Category Archives: ★★

The Guest (2014, Adam Wingard)

For most of The Guest, the script doesn’t matter. Either the acting or the filmmaking carry the scene. The first act is this fairly standard, fairly obvious—albeit beautifully produced—drama about an all American family in crisis after the death of the oldest son, a soldier, killed in action in the Middle East. Dad Leland Orser is a verbally abusive drunk who also feels inadequate for not making enough money (in rural New Mexico). Mom Sheila Kelley is just sad. And dealing with Orser. High schooler Brendan Meyer is super-smart and mercilessly bullied. Daughter Maika Monroe works at the diner to save for college and has to hide pot-head boyfriend Chase Williamson from the fam. Then Dan Stevens knocks on the door—actually, Dan Stevens knocks on the door first and then the film establishes the family and really quickly, really efficiently. The strangest thing about The Guest having script problems is the plotting flows perfectly; writer Simon Barrett basically just doesn’t have any ending and he doesn’t have enough character development. Otherwise, the script’s good.

Anyway—Stevens. He’s the dead son’s comrade and he promised to tell each family member how much the dead son loved them. Stevens is just a good, nice guy, which is apparently exactly what the family needs. Kelley doesn’t have a son back so much as a pal. Kelley’s a missed opportunity. She’s a narrative prop, moved around for effective, but her performance is great. The film really doesn’t do enough with her. She’s around a lot but she doesn’t get any character development. She’s just sad about dead son and worried about her family. She also doesn’t have a clothes dryer, which is important later on. She and Stevens are really good together. Actually, Stevens is really good with everyone—Orser, Meyer, love interest Tabatha Shaun—except the one person it turns out he needs to be really good with—Monroe.

And it’s both Stevens and Monroe’s fault, but maybe more director Wingard and writer Barrett’s. Because eventually they at least need to have some spark and they never do, which seems almost intentional and a really wrong-headed move on the film’s part. So, eventually weird things start happening—like Stevens helping Meyer with his bully problem and Shaun with a pushy ex-boyfriend—and Monroe overhears Stevens on a mysterious cellphone call and just has to start investigating. Everything about that plot development is bad—anal-retentive Stevens having his super-shady but not super-shady at all phone call in hearing distance, Monroe immediately going Nancy Drew (the character’s written differently in each act), even the direction is forced (in the wrong way). Because first act Monroe is supposed to be crushing on Stevens, whereas second act Monroe is convinced he’s the devil and then third act Monroe is aware he’s the devil but operating indifferently to that belief. It’s not a good part for Monroe, especially not in the third act; the writing is just too thin. Also the film kind of dumps Monroe in the second act as she’s Nancy Drewing to follow everyone else. Well, the guys, not Kelley.

But it’s always an engrossing thriller. Wingard, who also edits, which seems right, knows how to present Stevens for maximum effect and Stevens is the whole point. Again, why Nancy Drew Monroe if she’s not going to take point but whatever; Barrett’s script has a lot of issues. Wingard’s got a tone he’s going for and hits it; making the film around any narrative issues for most of its hundred minutes. Steve Moore’s music and Robby Baumgartner’s photography are both excellent and enable that tone. If Wingard had been able to succeed with The Guest, it would’ve been something. But not failing is something too. Though having Stevens helps. And Monroe and Meyer and Kelley and Orser. The cast is right, the script is just a little wrong.

Also, Lance Reddick as Stevens’s former CO needs to be great and then isn’t. Reddick’s the third act surprise and it’s a flop.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Adam Wingard; written by Simon Barrett; director of photography, Robby Baumgartner; music by Steve Moore; production designer, Tom Hammock; costume designer, Kathleen Detoro; produced by Jessica Calder and Keith Calder; released by Picturehouse.

Starring Dan Stevens (David), Maika Monroe (Anna), Brendan Meyer (Luke), Sheila Kelley (Laura), Leland Orser (Spencer), Tabatha Shaun (Kristen), Chase Williamson (Zeke), Joel David Moore (Craig), and Lance Reddick (Major Carver).


Tea Party (1965, Charles Jarrott)

Tea Party opens with Vivien Merchant getting a job at a toilet bowl company. The second or third shot of Party is a toilet on display. Strikingly weird without the context; director Jarrott and editor Raoul Sobel are enthusiastic about the visual possibilities without really being any good at them. It’s the medium; Tea Party is a mid-sixties television play, shot on video; there’s only so much anyone’s going to be able to do with it, visually. And Jarrott and Sobel try. Jarrott’s better at the… visual montage than at the shot composition, which brings us back to Merchant and the beginning of Party.

She’s going to be secretary to the self-made, king of the British bidet Leo McKern. Best toilets and such in the country. The interview goes well until McKern starts asking about Merchant’s old job and she reluctantly tells him about her handsy old boss. McKern drags it out of her, then condemns such behavior. It’s weird because Jarrott’s male gaze is overt in the scene. Merchant’s legs get distracting because you’re trying to see past them after a while. Jarrott’s got to make it real clear; after this awkward start, Party’s frankness will become one of its assets. The frankness also helps inform the performances. Tea Party, at its best, is a symbiotic success—the writing, the acting, the production (if not the direction itself). But at the beginning it’s weird.

Especially since McKern is getting married the next day to Jennifer Wright, who’s way too young and pretty for portly blowhard McKern. But damn if McKern hasn’t convinced himself he’s Wright’s dream guy; him begging her for validation on their wedding night is rending, alternately making him sympathetic for asking bit her not for lying to him. It means you can’t trust Wright and not just because of her creepy brother (Charles Gray) who only showed up before the wedding and has inserted himself in their lives. McKern seems perturbed by it, so hires Gray, but then Wright just goes to work for Gray. So some possible sympathy for McKern; especially since he’s got these little shit twin sons, Peter Bartlett and Robert Bartlett, who are weird but because McKern’s got to be a weird dad. But also the twin thing.

Only once Wright starts working for Gray, McKern starts getting wild for Merchant. Like… sniffing her office chair level. It’s a gross turn and really informs how the narrative distance should be taken. It’s just the medium… Pinter and Jarrott are keeping you away for a reason.

It takes Merchant a while to realize what’s up, but then she starts playing along. We get no insight into her as a character because… Pinter writes her like a cartoon. She prances around the office, swishing at McKern. Is it intentional or passive? Is it just the sixties secretary or is Merchant doing it with agency? Pinter goes on to raise a few questions, seemingly without any intention of answering them because answering them would give the supporting characters too much depth. It’s all about McKern and his descent into jealous horniness. It makes him see spots. For a moment it seems like fellow old (and optometrist) John Le Mesurier is going to have a real talk with McKern, which seems like it’d be great, but Pinter goes another way and whatever he comes up with isn’t great. It’s fine, but not great.

Like the ending, when they bring it all together for—well, for a Tea Party. It’s a pragmatic conclusion but relies entirely on Jarrott’s direction instead of anyone’s acting. He and editor Sobel try a lot with Tea Party, but very rarely actually succeed. They’re not up for the task at the finish.

Quite strong performances from McKern, Merchant, Gray. Le Mesurier’s good. Wright gets an incomplete but because of the script. You keep expecting the Bartlett brothers to stand at the end of a hall, holding hands, telling McKern to come play with them. They’re Party’s greatest potential. Their perspective on the whole thing would’ve given a lot more possibilities.

Instead, it’s a tad blah. Especially when you consider it copped out on its more interesting implications.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Charles Jarrott; written by Harold Pinter; edited by Raoul Sobel; production designer, Eileen Diss; produced by Sydney Newman; aired by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Starring Leo McKern (Disson), Vivien Merchant (Wendy), Charles Gray (Willy), Jennifer Wright (Diana), Peter Bartlett (Tom), Robert Bartlett (John), and John Le Mesurier (Disley).


The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil (2019, Lee Won-tae)

According to the opening titles, The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil is based on a true story, which is—I assume—why it takes place in 2005. The story, about a cop (Kim Mu-yeol) and his least favorite gangster (Ma Dong-seok) teaming up to take down a serial killer, comes off like a seventies update of M. But not for any good reasons. I mean, Park Se-seung’s cinematography is fine but the piss yellow lighting on the night scenes (and the film’s got a lot of them) would look better if it were set in the seventies. Along with Jo Yeong-wook’s score, which is so generic it sounds like they bought a bunch of royalty-free music tracks. Though maybe if the direction was better it wouldn’t matter. A lot of the time during the film, you wonder what it would be like if the direction were just a little bit better.

As a director, Lee is a low mediocre. There are a few times, especially with car shots for some reason, he dips below mediocre and you can’t tell if the shot’s his fault or if it’s Park’s fault. Doesn’t really matter, because as a writer Lee is a low mediocre too. Devil runs a somewhat lengthy 109 minutes. There are long unpleasant stretches; not when Lee’s establishing a high level of violence in the first act (which he then never matches or even approaches again), but when there’s a lot of exposition with the cops. See, Kim is a super cop but only because he’s not on the take like his boss (Yoo Seung-mok, who does better work than the role deserves). It’s not like he’s smart. He only figure out there’s a serial killer because everyone else is stupid and lazy and besides maybe he wants to impress CSI Kim Gyu-ri, who’s in the movie to give it a single female character. There’s so little chemistry between the two they could be siblings (I came up with that joke before I realized they had the same surname). Actually, outside their credited character names, there’s nothing in the film to disallow that relationship—Lee’s a really, really low mediocre writer. 109 minutes and there’s not an ounce of character development in the script. Bit players with funny lines have more depth than the main cast.

But it doesn’t matter because it’s got a good hook—the killer, played by a really effective Kim Sung-kyu, is scary and dangerous. See, he rear ends cars and then kills the drivers. Cop Kim figures it out because CSI Kim isn’t good enough at her job to notice the scuff marks on the back of the car. It’s okay because neither are any of the male cops. Only Kim is good enough. Because he’s better looking than everyone else and he’s not on the take. And he’s likable. He’s not charming, not with Lee’s writing and direction, but he’s likable. Kim can handle the trifling super cop bravado stuff. He just doesn’t have a character.

Pretty soon after the serial killer gets started and Kim’s ideas get shot down, gangster Ma gets attacked. By the serial killer. Only Ma is a kickass fighter, built like a tank, and able to throw people around. Now, during the attack sequence, it should have been clearer but Devil’s secret power is editors Heo Sun-mi and Han Young-kyu. It isn’t clear because Ma’s such a badass you think you’re just watching this great action scene but then, later on in other action scenes, it becomes clear Heo and Han are doing a beautiful job cutting it. And somehow Lee, who’s got some super bland Panavision composition during the exposition (it shouldn’t have been shot so wide but it’s now the norm since it no longer takes work or talent to shoot so wide), knows what shots to get during the action scenes to allow Heo and Han to make it pretty.

Very strange.

But good, because it pays off in the third act, which goes on way too long. And in the second act, when there’s a great fight scene with Kim and Ma teaming up. Really good fight scene.

The film’s super power—not it’s secret power, but it’s obvious power—is Ma. He’s great. Even with a razor thin part and a questionably competent director, Ma turns in a phenomenal performance. Sometimes you just sit and wonder what it would be like to see Ma directed with ability. He knows what he needs to do in a scene, even if Lee seems to have no idea.

Still, while Ma’s great, it’s not a great part. Devil shortchanges him. Ma’s a super star without a super star part.

So there are some significant caveats, and it goes on forever because Lee’s narrative storytelling chops are rough… but Devil’s fine. It’s engaging thanks to its cast and the plot hooks. And that editing. That gorgeous, gorgeous editing.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Lee Won-tae; director of photography, Park Se-Seung; edited by Heo Sun-mi and Han Young-kyu; music by Jo Yeong-wook; produced by Jang Won-seok and Seo Kang-Ho; released by Acemaker Movieworks.

Starring Ma Dong-seok (Jang Dong-soo), Kim Mu-Yeol (Jung Tae-seok), Kim Sung-kyu (Hong Gil-dong), Choi Min-cheol (Kwon Oh-sung), Yoo Seung-mok (Captain An), and Kim Gyu-ri (Cha Seo-jin).


The Great Gatsby (1949, Elliot Nugent)

The Great Gatsby can get away with a lot thanks to lead Alan Ladd, much of it related to the adaptation. Gatsby, the film, does open with “narrator” Macdonald Carey—set in the present, with Carey reminiscing on the grand old Jazz Age. Of course, the Jazz Age looks a little different in Carey’s memories because the movie’s post-Code and it wasn’t allowed to actually recreate the Jazz Age styles. The lack of style accuracy doesn’t matter much; the parties aren’t important. Ladd’s Gatsby is a quiet, contemplative wallflower; see, the screenplay (by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum) gives Ladd a sympathetic backstory. He only became a bootlegger because some rich widow (an oddly uncredited Carole Mathews) screws him out of his inheritance; her much-older husband (Henry Hull in a really fun performance) saw potential in Ladd and wanted to give him a leg up. Then, of course, there was the War. Ladd’s Gatsby is a war hero.

It’s before the War and after the old man mentorship Ladd meets Kansas City socialite Betty Field. Ladd’s just an enlisted man, bound for Europe and the trenches, but it’s Kansas City and he can get into the parties in his uniform. The flashback to their meeting doesn’t come until the film’s introduced both Ladd and Field in the present. Well, 1928 flashback present anyway. It adds something to both of them. Even though Ladd’s had a bunch of personality in the film so far, this tender side of him—he’s not violent in the present, but he’s got to be capable of violence—but this version of him with Field doesn’t have that capacity yet. And Field has zero personality in the present, so any helps.

At its best, The Great Gatsby is a lousy novel adaptation but a good “gangster goes straight” vehicle for Ladd. He does a vague tough guy routine with everyone until Field comes along and then he’s a sap. What’s so impressive about Ladd’s performance is he’s able to moon over Field even though they haven’t got any chemistry together. You think Field’s just incapable of it, but then she plays really well with estranged husband Barry Sullivan; odd because Field and Ladd are running away that point, when she and Sullivan finally click, performance-wise. Because the film’s not really set up to be the story of the characters from the novel, it’s far more interested in Ladd’s bootlegging days, with Ed Begley as his crotchety older partner and Elisha Cook Jr. as his sidekick (a kid who Ladd saved in the War and went with him from medals of valor to killing rival gangs). It’s more interested in the flashbacks to Ladd with Hull and Mathews. The screenplay feels looser in those scenes, like it’s not trying to hit a particular beat.

The two big problems with the film are the main supporting actors—Field, Carey, Sullivan, Ruth Hussey—and the direction. Nugent’s never quite good enough to do anything with the film. He does an adequate job, but he’s always zigging when he should zag. He’s got these one-shot close-ups he uses in the middle of conversations and they always kill the scene. Maybe some of it’s on Ellsworth Hoagland’s, but most of it’s on Nugent. He’s not interested in what the characters have to say and given how talky things get in the final third… it hurts the film.

Now the cast. So Ladd’s great. He showed up to work and he does. He gives Gatsby two hundred percent, which makes up for a lot, but still isn’t enough. Because the supporting cast is a stinker. Sullivan’s the best, but only because he occasionally is able to roll the thin characterization into a hybrid caricature—angry jock blue-blood unfaithful jilted husband—and find some true connection. But he’s not any good, not really. He’s able to overcome. Meanwhile Hussey tries her damndest and never makes it work but points for trying. Carey and Field are miscast and poorly directed. Field’s got no charisma. It might be some of the Code issues, it might be the script, it’s definitely partially on Nugent. But Field’s demure in the wrong way, especially given she’s got such a big part.

Carey’s pseudo-earnest, but he’s not ambitious in his performance. It needs some ambition. Some energy.

Again, Ladd can carry it through—the film’s only ninety minutes—but it’s a shame, even with all the constraints, the movie doesn’t have better direction, better casting; Ladd deserves more than a compromised production.

Oh, speaking of compromise, nice photography from John F. Seitz. He’s got to work with a lot of composites, some awkward framing, but he establishes a rather solid palette for the film. Just wish Nugent where a little better.

Gatsby’s a missed opportunity.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Elliott Nugent; screenplay by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, based on Owen Davis’s play of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Ellsworth Hoagland; music by Robert Emmett Dolan; produced by Maibaum; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Alan Ladd (Gatsby), Betty Field (Daisy), Macdonald Carey (Nick), Ruth Hussey (Jordan Baker), Barry Sullivan (Tom), Elisha Cook Jr. (Klipspringer), Ed Begley (Lupus), Howard Da Silva (Wilson), Henry Hull (Dan Cody), Carole Mathews (Ella Cody), and Shelley Winters (Myrtle).