Category Archives: ★★

Catch Me If You Can (2002, Steven Spielberg)

Catch Me If You Can is a spectacular showcase for Leonardo DiCaprio. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t exactly rise up to meet him, not the filmmaking, not the writing, not his costars. With the exception of co-lead Tom Hanks, who’s a whole other thing, the direction, the writing, the supporting cast, they’re all tied together in a less than impressive knot.

Let’s get the filmmaking out of the way first.

Spielberg’s direction is adequate, at least as far as the composition goes. It’s never too good, it’s never too bad. The film opens with these extremely cute animated opening titles, but they go on way too long and the accompanying John Williams music is some of the film’s least impressive as far as the score goes. And the score’s usually middling so to open on a low point… Not a great start. Then the movie goes into the framing device (getting ahead of myself on the script problems) as FBI agent Hanks is trying to get DiCaprio out of a French prison. There’s something very affected about the style, with Spielberg mimicking late fifties and early sixties style without bringing anything new to it. He and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski don’t show the mid-sixties through rose colored glasses as much as they artificially twinkle the past. Everything shimmers with unreality, which kind of hurts the true story angle as Catch Me rarely shows how DiCaprio is pulling off his cons. Plus the age discrepancies. DiCaprio’s twenty-eight playing seventeen playing twenty-eight. It mostly works, thanks to DiCaprio’s performance but against some of what Spielberg and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson throw at him; there are significant hiccups.

Like Christopher Walken as DiCaprio’s WWII vet dad. Walken’s sixty; he looks pretty good for sixty. But he was supposed to be some kind of forty-year old grunt in WWII? Again, Catch Me’s fast and loose with its hold on reality but given it’s all about the amazing things DiCaprio’s character was actually able to do… not having to constantly suspend and re-suspend disbelief would be nice. Walken’s actually good, even if he’s a stunt cast and his part is so thin he’s just doing a generic Christopher Walken performance. Nathanson doesn’t do character development or texture. Even when the story needs it. Spielberg doesn’t help with it either; it’s DiCaprio’s movie but Spielberg’s more concerned with Hanks’s FBI agent.

Let me just use that to segue into Hanks. Hanks is not good. He does a questionable and pointless accent, presumably to make the character seem less flat, and there’s nothing else to it. First act, it seems like Hanks might go someplace—and the film does try to force him into a paternal relationship with DiCaprio, which doesn’t work—but it’s a nothing part. It’s not even engaging enough to be a caricature. Nathanson’s a shockingly thin writer.

Okay, maybe not shockingly. It’s not like the script’s ever got any more potential than it delivers. But Spielberg really does just go along with it. The female roles are exceptionally thin; they’re all dumb and easy, whether it’s bank teller Elizabeth Banks, flight attendant Ellen Pompeo, working girl Jennifer Garner, or nurse Amy Adams. Worse is when DiCaprio ends up staying longterm with Adams, it’s never clear why; especially since the movie makes fun of her so much. Though, I suppose, even worse is when Adams brings her parents into the film. Martin Sheen—in a stunningly bad bit of stunt-casting—is bad. Nancy Lenehan is mom, with zip to do, which is actually much better for her than, say, Nathalie Baye as DiCaprio’s mom. Baye gets the film’s worst part by far.

Through it all, DiCaprio manages to keep his head up and keep Catch Me working. He contends with some questionable makeup decisions, never getting to followthrough on set pieces, and the astoundingly bad pop culture reference. There’s a truly incompetent James Bond Goldfinger sequence, which ought to be a gimme but instead Spielberg completely fumbles it.

Spielberg never takes Catch Me If You Can seriously enough, from the casting to the writing to Kaminski’s silly photography. DiCaprio takes it seriously, to good effect. Hanks takes it seriously, to… if not bad effect, at least wanting. It’s a glossy, trite trifle. Could’ve been a lot more.

Though not with the same script, supporting cast, principal crew members, or director.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Jeff Nathanson, based on the book by Frank Abagnale Jr. and Stan Redding; director of photography, Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; costume designer, Mary Zophres; produced by Spielberg and Walter F. Parkes; released by DreamWorks Pictures.

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio (Frank Abagnale Jr.), Tom Hanks (Carl Hanratty), Christopher Walken (Frank Abagnale), Nathalie Baye (Paula Abagnale), James Brolin (Jack Barnes), Amy Adams (Brenda Strong), Martin Sheen (Roger Strong), Nancy Lenehan (Carol Strong), Brian Howe (Earl Amdursky), Frank John Hughes (Tom Fox), Ellen Pompeo (Marci), Elizabeth Banks (Lucy), and Jennifer Garner (Cheryl Ann).


The Princess Comes Across (1936, William K. Howard)

The Princess Comes Across is an uneven mix of comedy and mystery. Too much mystery, too little comedy, noticeable lack of romance. The romance is an awkward afterthought in Walter DeLeon, Francis Martin, Don Hartman, and Frank Butler’s script (four screenwriters is probably too much even in 1936; definitely for this kind of picture), which is weird since it’s the initial setup.

The film takes place on a passenger liner going from England to the United States. Starts with the passengers boarding, ends with them getting off. The script’s very hands off with the trip. When band leader Fred MacMurray says he and the band aren’t just rehearsing (in his room, which ought to be a comic bit but isn’t because the film’s never inventive, in script or direction), but getting ready to play for the ship, you wonder why it was never mentioned before. It’s not even clear the rest of the band’s onboard until that moment. Not for sure; you could assume it, but you could also not, it wouldn’t matter for how the film played. Princess is creatively sparse; its logic is fine (even, possibly, with the romance stuff), but the film never seems to be enjoying itself.

Maybe because MacMurray and top-billed Carole Lombard never get to be funny together. They get their not really cute cute meeting. MacMurray and sidekick William Frawley, who was already bald in 1936, booked the royal suite and are getting booted because Swedish princess Lombard is on board. MacMurray’s initially a jerk about it, then gets a look at Lombard and immediately changes his tune. So while Lombard and attendant Alison Skipworth (who gives the film’s most entertaining performance by far) try to get situated, MacMurray keeps annoying them. And it’s not cute. Especially since MacMurray plays more off Skipworth than Lombard; there’s a reason for it, as the punchline reveals, but… it could’ve been done better. Director Howard doesn’t seem to know how to showcase Lombard even when she’s not running a scene. Ted Tetzlaff’s photography doesn’t help. Tetzlaff’s lighting a thriller and even when Princess is full-on mystery, it’s never a thriller. It’s not just too much mystery in a comedy, it’s also way too light of mystery in a comedy.

The film sets up the mystery not to kick off a suspense thriller, but some kind of screwball gag. There are five police detectives onboard, all from different countries, headed to a conference. The captain (a somewhat underused George Barbier) complains about them in exposition, which seems like it’s going to lead somewhere with ex-con MacMurray or secretive royal Lombard, but instead has the five detectives chasing a stowaway Bradley Page. Sure, Page’s a convicted multiple murderer on the lamb but… even when the detectives are talking about dire outcomes, it’s all light. Howard’s just can’t bring any gravitas.

Maybe because all five detectives are basically played as comic relief. The straightest edge is Tetsu Komai as the Japanese detective but only because the movie’s othering him to create suspicion. Douglass Dumbrille’s the French guy; he’s a bit stuck-up but all right. Lumsden Hare’s the British one. He’s not memorable even though he’s got a lot to do third act. But Sig Ruman (as the German) and Mischa Auer (as the Russian)? They’re awesome. It’s like, Ruman and Auer make it seem like Princess knows what its got possibility-wise so it can’t possibly waste it.

Then it wastes all the possibility.

Notice I haven’t mentioned top-billed Lombard and MacMurray in a while? It’s because all they end up doing is reacting to the mystery with Page. And then scuz blackmailer Porter Hall bothering MacMurray and trying to get a pay-off, which ends up involving Lombard too because they’re cabins are next to each other… Sure, Lombard and MacMurray don’t really have story arcs of their own (he’s a successful band leader, she’s about to be successful as a movie star, they don’t get anything else but… vague ambition); they just react when the mystery spills over to their screen time.

They’re both fine. Absolutely no heavy lifting for either. They do have fun in the far too infrequent wordplay scenes. Frawley’s fine. He gets a beret arc, which is more than Lombard or MacMurray get. And more than Skipworth, who doesn’t even get a beret. Again, she’s awesome. Hall’s great too. Ruman, Auer. The cast is good, the film just doesn’t have anything for them to do.

Princess is cute. Ish.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by William K. Howard; screenplay by Walter DeLeon, Francis Martin, Don Hartman, and Frank Butlerz, based on a story by Philip MacDonald and a novel by Louis Lucien Rogger; director of photography, Ted Tetzlaff; edited by Paul Weatherwax; costume designer, Travis Banton; produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr.; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Carole Lombard (Princess Olga), Fred MacMurray (King Mantell), Alison Skipworth (Lady Gertrude), William Frawley (Benton), Porter Hall (Darcy), Douglass Dumbrille (Lorel), Lumsden Hare (Cragg), Sig Ruman (Steindorf), Mischa Auer (Morevitch), Bradley Page (Merko), Tetsu Komai (Kawati), and George Barbier (Captain Nicholls).



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).