The worst thing you can do in a movie review is explain the plot of the movie and then throw in a comment or two about whether you liked the movie. So these reviews just skip past that part about the plot. Also, we do what we can to keep our reviews reasonably spoiler-free, so you can browse freely!
Greyhound, a Tom Hanks movie about an ill-fated destroyer captain trying to protect merchant ships from German U-boats in World War II, isn’t terrible because it’s historically loose and absurdly indifferent to realism. Actual World War II submarine combat would be a snooze-fest for people who watch Tom Hanks movies. Even more boring would be the perspective of the destroyer, which drives around and listens to the ocean and sometimes hucks giant bombs into the water. Destroyers aren’t even the ones getting shot at. So no one can blame a filmmaker for wanting to Hollywood it up a little, with submarines and destroyers firing broadsides at each other as if they were in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. With U-boats with actual wolves painted on their conning towers. With German captains prank calling the Allies to make wolf howling noises. Because wolf packs, you see. Not every submarine movie can be Das Boot, and not every submarine movie should be.
It’s also not terrible because Hanks seems to be phoning it in. He spends most of the movie passing orders down a chain of command, often over a literal phone. I suspect he’s trying to sound officious when relaying messages, but he instead sounds like someone doing a bad imitation of how robots are supposed to talk. That Mr. Rogers movie must have really taken it out of him. But Hanks’ flat performance actually works in the context of the movie, because this isn’t Sully. This is a guy who seems like he’s not very good at his job. Regardless of the historical incident, Greyhound portrays its hero as someone uncertain and morose who’d rather be somewhere else as German subs kill all his dudes. We can infer from some unnecessary scenes with Elizabeth Shue as his…daughter?…oops, nope, I called that wrong. We can infer from Elizabeth Shue as his soon-to-be-bethrothed where that somewhere else might be. The script does wag its finger at some plucky British destroyer captains who have a tendency to wander off, but it mostly comes down to a guy who can’t control his fleet and feels really bad about it. No wonder he talks like a robot.
What makes Greyhound a terrible movie is that it has no sense of how to be a movie. It has no structure. It is a series of poorly shot and edited action sequences, all indistinguishable from each other, separated only by brief scenes of Tom Hanks forgetting breakfast or being kind to a seaman or asking for his slippers. Then it’s right back to a bunch of random swooping CG of ships breaking through the waves shooting at something, intercut with Tom Hanks giving an order, quick shots of markings on navigational charts, and sometimes a little screentime for one of the younger actors to look scared or confused. Dramatic music explains that this is all very exciting, very tense. But because Greyhound has no idea how to tie it all together, and most conspicuously no idea how to integrate CG with live action, it just feels like a rough cut of a pitch for a movie. If you’re going to Hollywood it up, you have to know how to Hollywood.
You’d think Jon Stewart would know better. But then you watch Irresistible and you realize he doesn’t. As a director and writer, Stewart seems sadly out of his depth in this facile misguided political comedy. I use the term comedy loosely, since the jokes are flatter than the Wisconsin farmland where they die with a thud. The humor includes lots of Steve Carell leaving the frame and then — ha ha! — having to return to the frame. Or Carell making a lewd gesture and then — ha ha! — realizing an old lady has seen him do it. Or Carell just nattering haplessly. Is Carell doomed to play Michael Scott for the rest of his career? Can we please get more stuff like his canny interpretation of Donald Rumsfeld in Vice?
Irresistible is the story of a small town mayoral race in rural America, Heartland, USA. That’s the title card. No joke. “Rural America, Heartland, USA.” The election captures national attention as it draws big time political operatives played by Carrel and Rose Byrne. Carrel’s supposedly savvy political operative routinely forgets people’s names. As he flies into Wisconsin to recruit a candidate, he’s reading the Wikipedia page for Wisconsin. These seem like the opposite of savvy, but it just goes to show how desperate Irresistible is for laughs. Byrne stands around looking blonde, brittle, and inanimate, presumably doing a Kellyanne Conway impression. Mackenzie Davis scores the most thankless role as a blushing farmer’s daughter who gets to be the voice of indignation in the third act when one of the campaigns — gasp! — dares to run a dirty attack ad.
But where Jon Stewart really disappoints, and where he should definitely know better, is in the strained political element of Irresistible. I’m not sure there’s a message here. It feels like an attempt at a sweetly optimistic political fable from the time of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Why does it make a point of opening on the morning after Trump’s election? What is it doing here and now, in these cruel times? What does it have to tell us about anything contemporary, or even relevant? “Democrats are getting our asses kicked because guys like me don’t know how to talk to guys like you,” Carrel tells the salt-of-the-earth lily-white rural voters standing in front of the town’s boarded-up storefronts. You can all but feel their economic anxiety. It’s all so naive, glib, and sickeningly saccharine.
And worst of all, at a certain point, Stewart decides he wants Irresistible to be about something else. It’s as if he realized he didn’t have a point, so he changed his mind to make the movie about that thing instead. A sudden plot twist is a weird way to deliver a pandering and sanctimonious lecture about the election process, but I’ll give it credit for one thing. It reminded me it’s time to re-watch Michael Ritchie’s brutal and timeless 1972 political procedural The Candidate. So thanks for that, Irresistible.
There’s a point in these movies, usually fairly early, when the protagonist should really just call the police. You know the movies I’m talking about. The ones where a bad decision leads to a violent thriller. A Good Woman Is Hard To Find, an Irish “bad decision leads to a violent thriller”, sets itself up nicely enough. We meet the lead character, we understand just enough about her to understand her first bad decision or two, and then things get underway. At which point she runs roughshod over about five or six times when she should really just call the police. She doesn’t, of course, because that would cut short the running time.
Once you accept that the script simply won’t allow for calling the police, you’re in pretty good hands because Sarah Bolger carries the movie far more capably than her pretty looks might suggest. As she navigates the downward spiral of bad choices, she wears her vulnerability well, looking tired and wan and terrified. And when it comes time for the pay-off, courtesy of a handful of absurd contrivances, she gets where she needs to go with steely-eyed clarity and strength. A Good Woman Is Hard To Find (I suspect the title is simply a matter of Flannery O’Connor being an awfully Irish name) is directed with bursts of audacity and far too many drone shots of Belfast, but it’s ultimately about watching Bolger carry a mediocre script. A good woman might be hard to find, but as long as you’ve found an actress as good as Bolger, your movie will be fine.
My concern about any follow-up to Turbo Killer, Seth Ickerman’s music video for Carpenter Brut’s song Turbo Killer, is that it will include people talking. At which point, it might collapse back into the soil from which it was grown: the B-movies from the 80s that were mostly bad, but colorful and sometimes fascinating, but still mostly bad. In other words, Beyond the Black Rainbow, or Mandy. Which are colorful and fascinating, but missing entirely the distilled power of Turbo Killer’s appeal. Colorful and fascinating — this usually includes self-indulgent — can only get you so far. Once people start talking, once characters start developing, once room is allowed for drama and decisions and actors, once time slows and four minutes turns into forty minutes and then ninety minutes…at that point, style is not enough. At that point, you’re investing in a story instead of riffing on a feeling.
Look, I’m not necessarily recommending that you watch The Happening again. I wouldn’t do that to you. But I am saying the basic story, which I’ve always thought was intriguing, is especially relevant during the coronavirus pandemic.
You don’t see enough Greek choruses anymore. At some point during the last few millennia, the Greek chorus fell out of favor. So one of the first delights in Blow the Man Down is realizing that this New England noir about unlikely femmes fatale comes with a Greek chorus. It opens with a bunch of sailors singing a rowdy sea shanty. They’ll be back, but not as often as I would have liked. And I’m not sure how relevant their sea shanties are to the narrative action. But I appreciate the idea, and it’s emblematic of how Blow the Man Down has some great ideas, even if it does struggle to present them.
Warning: if you haven’t seen Color Out of Space, this review is basically one big spoiler.
Colour Out of Space is an odd fit among H.P. Lovecraft’s works. It’s about ordinary people — farmers, to be precise — on whom something fell. They were just going about their business, herding sheep and sowing crops and whatever farmers do, when a meteorite landed on their farm and infected everything with an alien presence. They were driven insane and died and the land was barren from then on.
There were at least three major animated versions of Christmas Carol made during the sixties and seventies, from the Mister Magoo adaptation to the half-hour production that won an Emmy for animation. Those versions were all made for television, though, and generally have that cheap, TV veneer about them; you can even tell where the breaks are for commercials. But in 2009, movie blockbuster impresario Robert Zemeckis brought a new, state-of-the-art 3D animated version of Scrooge and company to the big screen. With a $200 million budget, Zemeckis would have a truly special opportunity to make a Christmas Carol adaptation completely unfettered by production budget constraints.
In the mid-1990s, Sir Patrick Stewart (taking a break from his Captain Picard duties on film) embarked on a successful run on Broadway performing a one-man stage version of “A Christmas Carol”. The rave reviews for these shows apparently attracted the interest of Turner Broadcasting executives, who came to the actor with what must’ve been an alluring pitch. Would Stewart be interested in playing Ebenezer Scrooge in a new film adaptation for the company’s TNT network? A large production budget was promised, along with the participation of writer/adapter Peter Barnes and director David Jones, names that Stewart knew from the London theater community.
And a promise was made: this version would be the one that was “The most faithful film to Dickens’ original book ever created.”
By the fall of 1984, the CBS television network’s golden years were starting to fade. Norman Lear was out, and Falcon Crest, Knot’s Landing, Airwolf and Dukes of Hazzard were in. Oscar-winning actor George C. Scott’s career was on the wane, too; the glory days of Patton and Dr. Strangelove a distant memory. As for English director Clive Donner, about the best that can be said was that he was simply doing hack work. When he wasn’t helping to crank out TV movies, he was churning out feature film nonsense like “The Nude Bomb” or “Old Dracula”.
That’s an inauspicious creative foundation on which to build the best filmed version of A Christmas Carol. Yet somehow, that’s exactly what happened.
There are two ways to look at Scrooge, the 1970 Christmas Carol adaptation that recast the Dickens classic as a musical. One view is to wonder why in the world this classic story needs choreographed musical numbers and what is sometimes only barely on-key singing by the lead character. The opposing view is a more direct appeal: when Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning, what fits the mood of that sequence any better than Ebenezer singing and dancing through the streets of London?
After the jump, they’re going to sing again, aren’t they?
Charles Dickens is something of a national treasure in the UK, an artist with words whose prose manages who manages the neat trick of being respected academically while remaining popular with the public; “A Christmas Carol” is one of his most admired and beloved works. So in post-war Britain, it was a bit galling that the 1938 movie adaptation of the novella was a hit and accepted as somewhat definitive. That Reginald Owen version was a distinctly Hollywood thing, a blazingly professional production of the treasured story, but one that captured little of the heart and grit and soul that Dickens had poured into his original writing. 16 years after the first UK attempt at A Christmas Carol and slightly more than a decade after the MGM version, British studio Renown Pictures was ready to reclaim Scrooge back to his merrie olde roots.
My own natural inclination in film appreciation is an almost knee-jerk mistrust of mainstream Hollywood. I associate the movie business – particularly when the studio system reigned supreme – with making films as product. Box office profits were priority one in in the rising industry of the 1930s and 1940s; artistic merit often seemed an accidental occasional by-product. With all that being said, however, sometimes the sheer, brutal competency of a major Hollywood studio has its advantages, too.
If “A Christmas Carol” movies have become part of a worldwide seasonal ritual these days, the first “talkie” version of the Dickens book is an inauspicious beginning. Watching it today, it’s hard to imagine that movie versions of the story would ever become much of a big deal. The 1935 adaptation – setting a bit of a precedent by being called simply “Scrooge” – is hands-down the funniest of all the various versions of the movie we’ll review here. Unfortunately, all of that comedy is unintentional.
After the Jump, the Plan 9 From Outer Space of Christmas Carols
It’s nice to see there are still angles to explore in the “rogue AI” genre. As well as the “people in a bunker” genre. I Am Mother straddles both by suggesting a maternal robot — that may or may not be a rogue AI — programmed to repopulate post-apocalyptic humanity by cultivating thousands of embryos stored in a sealed bunker. It will start with one little girl. With Rose Byrne’s voice, a nifty production design for a robot that smiles, and a promising newcomer as the daughter, I Am Mother has all it needs down here.
The movie begins with an infant. As older children were swapped in during the expected growing-up montage, I was worried we were headed for Alicia Vickander. But just as the children started looking like Vikander, I Am Mother stopped short with a capable young actress named Clara Rugaard. She carries most of the movie on her own, which is no mean feat. Her job is a lot like Sophie Thatcher’s in Prospect, but harder because she doesn’t have Pedro Pascal tagging along. It’s just her and Rose Byrne’s carefully modulated voice piped in over a lumbering robot that looks barely a generation past what Boston Dynamics has been doing.
As the movie proceeds, it’s confident you’re smart enough to see the twists. It knows you know math, it knows you understand casting decisions are never random, and it knows you know how AIs work. In fact, it’s so confident you see the twists that it doesn’t even play them as reveals. So if you’re awfully proud of yourself for guessing what’s going on, you’re watching the wrong movie. A lesser movie would be about these reveals. I Am Mother is instead about the motivations and decisions behind them.
In fact, the final shot is a bit much. It’s almost as if the movie is asking you if we’re done here. “You’ve figured it out, right?” it asks. “Right?” Sometimes being maternal involves a little finger wagging. Yes, I Am Mother, I understand today’s lesson. Sheesh, Saturn 3 was never this strict.