Category Archives: ★★½

Erik the Viking (1989, Terry Jones)

Erik the Viking is a great example of when the director doesn’t know how to direct the script. What makes it peculiar is… director Jones wrote the script.

The film, an absurd comedy about a group of Vikings trying to end Ragnarok so they people will stop killing each other, starts with the the very not comedic scene (though the film gets to laughs really quickly, which is rather impressive) of lead Tim Robbins, having completed his looting and pillaging, moving on to the raping part of the Viking code. His intended victim is Samantha Bond. Only Bond’s not into being raped, which throws Robbins for a loop—he’s never done this raping part before and doesn’t have the predilection for it. Instead he and Bond have what becomes a life defining conversation (for Robbins anyway) right before his comrades show up to rape her and he kills them.

And, accidentally, her as well, which throws him into a right funk. He can’t stop seeing Bond’s face, whether in a crowd, in the distance, or laid over another woman his comrades are torturing. Empathy’s a very un-Viking value, something Robbins’s grandfather (Mickey Rooney in a wonderfully unhinged cameo) tries to explain.

Rooney, rightly, doesn’t reassure Robbins, so Robbins heads up into the mountains to talk to recluse Eartha Kitt (in a good but sadly not great cameo, partially just due to the terrible composite shots showing the landscape outside her cave) and she tells him how he’s going to have to quest to the mystic land, Hy-Brasil, retrieve a magic horn, blow the horn to get to Asgard, then again to wake the gods, then again to get home.

To accomplish this task, Robbins has to put the band together. There are tough guy Vikings Richard Ridings and Tim McInnerny, McInnerny’s dad, Charles McKeown (who doesn’t think McInnerny’s tough enough), Christian missionary Freddie Jones (who’s the butt of endless great jokes, even when he’s saving the day), John Gordon Sinclair as the wimp (he’s great), and Gary Cady as the heartthrob blacksmith. Now, turns out Cady doesn’t want Ragnarok to end because he’s a blacksmith and capitalism; you stop the looting, pillaging, raping, and murdering and he’s out of business. So he gets his sidekick, Anthony Sher, to go and narc to local warlord John Cleese (of course) about Robbins’s mission. So Viking is basically Robbins and company on their quest, while avoiding Cleese trying to kill them all.

The quest takes them to the aforementioned magical land, which is a violence-free paradise with Greco-Roman style architecture, ruled by Jones. Imogen Stubbs plays Jones’s daughter, who becomes infatuated with Robbins. The attraction is mutual but only when Robbins forgets his secret mission—to bring Bond back from the dead. The questing will also take the band to Asgard, where they find the gods don’t live up to expectations but are a lot realer than anyone could anticipate. Because Jones, as writer, has a bunch of great ideas and a lot of good sequences, he just can’t figure out how to realize them on screen.

Making it stranger is the fantastic production and costume designs from John Beard and Pam Tait, respectively. Good photography from Ian Wilson, good music from Neil Innes; not good editing from George Akers, but you really get the impression it’s because Jones, as director, didn’t get enough coverage for him. Viking has great sets, great costumes, great make-up, so it never makes sense when it doesn’t look right. Sometimes it’s those bad composite shots—but the miniature special effects are excellent—and then the third act has some really bad optical effects.

I’m zealous about special effects not dating, they just sometimes don’t work and Erik the Viking’s special optical effects for the finale… they just don’t work. And the film relies way too heavily on them. Nicely, the film’s able to—more or less—skate by to the finish, which has this really oddly profound moment for the characters and you wish Jones (the director) could’ve visualized it better onscreen. It works but not enough to lift things up. The whole third act seems rushed and cramped in ways it shouldn’t, both in terms of story and setting.

Good lead performance from Robbins, with great support from some of his comrades; Stubbs is good, Bond’s excellent, Cleese is fun (it’s a fluffed out cameo)… Sher’s really good as the turncoat.

Erik has almost all the right pieces for success; Jones not being able to crack his own script is the dealbreaker.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Terry Jones; director of photography, Ian Wilson; edited by George Akers; music by Neil Innes; production designer, John Beard; costume designer, Pam Tait; produced by John Goldstone; released by Svensk Filmindustri.

Starring Tim Robbins (Erik), Imogen Stubbs (Princess Aud), Richard Ridings (Thorfinn Skullsplitter), Tim McInnerny (Sven the Berserk), Charles McKeown (Sven’s Dad), Gary Cady (Keitel Blacksmith), Antony Sher (Loki), John Gordon Sinclair (Ivar the Boneless), Freddie Jones (Harald the Missionary), Danny Schiller (Snorri the Miserable), Samantha Bond (Helga), Mickey Rooney (Erik’s Grandfather), Eartha Kitt (Freya), Terry Jones (King Arnulf), and John Cleese (Halfdan the Black).


Dead End (1937, William Wyler)

If you tilt to just the right angle, for a while you can see Dead End as the tale of three people from a poor neighborhood and how life has worked out for them as they got closer to their thirties. Humphrey Bogart grew from a “not too bad” young punk to a public enemy number one, infamous for killing eight men. Joel McCrea busted his ass to put himself through college, got an architecture degree, hasn’t been able to find a job. Sylvia Sidney has been working since age ten, first taking care of her mother, now younger brother Billy Halop. Unfortunately, it’s eventually impossible to keep the head at that tilt and you’ve got to acknowledge Sidney gets the shaft so the film can focus on Halop and his teen gang. Sort of. They infest the film, nothing better to do with their day–Dead End takes place over a single day—than go swimming in the East River, maybe bully then physically assault and rob rich kid Charles Peck; just kids being kids stuff… because the film’s only willing to go so far with its observations.

Dead End might go after classism and gentrification (back when White people were still gentrifying other White people), but it’s not going to go after toxic masculinity or misogyny. There isn’t a single teenage girl shown in the film—the boys in the gang haven’t discovered girls yet—and the only insight into their situation comes from Bogart and teen love Claire Trevor.

The first hour of the film—it runs just over ninety—is mostly Bogart’s. He’s around the dock, talking with the gang, talking with childhood “pal” McCrea, back home with twenty grand in his pocket in a roll, a new face courtesy the plastic surgeon, trying to see his mom (Marjorie Main) and ex Trevor. Allen Jenkins gets the relatively thankless part as Bogart’s sidekick, who’s there to remind him dames aren’t worth it and run errands as needed.

Most of the time Bogart’s behaving himself and somewhat likable. When he takes a turn for the dark, the film does a good job with it. Sadly the only reason he takes that turn for the dark is because his mom doesn’t want anything to do with him because he’s a stone cold killer who does nothing but bring reporters and cops to her door and shame to her name. Doesn’t help Main’s not good. Whatever she and director Wyler decided she should do with the part was the wrong decision. It’s an awkwardly bad scene. You keep waiting for there to be a point to Main’s take on the character and it never arrives.

Trevor’s in a more complicated situation. She gets a single scene, after Bogart talking about her for forty-five or so minutes; what happens to a girl from the poor neighborhood? She ends up in sex work, possibly with tuberculosis, rejected by psychopath Bogart for not being clean enough for him. As far as the acting goes in their scene, they’re both good. They’re amazing when Bogart’s not pretending he should be rejecting her—clearly the makeup people weren’t going to make Trevor look bad, just mildly cheap but still nice looking—but once he gets put out thinking about her not being virginal, the scene becomes a little rote. If only these women had stayed pure enough, maybe Bogart wouldn’t have to go back to a life of crime. Mind you, he’s checking in on them at age thirty-one after being away for ten years plus however long he was in reform school.

Makes you wish play author Sidney Kingsley and screenwriter Lillian Hellman did something with the female characters except martyr them.

Though there is the poor cleaning woman who steals food from a baby, during one of Wyler’s phenomenal background sequences. They shot Dead End on an elaborate set; mostly it’s just the main cast or gang hanging out, but occasionally there are these sequences showing the daily lives of the residents and Wyler does a great job with them. Beautiful Gregg Toland photography, good editing from Daniel Mandell. Sadly, while Toland’s photography is good (or better) throughout, Mandell’s not as good at cutting the dialogue scenes as the physical action ones. Sure, it’s understandable you’d need to cut around some of Halop and the gang’s acting, but it’s still jerky.

McCrea gets a subplot about kept woman Wendy Barrie—who the film doesn’t slut shame, which is kind of weird given it really sounds like she’s a mistress—who wants to run off with him, away from her rich boyfriend, but only if McCrea can support her right. McCrea’s trying.

Meanwhile, Sidney’s been in love with McCrea since they were kids but McCrea still sees her as a ten year-old. She starts the film with a subplot about striking at work and having to convince the men around her she’s justified and actually deserves to be paid for her work; that subplot shrinks, then disappears, as Sidney eventually just ends up supporting Halop’s youth criminal in training story arc.

The youth gang stuff in Dead End is poorly executed, mostly due to the performances, but also the writing. Their scenes are vaguely from their perspective, but they’re also on display as tragic figures. Except they’re also profoundly likable, whether it’s beating up new kid Bernard Punsly for three cents—trying to convince him to steal from his mother—or when they start beating rich kid Peck with boards. Peck’s an absurdly obnoxious caricature, but then so are all the kids in the gang. Wyler doesn’t seem to want to get into the conversation about how apathetic rich people mocking the trauma of poverty is going to boil over at some point so instead plays the assaults like antics.

Great performance from Bogart, okay ones from McCrea and Sidney. Bogart’s able to overcome his part’s slightness, McCrea and Sidney not so much. Barrie’s not memorable but it’s also a bad part because Barrie’s a woman. Trevor’s excellent, mostly because the film doesn’t keep her around long enough to ruin it. Jenkins is good, Ward Bond’s solid as the doorman to the rich apartment building, and James Burke’s fine as the beat cop.

Dead End’s technically outstanding—Wyler’s direction, Toland’s photography, Richard Day’s set design, Julia Heron’s set decoration—but can’t get as serious as it needs to be about its subject matter. The Code wouldn’t allow some of it, but going the route of piloting a “Dead End Kids” franchise for the teen cast, making Dead End the only “real film” entry in the franchise, is rather disappointing. It just seems like with such a potentially strong cast, such a gorgeous set, Wyler and company could’ve done something more with it than Dead End.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Lillian Hellman, based on the play by Sidney Kingsley; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Daniel Mandell; produced by Samuel Goldwyn; released by United Artists.

Starring Sylvia Sidney (Drina), Joel McCrea (Dave), Humphrey Bogart (‘Baby Face’ Martin), Billy Halop (Tommy), Allen Jenkins (Hunk), Wendy Barrie (Kay), Claire Trevor (Francey), Marjorie Main (Mrs. Martin), Huntz Hall (Dippy), Bobby Jordan (Angel), Leo Gorcey (Spit), Gabriel Dell (T.B.), Bernard Punsly (Milty), Charles Peck (Philip), Minor Watson (Mr. Griswald), James Burke (Mulligan), and Ward Bond (doorman).



The Ref (1994, Ted Demme)

Every once in a while, The Ref lets you forget it’s just a comedy vehicle for stand-up comic Denis Leary and so doesn’t need to actually be a good drama and just lets you enjoy the acting. Demme’s direction is simultaneously detached, thoughtful, and sincere. He and editor Jeffrey Wolf craft these wonderful comedic scenes. Sure, they’re usually some mixture of smart and crass and good old shock vulgar, but they’re good. They’re funny. The Ref starts as a straight-faced spoof of a hostage drama. Lovable master thief Denis Leary takes viciously fighting and profoundly unhappily married Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey hostage. On Christmas Eve. Eventually their extended family shows up and the film culminates in Leary, who’s spent the movie refereeing the fighting couple—refereeing, The Ref, a little punny but, you know, fine. Makes you think about sports not the movie actually being a Bergman spoof.

It’s not. I wish it were, but it’s not. It’s a mainstream comedy with just the right amount of jokes at people and with people, once you get over the nastiness between Spacey and Davis. The opening scene is them in marriage counseling—an uncredited BD Wong plays the overwhelmed counselor who’s just there for the eventual movie trailer… and to normalize their behavior. Their exceptionally mean comments to each other. Hateful, spiteful, so on and so forth. The film’s giving us permission to laugh at Spacey and Davis trying to manipulate and hurt one another. It comes right after an Americana intro to the rich, idyllic suburb where the action takes place. We meet the friendly, personable cops, the children looking in the window at Christmas decorations, on and on. There are a lot of disparate pieces to The Ref, like Raymond J. Barry as the weary police chief with the department of lovably dumb cops, the It’s a Wonderful Life anecdote scene with a bunch of those lovably dumb cops, or J.K. Simmons as a blackmailed military school administrator. The movie makes them all fit. Sometimes with help from composer David A. Stewart, but always thanks to Demme and editor Wolf. The Ref’s got a great flow.

So then too is credit due screenwriters Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss; Weiss has a story credit but LaGravenese is top-billed so there’s a story, I’m sure. Maybe it explains why the melodramatic writing for Spacey and Davis—because Spacey and Davis need meat, they need something they can devour. They both get various solo scenes throughout where they get to let loose. Showcases, really. Because in addition to having a lot of funny scenes, The Ref is about watching Davis and Spacey do these character examinations of what would otherwise just be caricatures. They’ve got to be funny being dramatically mean and hateful to each other, while building the foundation to support the performances when the roles finally get stripped to the bone and laid bare for melodramatic purposes. While in what’s basically a sitcom situation involving Leary pretending to be their marriage counselor while he waits for his getaway boat to be ready. See, Spacey’s got an evil mom (Glynis Johns, who’s inexplicably British) and remember it’s Christmas Eve so it’s going to be Johns, apparently Spacey’s moron brother Adam LeFevre—nothing’s more unrealistic in the film than LeFevre and Spacey being brothers; they don’t exchange any lines; it’s like the film wanted to avoid it. LeFevre’s monosyllabic and lives in fear of wife Christine Baranski, who’s nasty to their kids—Phillip Nicoll and Ellie Raab but in a stuck-up White lady sort of way. Yeah… sitcom is the way to describe The Ref, actually.

Anyway.

Then there’s Spacey and Davis’s son, Robert J. Steinmiller Jr., who’s fine. The movie doesn’t ask too much of him and Demme directs him well. He’s a burgeoning criminal mastermind, a sophomore shipped off to military academy. He’s a plot foil more than a major supporting player—basically the film demotes him in the second act because it’s not fun watching Spacey and Davis berate each other in front of Steinmiller, which isn’t a great situation.

The filmmakers do what they can but there’s an inherent unevenness to The Ref. It feigns being different things—wry hostage spoof, hateful family Christmas movie—without ever trying to actually be those things. It’s comfortable just relying on Davis, Spacey, and Leary to get it through.

Because Leary’s the emcee. The film hints at giving him some stand-up rants throughout but soon makes it clear it’ll never interrupts the action for them. It’s a Leary vehicle but not a base one. He’s excellent. Not clearly profoundly talented like Davis and Spacey—which, note, is much different than their performances being profound—but excellent in the part. He’s very good at making room from his more talented, second and third-billed costars.

The Ref’s good.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ted Demme; screenplay by Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss, based on a story by Weiss; director of photography, Adam Kimmel; edited by Jeffrey Wolf; music by David A. Stewart; production designer, Dan Davis; costume designer, Judianna Makovsky; produced by Ron Bozman, LaGravenese, and Jeffrey Weiss; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Denis Leary (Gus), Judy Davis (Caroline), Kevin Spacey (Lloyd), Robert J. Steinmiller Jr. (Jesse), Richard Bright (Murray), Raymond J. Barry (Huff), Glynis Johns (Rose), Christine Baranski (Connie), Adam LeFevre (Gary), Phillip Nicoll (John), Ellie Raab (Mary), Bill Raymond (George), John Scurti (Steve), Jim Turner (Phil), Robert Ridgely (Bob Burley), J.K. Simmons (Siskel), Rutanya Alda (Linda), and BD Wong (Dr. Wong).


The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018, Susanna Fogel)

The Spy Who Dumped Me has, rather unfortunately, a punny title. It’s an accurate title—the film’s about spy Justin Theroux dumping his civilian and not aware he’s a spy girlfriend Mila Kunis—but it doesn’t capture the mood of the film. No doubt, it’s a hard one to title—because even though it starts with Kunis going to Europe to help Theroux on a mission (after a very well-executed gun fight), it becomes more about Kunis and best friend Kate McKinnon as they find their respective knacks in life as spies. Or at least, movie spies, who have to worry about gun fights in public places, evil trapeze artists, and “Edward Snowden” cameos. Spy purposefully goes all over the place (and all over Europe), with the core mystery being engaging enough but never the point. Spy’s all about its performances, not the MacGuffins.

Which makes Sam Heughan’s smooth British spy guy stand out as a fail. He’s fine. He’s even charming at times, but he’s… nothing special. When Kunis has her pick of spies, Theroux or Heughan, she goes Theroux—who’s got his issues too—but at last he’s got some character. Heughan looks like a British spy caricature, acts like a British spy caricature. He’s no fun. Theroux’s not really fun either, but he doesn’t have to be fun. But Heughan? He’s the straight man to partner Hasan Minhaj, whose thing is just being a boring straightedge and he’s so fun at it. Or their boss, Gillian Armstrong, who plays a British spy supervisor caricature and makes it seem like a real character. Heughan’s fine, but he’s a bummer. Theroux’s… a bummer. At least one of them needs to be better.

Nicely, everything else is great so the two supporting dudes being a little lackluster doesn’t matter. And Heughan’s good with the fight stuff; he gets sympathy for being such a surprisingly solid action star. Spy gives Kunis and McKinnon a lot, keeping an undercurrent of humor. Heughan doesn’t really have the humor. Sometimes he’s got Kunis and McKinnon giving audio commentary, which brings some humor, but director Fogel handles it differently. Probably contributes to keeping Kunis and McKinnon in danger. They’re not because it’s still a fish out of water buddy comedy and it can’t kill either buddy but the film’s got to put them in danger for about an hour straight before a resolution. Spy isn’t short—it’s real close to two hours—and it’s really well-paced and keeping tension in an action comedy isn’t easy. Luckily there’s a lot of violence. Spy goes all in on the action violence; lots of great action set pieces; they’re what make the movie work in the first act. It demands attention.

Kunis is a good lead, but McKinnon walks away with it. She’s really funny. Even when the scene isn’t really funny, McKinnon’s really funny. And her third act stuff is impossible and she makes it happen. Fogel’s careful not to showcase McKinnon too much—without not showcasing her either—and giving Kunis her time but… it’s McKinnon’s show. She’s part of all the best material. Kunis gets most of it, but third act is all McKinnon’s. Also Kunis and McKinnon are great together, which makes everything feel a lot more even throughout. It’s just… Kunis gets a romance subplot and McKinnon gets to be hilarious. Shame Kunis doesn’t have better dudes in the triangle. But Heughan’s fine.

He’s fine.

Great cameos from Jane Curtin, Paul Reiser, and Fred Melamed. Ivanna Sakhno’s awesome as the Bond villain assassin out to get Kunis and, especially, McKinnon.

The Spy Who Dumped Me is really good at being really funny and good enough when it’s not being really funny.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Susanna Fogel; written by Fogel and David Iserson; director of photography, Barry Peterson; edited by Jonathan Schwartz; music by Tyler Bates; production designer, Marc Homes; costume designer, Alex Bovaird; produced by Brian Grazer and Erica Huggins; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Mila Kunis (Audrey), Kate McKinnon (Morgan), Sam Heughan (Sebastian), Hasan Minhaj (Duffer), Justin Theroux (Drew), Ivanna Sakhno (Nadedja), Jane Curtin (Carol), Paul Reiser (Arnie), Lolly Adefope (Tess), and Gillian Anderson (Wendy).