Category Archives: ★★★½

Twilight (1998, Robert Benton)

Unfortunate bit of trivia to start us off—Twilight is supposed to be called The Magic Hour, but just around the time of release, Magic Johnson’s high profile (and quickly cancelled) TV show had the same title and they changed the movie’s title. Titles are both important and not. They definitely establish a work’s intention—you may know nothing about something but once you see the title, you ostensibly know something. The problem with Twilight’s title change is two-fold. While, sure, Twilight is The Magic Hour as far as a time of day when Los Angeles looks particularly hot and haunting, but Twilight also carries with it some implications given the film’s all about being old and dying. Whereas The Magic Hour does not carry those similar implications.

So about a hundred and fifty words to say, you most likely know it as Twilight, but it will always be The Magic Hour to me.

Twilight opens with Paul Newman having a beer at a Mexican resort, then another. He’s on the trail of seventeen year-old Reese Witherspoon; she’s run away with inappropriate older boyfriend Liev Schreiber. We get a little of the Newman charm as he extricates Witherspoon from Schreiber, but things soon go wrong; Newman’s passive gender expectations get him shot.

Fast forward two years and Newman’s living above the garage of seventies Hollywood stars Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon. Newman does odd jobs around the house, plays cards with Hackman, flirts with Sarandon, bickers with their daughter… Witherspoon. Hackman felt bad for wounded Newman and gave him a place to stay. Then Hackman got sick and they needed Newman around. The inciting action is Hackman asking Newman to run an errand… which may or may not have something to do with Hackman’s simultaneous news—his cancer is back and he’s not going to be doing anymore treatment, which is pissing off Sarandon.

What unfolds is a mess of dreams and nightmares. Newman’s got his own dreams and nightmares, but he’s wading through everyone else’s. There are the older folks’—retired ex-cops James Garner and M. Emmet Walsh, who’ve gone on to the private sector with differing results; Newman’s old cop partner, Stockard Channing, who’s got commonalities with the old ex-cops but very different dreams; Giancarlo Esposito’s Newman’s de facto old partner from private investigating days, still starstruck at the possible glamour of the profession. You’re in Hollywood, even if you avoid it, it’s a magical place where dreams come true. Even the obvious villains—Margo Martindale’s blackmailer, for instance, or Schreiber—are just mired in the cultural magical thinking. The script—by director Benton and Richard Russo—does an exceptional job layering in all that subtext. Essential in getting that subtext across is Piotr Sobocinski’s lush, deliberate photography, Elmer Bernstein’s lush, deliberate score, Carol Littleton’s lush, deliberate editing, and David Gropman’s… no, not lush and deliberate, but sharp yet functional production design. Twilight is very much about people in their chosen environments. The difference between locations speak volumes about the characters who live in them, who visit them, as well as the setting in general.

Because Twilight is exceptionally smart.

And should’ve gotten whatever title it wanted.

(The Magic Hour).

Anyway. Great performances. Benton and Russo’s script provides just the right amount of foundation, Benton’s direction stretches the canvas—all the mixed metaphors—and the actors then inhabit and expand. Should’ve gone with some kind of sculpture thing.

The best performance, just in terms of pure unadulterated success, is Martindale. She’s magnificent. But the most successful with the least is Esposito, who seems to be taking what ought to be a caricature and turning it into the film’s realest person. Witherspoon’s got some really good moments, ditto Schreiber. But it’s all about the older adults—though Newman, Hackman, and Garner are a decade and a half (at least) older than Sarandon. It’s all about the complicated relationships Newman’s forged with Hackman, Garner, and Sarandon; as the film progresses, we find out more and more about Newman before the opening mishap in Mexico. Twilight’s a Raymond Chandler story about seventies Hollywood done twenty years later with Hollywood stars playing type and against but also a character study. Kind of more a character story. It’s not really an L.A. movie only because Benton doesn’t dwell. He’s all about the locations, but showcasing the action occurring in them.

Because even though Benton does a great job with the supporting actors—Sarandon the most-it’s all about Newman. It’s not clear in the first scene—the Mexico flashback—because Newman’s got on sunglasses, but the film’s all about his performance. About how the events wear on him, how he reacts to them. Benton makes his cast sit in their emotional states—freezing them, just for a second or two—and shows how the pressure is crushing them. Not the pressure of their failures or successes, but the Hollywood dreams.

Again, should’ve been called The Magic Hour. Or something else entirely.

Hackman and Sarandon are both great. Garner’s got this wonderful flashy ex-cop turned studio security turned old codger part. He’s really enthusiastic about taking that extra reaction time. Hackman seems used to it, Sarandon’s different—but Garner’s visibly (albeit reservedly) jazzed; the performance does a lot to establish Garner’s place in the story, which is more often than not offscreen. Hackman and Sarandon, Garner, they’re places Newman visits. Sometimes for a long time, but he’s always a guest in those places. It’s very a Chandler-esque narrative.

Because Twilight is very much within the genre constraints of a mystery, which is the only thing wrong with it—Russo and Benton are careful never to strain said constraints too hard; they’re too respectful of genre. But what they do—what the film does—is magical enough.

Because it should’ve been called the damn Magic Hour.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Benton; written by Benton and Richard Russo; director of photography, Piotr Sobocinski; edited by Carol Littleton; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, David Gropman; costume designer, Joseph G. Aulisi; produced by Arlene Donovan and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Harry Ross), Susan Sarandon (Catherine Ames), Gene Hackman (Jack Ames), Reese Witherspoon (Mel Ames), Stockard Channing (Lt. Verna Hollander), James Garner (Raymond Hope), Giancarlo Esposito (Reuben Escobar), Liev Schreiber (Jeff Willis), Margo Martindale (Gloria Lamar), John Spencer (Capt. Phil Egan), and M. Emmet Walsh (Lester Ivar).



Pale Flower (1964, Shinoda Masahiro)

Pale Flower opens with lead Ikebe Ryô narrating his first day out of prison. Not what he does—we get to see what he does—but how he feels about being out, what he notices. He’s killed a man, been in prison for three years, and nothing has changed in Tokyo. The dead man’s absence doesn’t matter, Ikebe’s absence doesn’t matter. Ikebe’s indifferent to existence, particularly his own; so what better thing to do with one’s time than the endorphin rush of gambling. Oh… right: Ikebe also talks a little about the thrill of killing. Not anything to get a rush—dope’s out, for example—but almost anything. Ikebe’s looking for a (relatively) safe rush, whether it’s from gambling or hooking up with lady friend Hara Chisako. Hara’s in a bad situation—abused by a now senile stepfather she now cares for, romantically pursued by a civilian at her office, she too is looking for a rush, one only bad boy (again, relatively speaking) Ikebe can provide.

But Hara doesn’t offer Ikebe that same rush. Especially not after he goes gambling and discovers things have changed a little since he’s been gone—there’s now a girl (Kaga Mariko) in the gambling scene. At first, Kaga just slightly piques Ikebe’s interest—he’s busy trying to adjust to the new yakuza ground situation. Ikebe went in for killing one of Tôno Eijirô’s men, on boss Miyaguchi Seiji’s orders. Only there’s a new player in town and Tôno and Miyaguchi have had to team up, something not all of Tôno’s men are all right with; they want to avenge themselves on Ikebe, which ends up providing Ikebe with his only steady acquaintance. Foolish young yakuza Sasaki Isao tries to take on Ikebe and botches it, leading to Sasaki having to apologize (multiple times) and Ikebe taking Sasaki under his wing. Of course, since Ikebe doesn’t do much besides gamble, it just means he and Sasaki play cards a lot.

Most of Ikebe’s time—and Pale Flower’s runtime—is spent with Kaga. She wants a bigger game, bigger thrills, and Ikebe lines it up for her. She’s something of a mystery; besides getting her name and having some suspicions about her day life, Ikebe doesn’t find out much and doesn’t care. He’s protective of her, worries about her, but is also a little awestruck. As the film progresses and the pair reveal more of themselves to each other, it becomes clear just how much they’re alter egos, bound by the thrill seeking. One of director Shinoda’s great successes with Pale Flower is not making it icky as Ikebe’s concern goes from paternal to romantic. He goes from mild disapproval of youthful, apparently wealthy Kaga’s excesses to longing for them, even as his obligations to Miyaguchi make it hard if not impossible for their relationship to continue. Or, at least, to intensify.

When Hara finds out about Kaga, she gets extremely jealous without ever understanding the nature of the relationship, which is an excellent, subtle device for Shinoda to examine it as most of the time spent with Kaga and Ikebe is about the thrills. There are the exquisite gambling sequences—Shinoda could care less if the audience understands the gaming being played (at one point, Ikebe asks Kaga if she understands a new game and she says she’ll figure it out on her own as she plays; the audience has to do the same as they watch)—and then a fantastic, out of nowhere car race. Shinoda’s direction, Kosugi Masao’s photography, Sugihara Yoshi’s editing, and Nishizaki Hideo’s sound design sit the viewer next to the leads, encapsulating their visceral experience of the moments. The down time, when Ikebe sits around his sparse apartment with pals Mikami Shin'ichirô and Sugiura Naoki, is just treading water until he can get to the next game with Kaga.

There’s also the completely silent Fujiki Takashi, a half Chinese yakuza dope addict psychopath; Fujiki interests both Ikebe and Kaga, but for different reasons. For Ikebe, Fujiki presents a threat to Kaga’s attention. Dope’s the easy thrill and Kaga’s too young to understand why easy thrills are wrong. Ikebe’s jealous of Fujiki before he and Kaga even discuss him. And since the exposition is always delayed about ten minutes in Pale Flower, Ikebe’s got to convey the character development in his performance. Shinoda and the crew help, obviously, the way they present Ikebe and his experience of the situations, but Pale Flower doesn’t rush to explain anything. Explanations are overrated anyway, something the film all of a sudden forgets in the epilogue.

After a flawless finale, Shinoda and co-screenwriter Baba Masaru jarringly sync the calmly delayed exposition to scene. Worse, they do it with narration. It makes sense, there’s not enough time left in the film for the traditional delay, but it’s also a needless gesture. Pale Flower needs to be five minutes shorter or five minutes longer.

Great performances all around—Ikebe, Kaga, Hara. Bosses Tôno and Miyaguchi are awesome together, these almost adorable old men as they determine the fates of those around them.

The plotting is excellent; Pale Flower’s expansive but concise. Shinoda’s got these specifically directed sequences with different styles but the same tools used to create them. The car race, for instance, looks and feels entirely different than the foot chase, but it’s the same tone, it’s the same filmmaking techniques applied. And the narrative distance is the same. It’s almost always about Ikebe’s experience of the moments; when it’s not, it’s about Kaga’s and Ikebe’s experience of observing her experience of them.

It’s phenomenal.

It just needs to be a little shorter, or a little longer. Pale Flower’s an objective lesson in the trickiness of epilogues.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Shinoda Masahiro; screenplay by Baba Masaru and Shinoda, based on the novel by Ishihara Shintarô; director of photography, Kosugi Masao; edited by Sugihara Yoshi; music by Takahashi Yûji and Takemitsu Tôru; produced by Shirai Masao and Wakatsuki Shigeru; released by Shochiku Company.

Starring Ikebe Ryô (Muraki), Kaga Mariko (Saeko), Fujiki Takashi (Yoh), Sugiura Naoki (Aikawa), Mikami Shin’ichirô (Reiji), Sasaki Isao (Jiro), Nakahara Kôji (Tamaki), Miyaguchi Seiji (Gang leader), Tôno Eijirô (Gang Leader), and Hara Chisako (Muraki’s lover).


Booksmart (2019, Olivia Wilde)

Booksmart opens with high school senior Beanie Feldstein getting up on her last day of school; graduation is in the morning. She listens to self-affirmations about—politely—crushing your adversaries as you excel past them. Now, Feldstein lives in an apartment building. Not a terrible one, but not a nice one. Her lack of perception of privilege and class are going to bite her a little so it’s an important detail. Similarly, when best friend Kaitlyn Dever pulls up to drive to school, Dever’s not in a great car. Booksmart is going to exist in a very particular bubble and the film’s got no problem with that bubble, it just doesn’t examine it. Because Booksmart is a comedy. Yes, Feldstein’s an overachiever from a different economic class from her classmates and Dever’s an out lesbian teenager living with two Christian but supportive parent. They’ve got things going on. But the film’s more concerned with being funny and fun, which is exactly what it needs to be doing.

At school, Feldstein gets a rude awakening to how the world of college acceptance works from her classmates, who she assumed were all headed to a trade school and it turns out, no, not only are they going to the same school (Yale) or better than her, even the kid who flunked seventh grade twice (Eduardo Franco) has already got a coding job at Google. Feldstein had no fun and excelled but they had fun and excelled, meaning she was wrong and the things weren’t mutually exclusive—which is true, especially once you find out the kids are all rich. Some are 1%, the others are 3-6%. Turns out Dever’s parents have a great house and the old car is just a Dever thing. The class and privilege aspects gradually get brushed over with the comedy. The details aren’t presently important for Feldstein and Dever, who are going to go on to have their own character development—outstanding character development—usually these little moments in the reactions or dialogue amid the comedy. Booksmart’s always working towards a laugh, usually at least medium ones.

The film knows how to get a laugh and it knows what kind of laugh it’s going to get—some of its the script (Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman—so maybe the most successful four-writer movie in a while), most of its Wilde’s direction and Feldstein and Dever’s performances. Wilde’s sense of timing is exquisite. She and editor Jamie Gross cut the humor perfectly, but then it turns out they’ve also got these more ambitious sequences. There’s this fantastic dance sequence out of nowhere and then this emotional visually poetic underwater swimming sequence. Both those sequences serve Feldstein and Dever, but they’re also the showiest Wilde’s going to be able to get in the film and she ties the filmmaking ambition to the stars; they’re breathtaking sequences. And right after them, Booksmart turns out not to really have an idea of how to get from point C to point D. The film’s second to third act transition is exceptionally rough. It’s well-acted, it’s well-directed—Wilde even does this “hands off” thing when it gets too intense dramatically; Booksmart is about the comedy. The specifics of the drama aren’t the point. Especially not since it concerns Feldstein and Dever’s friendship—because of course it does, it’s a high school best friends comedy, weren’t you paying attention to the genre tropes; even when Felstein and Dever are spouting exposition about their history, Wilde always takes a hands-off approach with the pair. Their friendship needs to illuminate itself through the performances, not the specifics of the dialogue, which is very important as well because it’s often hilarious and the film needs to hit the laugh.

After some brief pathos for the stars, the third act then amps up the physical comedy in the search of an ending. Booksmart’s got a great epilogue, but the ending of the film’s narrative gets desperate at the end and plays a lot on the film’s goodwill. Nicely, the film’s still generating goodwill through the rough spots; Feldstein and Dever can handle the pathos fine, it’s just not serving a purpose. Kind of like the kind of icky thirty-something teacher and the twenty-year old student. That one is the film’s only actual problem, even though it too is a high school movie trope… it’s just one in need of more examination of how it executes in Booksmart, where it’s a C plot.

Okay, time to go over the supporting cast. It’s big, but the actors are essential to the film’s success. It’s one of those apparently perfectly casted films—even though Booksmart’s got the epical narrative, it’s also a hangout movie. And Wilde knows how to showcase the supporting cast. Billie Lourd’s the richest girl, who doesn’t make much impression in her introduction but becomes the film’s best running joke. And Lourd’s great. Then there’s Mason Gooding as Feldstein’s dope of a vice president… but a really hot one who Feldstein’s got a secret crush on. Meanwhile, Dever’s got a years long crush on skater girl Victoria Ruesga, who wishes Dever would party on weekends so… possibilities. Molly Gordon’s the mean girl who turns out to have a bunch of depth. Noah Galvin and Austin Crute are hilarious as the theater guys. Then Skyler Gisondo is the richest boy, who’s extremely socially awkward and seems to have a crush on Feldstein, which Feldstein’s mortified about.

The way the night unfolds—and the plot perturbs—informs how the supporting cast is going to interact with Feldstein and Dever, which leads to reaction scenes for the two of them as their expectations get realized and dashed. And Feldstein and Dever get the funniest material—Wilde sets the narrative distance constantly inform their relationship (and performances) more than anything else, even when the supporting cast is getting some big comic moment. Wilde’s stunningly good at the directing thing. Booksmart’s always impressive for one reason or another.

Great lead performances, great supporting performances, great direction, outstanding script; technically it’s excellent—Gross’s editing, Jason McCormick’s photography, Dan The Automator’s score, all superb. It’s a humdinger of a first feature from director Wilde.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Olivia Wilde; written by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman; director of photography, Jason McCormick; edited by Jamie Gross; music by Dan The Automator; production designer, Katie Byron; produced by Chelsea Barnard, David Distenfeld, Jessica Elbaum, Megan Ellison, and Silberman; released by Annapurna Pictures.

Starring Beanie Feldstein (Molly), Kaitlyn Dever (Amy), Skyler Gisondo (Jared), Billie Lourd (Gigi), Victoria Ruesga (Ryan), Mason Gooding (Nick), Diana Silvers (Hope), Molly Gordon (Triple A), Noah Galvin (George), Austin Crute (Alan), Eduardo Franco (Theo), Nico Hiraga (Tanner), and Jason Sudeikis (Principal Brown).


The Big Red One (1980, Samuel Fuller)

The Big Red One is a fairly even split between action and conversation. The film tracks a single squad as they start fighting in North Africa, follow the war into the Mediterranean, participate in D-Day, then go east. The film skips to each event. There’s usually some epilogue to the event, something like character development or character revelation, then it’s on to the next event, starting with the time and place in the war. Squad member Robert Carradine narrates the film, which includes bridging the gaps between the events. He’ll occasionally have something to say about his fellow squad members, something to further reveal their character, but he doesn’t have much opinion of that new reveal. Even if it’s something bad. Even though the film’s about these five men, it’s not about their relationship. We’re not invited. Carradine fills in some details, very occasionally contextualizes, but there’s something going on in One away from the viewer. Director Fuller is telling the audience a story, which is somehow different from telling a story. How he’s telling the story is very important.

Fuller centers the film around the sergeant, played by Lee Marvin. He’s not just the center of the movie, he’s the hero of Carradine’s narration, which is more important; Carradine’s not the hero of his own narration. It’s not his story he’s telling, it’s Marvin’s, even though Marvin’s an intentional mystery. And not a mystery Fuller’s inviting the audience to solve. Or even attempt to solve. Marvin’s the hero. He’s the older, gruff sergeant with a heart of gold. A World War I vet too (the film opens in a flashback to it; good de-aging makeup). But Marvin’s never a stereotype. Neither are Carradine, Mark Hamill, Bobby Di Cicco, or Kelly Ward. Because Fuller doesn’t even give them that much character in the script. All the personality to the characters comes from the actors, which is an exceptionally odd choice for Fuller to make. And a completely successful one. That open space where Fuller could’ve written character—remember the movie’s half conversation, so these guys are always talking, sometimes about themselves, but nothing about anything to do with themselves. Hamill’s an artist. We find out nothing about it, he’s just drawing all the time. Carradine’s a writer, we find out a bunch about it… but he’s never actually writing. Di Cicco and Ward imply these complicated characters in their deliveries of one-liners. It’s a very strange, very good way to… get out of doing the character work but not let it go to caricature.

Fuller does something similar with Marvin, but gives him more backstory and experience because he’s older and has more experience and backstory. But Fuller’s still relying on Marvin for all the action reactions and processing of the events he’s experiencing.

Because in many ways, the four younger guys—they’re all privates—the four privates, they’re interchangeable. During the action scenes, anyway. When one of them does something significant, sure, then they’re different—usually Fuller forecasts the character’s taking center stage—but some of the point is how everyone in the squad except Marvin is interchangeable. Fuller sets the leads apart from the other four squad members (you usually only know one other squad member at a time, the other two or three are screen filler), but not in any way to make them exemplars. They’re just the guys who hang around Marvin the most and have some unrevealed history together. It’s none of our business, they’re just our protagonists.

And, incredibly, Fuller gets away with it. Di Cicco’s charming enough, Carradine’s funny enough, Ward’s surprisingly alpha enough, Hamill’s sufficiently sad enough. See, Hamill’s the movie’s second-is lead. It’s really Carradine but the movie pretends it’s Hamill because Ukelay Ywalkerskay. And Hamill gets a fairly intense arc all to himself and Fuller makes him do it all on his face. The film charts Hamill’s abilities at emoting improving until they’re finally successful enough they cover the absence of exposition on Hamill’s subplot. Fuller avoids it, then leaves it up to Hamill to make it all right to avoid it.

It’s so well-directed. Fuller’s so thoughtful about it all. He rarely lets the film go off on tangents and usually they’re only because he’s interested in something separate from the main cast, their concerns, their needs. Fuller occasionally checks in with German sergeant Siegfried Rauch, who’s basically evil Lee Marvin. He’s got similar experiences; not just the last war, but also taking on these wet-behind-the-ears new recruits; he’s just really evil. Fuller likes using Rauch to distract from what he’s not doing with the main cast, like developing their characters. Rauch isn’t like the other main characters; Rauch never gets to mug his way through a scene. He doesn’t get free rein to do whatever on his character between his lines. He’s different.

Because, you know, he’s the Nazi.

Good photography from Adam Greenberg, great editing from Morton Tubor, very strong, very often disquieting score from Dana Kaproff. It’s a somewhat traditional war movie score, but Kaproff takes it in different directions, which help to reveal (presumably accurately) more about the lead characters.

Performances—Marvin’s great, Carradine’s great, Hamill’s good, Di Cicco and Ward are great. Marvin’s really great. He gets some great material and makes it even better.

The Big Red One is superb.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Samuel Fuller; director of photography, Adam Greenberg; edited by Morton Tubor; music by Dana Kaproff; produced by Gene Corman; released by United Artists.

Starring Lee Marvin (The Sergeant), Mark Hamill (Griff), Robert Carradine (Zab), Bobby Di Cicco (Vinci), Kelly Ward (Johnson), Joseph Clark (Shep), Ken Campbell (Lemchek), Doug Werner (Switolski), Perry Lang (Kaiser), Howard Delman (Smitty), and Siegfried Rauch (The German Sergeant).