s—oh, right. Martin’s the world’s premier brain surgeon. Anyway. He meets Warner, who’s a mad scientist who wants to transplant brains he’s been keeping alive thanks to hydroxychloroquine or something. Warner’s oddly disappointing in the film. I was expecting something from him and he never does anything. The film’s got problems with the supporting characters though; Warner’s butler, Paul Benedict, gets more personality than Warner in fewer scenes with less exposition. Reiner’s direction is… not great. He and Martin (and Gipe) are trying a lot of different things, some things are a lot less successful than others.

And even the big successes are often qualified. Like when Martin is prowling the streets to find a woman to murder so his soul mate—a disembodied brain voiced by Sissy Spacek—can find a new home. It’s all very complicated, with the brain stuff being Martin finally getting free of animate costars and getting to do his wild and crazy guy thing in the spotlight. It’s better when he does it opposite other cast, specifically Turner, who frequently can’t hold her femme fatale. Martin so funny she’s laughing. It’s brings Turner almost too much personality.

Back to that successful sequence—Martin lurking the streets of Vienna, looking for a woman to murder. All of a sudden the backlot shooting starts to work—Reiner and cinematographer Michael Chapman(!) shoot Two Brains like they’re trying to figure out how to not make it look like a sitcom but end up making it look more like one because of how they compensate. Like Joel Goldsmith’s ludicrously inappropriate synth score; it ups the zany so you don’t think too much about Martin’s premeditated murder scene and so on, but it’s also terrible. And doesn’t help the scene. Ever. In fact, it’s always actively hurting it.

Overall, Two Brains doesn’t have the pieces to succeed. The story’s not there. The plotting isn’t there. The pacing’s there. The direction’s not there. Martin and Turner do an excellent job doing absurd caricatures (at best, Martin does just mug occasionally), but it’s like no one’s curating the gags or even taking note of their successes. It’s got its ambitions just no idea when they realize.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Carl Reiner; written by Reiner, Steve Martin, and George Gipe; director of photography, Michael Chapman; edited by Bud Molin; music by Joel Goldsmith; production designer, Mark W. Mansbridge and Polly Platt; produced by William E. McEuen and David V. Picker; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Steve Martin (Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr), Kathleen Turner (Dolores Benedict), Sissy Spacek (Anne Uumellmahaye), David Warner (Dr. Alfred Necessiter), Peter Hobbs (Dr. Brandon), Randi Brooks (Fran), and Paul Benedict (Butler).


Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (2020, Tony Tilse)

At no point does Miss Fisher & the Crypt of Tears introduce viewer unfamiliar with star Essie Davis’s television show, to which this film’s a sequel, “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.” The movie opens with an action sequence setting up Davis as an exquisitely dressed combination of Indiana Jones and James Bond. The action—a title card tells us—starts in 1929 Palestine, where the British are mucking things up for the native people… Crypt of Tears is anti-British Imperialism… but from an Australian bent.

Davis rescues Izabella Yena, who’s in British jail for snooping around the destruction of her village ten years before. During the rescue sequence, Davis evades police in a rooftop chance and has a bunch of costume changes. It’s overindulgent and flamboyant but enthusiastic. It’s fun to watch Davis get to do an exaggerated character schtick thanks to the bigger movie budget.

Until they get to the CGI train sequence and it’s clear while Crypt of Tears might have a “movie budget,” it doesn’t have anywhere near a big enough one. The film tries and tries with the desert visuals, which does showcase Margot Wilson’s costuming, albeit not so much in the digital extreme long shots, but they’re always just there. Production designer Robbie Perkins does well, so at least Tears always looks good.

Until the end, which is more cinematographer Roger Lanser and director Tilse’s fault.

Anyway. After Yena’s rescue, the movie goes through some plot hoops to bring series love interest and Davis sidekick Nathan Page to England. There’s a single scene in Australia with the TV show’s cast, but since the movie’s not really a direct sequel to the series… they’re all just doing forced cameos. The movie’s not going to involve the TV cast (save Page, and him in very supporting role), though it’s fun seeing Miriam Margolyes if you’re a TV fan.

Once Davis and Page are reunited, there’s a laborious setup with the… residents of the house where Davis is staying in England. It’s as exciting as it sounds, as Tears becomes a traditional location-bound mystery, kind of a protracted, but somewhat suspect limited Agatha Christie.

Somehow the movie, with its TV show-experienced director and screenwriter (Deb Cox), manages to avoid all the show’s familiar tropes and go instead with bland mystery movie ones. Page being background would be understandable if they were spotlighting Davis as an action hero, but they don’t. We get a bunch with the suspects, who are extremely flat.

Maybe because they’re shooting Australia for England? Rupert Penry-Jones is the single Brit in the cast. Or is it just the suspects aren’t movie dynamic enough? Yena seems like she’s going to have a very obvious woman’s empowerment arc with Davis as her mentor but then she’s just… around. The movie doesn’t do anything with her. There aren’t any subplots for the suspects, if any questions do get raised outside the main plot, they don’t get answered.

The mystery is… blah.

To someone unfamiliar with the show, Tears is just going to be a confusing and often very charming—it’s not like Davis isn’t great or Page isn’t adorable—not great period mystery with TV movie CGI special effects (think CW, not HBO), but as a “big screen” effort from the show creators… it’s a disappointment. It’s like they targeted a very specific audience and gave them something intended for the general audience they decided to exclude.

Also most frustrating is how the fumble is probably going to kill any sequel possibilities. More Davis and Page isn’t going to ever be a bad thing, you just wish it had been a good thing in Tears.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Tony Tilse; screenplay by Deb Cox, based on characters created by Kerry Greenwood; director of photography, Roger Lanser; edited by Stephen Evans; music by Greg Walker; production designer, Robbie Perkins; costume designer, Margot Wilson; produced by Fiona Eagger and Lucy Maclaren; released by Roadshow Films.

Starring Essie Davis (Phryne Fisher), Nathan Page (Detective Inspector Jack Robinson), Rupert Penry-Jones (First Lieutenant Jonathon Lofthouse), Izabella Yena (Shirin Abbas), Ian Bliss (Professor Linnaeus), Daniel Lapaine (Lord Lofthouse), Jacqueline McKenzie (Lady Eleanor Lofthouse), Kal Naga (Sheikh Kahlil Abbas), John Waters (Vincent Montague), John Stanton (Crippins), and Miriam Margolyes (Prudence Stanley).


Pennies from Heaven (1981, Herbert Ross)

Pennies from Heaven is about how being a woman—particularly in the 1930s—is awful because you exist entirely for male consumption. If not sexually, then as production. The film’s supposed to be about how life’s just unfair for dreamers, in this case lead Steve Martin, who’s just trying to make the American Dream work for him; what’s standing in his way is wife Jessica Harper not wanting to give him her father’s estate so he can open a record store. He’s a traveling sheet music salesman in Chicago; he covers the rural points west.

We know Martin’s a dreamer because he daydreams in musicals. All of a sudden the movie will switch over to a big musical number with Martin and other actors lip-synching to period recordings. The musical stuff is good. Ross’s direction emphasizes the production, which is… fine. But the actual production of the numbers is excellent. Great choreography, so on and so forth. Martin’s very good at the dancing.

The same cannot be said about his “aw shucks” performance. Though some of the problem is Dennis Potter’s script; no one speaks his dialogue well until the second half of the movie, when Christopher Walken shows up and Bernadette Peters starts her fallen woman arc. Until that point, it seems like Potter’s dialogue just isn’t catching. But then all of a sudden Peters makes it breathtaking and it’s clear the problem’s a combination of Martin, Ross, and Potter, not Peters or Harper.

The film’s well-aware it’s about how being a woman is lousy—Peters gets seduced and knocked up by married Martin, who then abandons her multiple times, and finally ends up hooking. Harper—who manages to be the character with the least agency in the film, which is something because Martin’s got almost nil—is the cold fish preacher’s daughter wife who won’t give Martin enough sex or the money to start his store. Even though Martin humiliates her and then some cops humiliate her later on, Harper’s never presented sympathetically. If only she gave him some sugar (or the money sooner), look what might’ve been avoided.

Because somehow when it comes time to address Martin’s exploitation and mental abuse and manipulation, the movie just skips it. He’s the hero, after all, the dreamer who can’t find his American Dream. Again, it’s a combination of script, acting, and directing. Pennies from Heaven is only going to work if Martin’s transcendent.

And he’s not. Worse, he’s markedly better during the musical numbers than the dramatic, which makes the dramatic feel like a strange stagy vanity project, but one where he’s unenthusiastic about it too.

Nothing is worse than unenthusiastic vanity projects. Yes, he’s got the enthusiasm for the musical numbers—which disappear during at least twenty minutes of the film; it gives Peters a chance for some great acting in a middling film, but it also all drags. Her character’s ostensibly obsessed with Martin but he’s clearly a doofus. Yes, she’s supposed to be all in because of some kind of animal magnetism but… Martin hasn’t got any. The film cheating Harper out of getting rid of him at some point is a disservice to the work she put into her performance.

Wondrous photography from Gordon Willis—maybe thirty percent of Ross’s shots are good and there are some way too stagy ones—but Willis makes them all work. The film’s gorgeous.

Great dancing from Peters, Walken, and Vernel Bagneris (who’s got the majorly thankless part of the forgotten man). But he’s also really vile man. The only guy who’s not criminally creepy in Pennies from Heaven is Francis X. McCarthy, who plays a kindly bartender.

The end seems like it’s going to flop, then seems like it’ll do the right thing, but then it turns out doing the right thing is the wrong thing for the film anyway. Because it just isn’t going to work out. It just can’t.

Shame to waste the truly spectacular Peters performance.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Herbert Ross; screenplay by Dennis Potter, based on his BBC television serial; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by Richard Marks; production designer, Philip Harrison; costume designer, Bob Mackie; produced by Nora Kaye and Herbert Ross; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Steve Martin (Arthur), Bernadette Peters (Eileen), Jessica Harper (Joan), Vernel Bagneris (The Accordion Man), John McMartin (Mr. Warner), John Karlen (The Detective), Jay Garner (The Banker), Robert Fitch (Al), Tommy Rall (Ed), Eliska Krupka (The Blind Girl), and Christopher Walken (Tom).


Overnight (2003, Mark Brian Smith and Tony Montana)

Overnight is occasionally amusing, often mortifying, never contextualized enough to be interesting, and always compelling. But it’s compelling only if you’re somewhat familiar with the subject of the film, Troy Duffy. Specifically, Duffy’s directorial debut, The Boondock Saints. In 1997, Harvey Weinstein bought the script for Duffy to direct at Miramax and less than a year later put the project in turnaround. Why? It’s unclear. But apparently Duffy pissed off Miramax exec Meryl Poster so much, Weinstein dropped it. How did Duffy pissed off Poster? Unclear. There’s no interviews with anyone like Poster in the film, much less Weinstein. The one person besides Duffy who badmouths him does so with a pixelated face and the producer who actually worked for Miramax on the project has voice distortion.

The documentary, made by Duffy’s band’s co-managers—oh, yeah, Duffy also had a band, which is apparently shitty. There’s none of their music in Overnight (and no clips from Boondock). So if you haven’t heard the music, if you haven’t seen the movie, you’re not going to get the full effect of the documentary because directors Smith and Montona just don’t have the right material to tell the story. It’s also not compelling unless you want to see jackass Duffy show the full shallowness of his humanity. It’s like a puddle with some old dog poop in it.

And Overnight is eighty minutes of it.

The first people Duffy turns on—so his band and ostensibly the documentary makers are all part of his crew. They’re going to take Hollywood by storm. There are multiple scenes where Duffy talks about leading the greatest group of creatives in history because he’s got his younger brother and the two guys in the band and the documentary makers slash band managers. Only once the band signs a deal, they fire the managers. There’s a long scene of Duffy and his brother berating the band mangers (you know, the guys who made Overnight) and telling them they will never get paid. Ever.

Then the movie keeps going. The movie they’re making. So even though there was this falling out, they didn’t fall out. There’s maybe less footage going forward but there’s also less story, just Duffy self-destructing more and their album sucking. Eventually Duffy will fall out with everyone and the movie ends on an upbeat note about how he didn’t get any money from the movie’s eventual video success because his agency screwed up his contracted.

Duffy’s got this conspiracy theory about how Harvey Weinstein is influencing his agency to give him bad deals when really it seems like the agency (William Morris) put an absolute tool (Jim Crabbe) in charge of Duffy’s account. Like, no one comes out of Overnight looking good. At best you’re just a dope. Even co-director Montana, who eventually contributes a lot of onscreen interviews, looks bad. Smith, the other one, he’s somewhat sympathetic still. But the guys in the band are dicks. Jake Busey is a pig. But it really does seem like, from the movie, Crabbe screwed everything up somehow.

Except what really happened was Duffy went out drinking with obviously Miramax would’ve used it as an Ewan McGregor vehicle Ewan McGregor and got in a fight about how Duffy supported the death penalty and people who don’t suck. Like McGregor. Not in the movie. At all. But apparently it’s directly responsible for Miramax dumping the project.

Anyway.

Overnight is adequately executed rubbernecking and nothing else. Kind of good music though—from Jack Livesey and Peter Nashel. It’s better than it needs to be.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written, photographed, directed, and produced by Mark Brian Smith and Tony Montana; edited by Smith, Montana, and Jonathan Nixon; music by Jack Livesey and Peter Nashel; released by THINKFilm.