A little less than an hour into Skyfall, it was too late to stay awake, so I paused it and went to bed. The next morning, I asked on Facebook if I was the only one who found it a confused, muddled mess, and given the outpouring of love for it, wondered if it got better. The unanimous answer was yes, it got a lot better, so I went back to it that evening. Less than a minute after I turned the movie back on, there was Javier Bardem. Javier Bardem has the almost singular quality of making every movie he appears in a better work, and his presence in Skyfall was sorely needed. It stayed better after that, and for that I was truly grateful.
As we open, Bond (Daniel Craig in his third outing as 007) is in the throes of trying to save a fellow agent, Ronson (TV stalwart Bill Buckhurst in his first feature appearance), who is in danger of death, against the express orders of M (Judi Dench) and Eve (28 Days Later...'s Naomie Harris), the third operative on the team. Things go south, and we end the sequence with Bond hiding away somewhere in the tropics, turning his love of a good shaken-not-stirred martini into a nightmarish bout with dependency until he chances on a new report about a terrorist attack on MI6 headquarters. Bond returns, only to have M tell him that before he can go back out into the field, he has to pass all the tests again. And all this while trying to figure out who's got MI6 on the defensive, and how he seems to know so much about their movements, defenses, and infrastructure...
I ended up looking at that first hour as setup-a whole lot of setup. And I am not sure the movie would have worked without it. This is a very meta Bond; if you were to look at a spy movie where the main character wasn't known for quaffing martinis, the slip into alcoholism in the tropics wouldn't be nearly as meaningful, and that's only one of the places where the film pays lip service to updating the character for modern sensibilities. (The new version of Q, amusingly played by The Zero Theorem's Ben Whishaw, is the most notable bend in this angle; the new Q has dropped the focus on gadgets and is far more interested in cyberterrorism. For the good guys, of course.) This almost by definition makes the film vertical-market; if you are not already an established fan of the series, Skyfall will not only not do anything to convince you, it may well drive you off. And yet, once the film takes off, Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, and Albert Finney as Skyfall's caretaker (the film's namesake estate, the Bond family pile in Scotland) all turn in their A levels with aplomb. This is the Daniel Craig of Layer Cake, the Judi Dench of Iris, the Albert Finney of The Dresser. And Bardem? He just has to show up to bring his top-level game; I can think of a single Bardem movie I've seen where he didn't tear the screen apart (For the record, it was Días Contados, I've seen eleven Bardem films, and he was the star of the movie that has topped my top 1000 movies list since 2000, Before Night Falls). Mendes directing his first non-R film may have been a strength rather than a weakness; he flirted with that line every chance he could, and in the process managed his most successful blend of talkiness and action yet. Well, seventy-two minutes of it, anyway. Pity about the first hour. If you're already invested in the series, you need to see it, but then you don't need a review to tell you that. If you're not, start with something more accessible-either version of Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, and A View to a Kill are all good starting points for the series. ***
Rudolf van den Berg has won the Golden Calf, which is basically the Oscar, twice in his career, both times before this: in 1982 for San Senten Rebel (Best Long-form Documentary), and in 1984 for Bastille (Best director). I don't know whether that says worse things about the state of film in the Netherlands or their Academy. Probably neither, if America's own Academy is anything to go by (I'll omit yet another rant on the 2002 nominees). But if this guy is one of the cream of the crop over there, there is great pity to be had for the country.
The Johnsons isn't necessarily a bad film so much as it is a film that hovers on the verge of unintentional greatness. This had the potential to be horror comedy on the same plane as Return of the Living Dead or Dark Star. It missed the mark by such a small margin that it's painful to watch, but like a particularly gruesome car accident, the hapless viewer keeps watching, hoping and praying that somewhere within the mess a spark of life will be found.
The story begins with Dr. Johnson (Johan Leysen, presently onscreen in Brotherhood of the Wolf) delivering a set of septuplets, then going out into the woods and enacting, sloppily, some sort of odd ritual that ends with what looks like a squat stone idol encased in crystal rising out of a ring of fire in the middle of a lake. We then skip to twenty-one years later (present-day) and two intercut stories: one of a single mother, Victoria Lucas (Monique van de Ven, presently on the TV series Spangen, probably best known to American audiences for the not-too-bad action flick Amsterdamned) and her daughter Emily (the jaw-droppingly gorgeous Esmee de la Bretoniere, for whom this is the only film credit anyone in America has a chance at seeing without importing movies). Victoria, a photographer, takes a job tracking down some rare birds in a secluded swamp. Emily's been having recurring nightmares about seven crazy-looking kids painting a room with blood, and is in general disrepair emotionally, so Victoria takes her along, hoping that some time in the country will help her state of mind. The other story deals with Winston (Kenneth Herdegein, who's also frequently seen on TV these days over in Europe), an anthropology professor who's approached by police inspector de Graaf (veteran TV actor Rik van Uffelen-are you seeing a pattern here?) about seven psychopaths the police have been holding without public knowledge in an out-of-the-way abandoned prison in a secluded swamp. Winston's father (Otto Sterman), a voodoo priest, warns Winston and de Graaf to get their noses out of it while they can, but the two keep digging for info on the odd symbol said seven psychos keep drawing on the wall, usually in blood.
That's a brief synopsis of the film's first ten minutes; I'm pretty sure you can fill in the next ninety-three. To call this "predictable" would be the understatement of the year. That's not necessarily a bad thing; Hamlet's predictable, too. So is Dark Star. Problem is, The Johnsons isn't anything close to the level of Shakespearean tragedy. The dialogue is alarmingly silly, the characters would have to be better-drawn to be made of cardboard, and the plot stands alone in its utter disregard for anything resembling logic. When faced with such a script, the best directors will take it and play it for laughs, and every once in a while they get something great out of it (the aforementioned Dark Star and Return of the Living Dead being two classic examples). Van den Berg, however, gives us no indication at any point during the film that he and his characters are anything but serious. Even the cop doesn't crack wise. It's hard to believe anyone could have considered this a serious piece of filmmaking, but van den Berg did his best to make sure you'd at least try. That said, if the last two minutes of this film don't have you groaning in sheer agony, you've a stronger stomach than I. * 1/2 (rewatchability factor supplied solely by de la Bretoniere. Hubba hubba.)
Butcher Boys (Duane Graves and Justin Meeks, 2012)
I spend a decent amount of time trolling the bottom of my sorted (by average rating) Netflix queue, looking for those movies that have a horrible rating that are actually pretty good. I've come across a few here and there that are neglected for whatever reason. The Butcher Boys, Texas Chainsaw Massacre writer Kim Henkel's first feature script in eighteen years, is the latest of those. I have no idea what movie the public who rated this movie a collective one and a half stars were watching, but it must not have been Butcher Boys.
Plot: Sissy (Breaking Dawn's Ali Faulkner) is celebrating her seventeenth birthday at a swanky restaurant in Austin, Texas, that's under protest by a band of radical vegetarians. (While I can't tell you why without spoilers, this becomes important later.) When she, her brother Mikey (Dear Sidewalk's Philip Wolf), and their friends Barbie (The Big Picture's Tory Tompkins) and Benny (Hallettsville's Derek Lee Nixon) are on their way home, a series of minor misadventures end up with them crossing paths with the Butcher Boys (also known as the Boneboys, which was the film's original title), who are out for the kind of good time that involves kidnapping random folks and taking them back to the basement of Austin's hottest new restaurant, J. Swift's.
Okay, the movie's main drawback is very easy to point out, and is just as minor as it sounds: this movie contains two of the worst body-double shots in cinema history. If you combine the two, they take up less than a second of screen time, so that can't be what everyone's up in arms about. And the movie certainly does have its reliance on Henkel's older, far better-known script; before I realized Henkel had written it, I was planning on giving them a few snaps up for nailing modern takes on certain classic TCM scenes (the dinner, especially). They still deserve it. There are a few times this feels like "what The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would have been like if it had been written as a comedy"; given the popularity, if not the quality, of the movie's many sequels (and a remake or two that took that tack), it's not a bad idea. IMDB's trivia section mentions that this was originally Henkel's script for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, but he pulled it out and re-worked it with the aim of turning The Butcher Boys into a new franchise. That, too, is deserved; given a little time and room to grow, this might grow away from its ancestor and become something even better than it is now. It's still singing in someone else's voice, but the lyrics are pretty darn good so far. *** 1/2
R. J. Cutler is known for his documentaries; 2009's The September Issue garnered raves on the festival circuit. Now he turns in his first big-screen feature, and a movie more different than The September Issue you are unlikely to find this year. If I Stay was adapted from Gayle Forman's novel by Shauna Cross, whose output to date has been, well, somewhat underwhelming (Whip It, What to Expect When You're Expecting). I'm not entirely sure what happened, but sticking this script to this director caused some form of magic to happen. How good is this magic? According to my spreadsheet, If I Stay is the three hundredth film I have seen so far in 2014. It is the fifteenth of those to get a rating of four stars or higher (as I write this opening paragraph, I am not yet sure if I'm going 4 or 4.5). Less than half of them have been features (the rest are shorts). This is, in a word, a stunning film.
Plot: Mia Hall (Let Me In's Chloë Grace Moretz) is a teenager. Her life is nothing special, save that it's a few levels above the rest of us; she's currently waiting to hear if she got in to Juilliard, her boyfriend's band is the hottest thing in Oregon, she doesn't hate her family and vice-versa. Everything is going along as usual until, on a routine car trip, her family is involved in an accident and Mia winds up in a coma. The remainder of the movie is told in split storylines-Mia flashes back to the events of the past year and a half, during her relationship with Adam (The Fifth Estate's Jamie Blackley), and we also see scenes from the hospital, as Mia wrestles with the question of whether to fight for her own life or let go and walk out the door into the ever-beckoning light.
My synopsis of the movie makes it sound horribly cheesy. (This is one of the many reasons I never get too far when I attempt fiction.) It is anything but. While it is, on the surface, a romance, there are two ways in which it is markedly different than most romances, both teen and adult, you've seen on the screen. First, it's real. The chemistry between Moretz and Blackley sizzles, but there is the requisite awkwardness without the script ever going overboard. This is a textbook on how to write a first romance, Mary and Max-level stuff, in many ways. Second, while the romance is always there-the film's first flashback is of Adam first taking notice of Mia as she practices the cello in her high school's band room-the romance angle never overhwelms the movie's other relationships. Mia's family are well-developed, strong characters; The Tall Man's Jacob Davies, as Mia's younger brother, turns in a star-making performance, while Stacy Keach may not have been this good since Southern Comfort in 1981. (Keach's monologue about three-quarters of the way through the film is one of its high points.) In a lot of ways, this is about as good as movies about human relationships get. As a yardstick when I say that, I will also mention that as of this writing, seven of my top ten films of all time have the exploration of interpersonal relationships as either the main thrust or a major subplot: Before Night Falls, Hotaru no Haka, Closetland, Ikiru, Jeux Interdits, Persona, and The Manchurian Candidate.
Balancing out the great things about this movie (and I use the term "great" in its classical sense here) are two quibbles. One of them is probably minor no matter who you are. The second may be just as minor, or it may be something that hamstrings the entire movie for you. It is this second point that has been causing me so much consternation since I saw the movie last night. I will try and talk about both without spoilers, but if you're not reading this at var.ev., imagine there's a big stop sign right below these words.
First off is Mia's audition. She nails it. It is sterling. Technically and conceptually flawless. She says in a later scene that she knows she has never played that well in her life. All of which leads to the somewhat inescapable conclusion that, during the time between her audition and finding out whether or not she gets into Juilliard, Mia should be supremely confident that there is no way the answer is no. And yet, her anxiety over whether she is getting into Juilliard is one of the defining facets of her character. There are reasonable explanations, but it wouldn't have been too hard to underline any of them in the script without sacrificing the rest of Mia's character. Second is the final fifteen seconds of the film. Without explicitly stating what happens, it is difficult to explain what it is about those final two shots that makes them, potentially, hamstring the entire film. (And I should add that, to be fair to Cutler and Cross, this seems to be a flaw in the source material that was simply transferred over to the film, but it is of course possible that it is handled better in the novel.) I will try by saying that where I was singing the film's praises earlier for not being a typical cheesy romance, those final two shots undo a portion of that work-how much will probably depend on the individual viewer-by resolving the film in a typical-cheesy-romance way, and thus ultimately turning the movie into what it had spent the last hundred five minutes trying so deperately to avoid being, and largely succeeding in that goal.
Neither of these things, no matter how much the end of the film undercuts it for you, should be construed in any way as reasons not to see this movie. It is excellent on almost every level, and I cannot recommend it highly enough, whether you have a teenager to take with you or not (my wife and I went without one, and we were far from the only people in the theater without teens in tow). Do yourself a favor and take a pack of tissues with you; if this one doesn't give you the sniffles, it's possible you're dead. ****
Hell's House still exists in the public consciousness solely because of Bette Davis. That's a literal statement-the movie was thought lost for years, until Davis passed away and her personal film collection was donated to the National Archives; a copy of Hell's House was discovered therein. It was Davis' sixth feature, made when she was still in her early twenties (all five of her previous features were made in 1931); it was also co-lead Pat O'Brien's sixth. But both of these big-name stars pale in comparison, in this potboiler, to the movie's real star, Junior Durkin. Durkin is very little remembered these days thanks to his untimely death in a 1935 road accident (he was only nineteen years old), but he was big business in the early thirties; his very little screen output included playing Huck Finn in both Tom Sawyer (1930) and Huckleberry Finn (1931) and Franz in Phil Rosen's 1934 adaptation of Little Men. While Hell's House is a potboiler, and Davis and O'Brien give it about the treatment it deserves, Durkin throws himself into the role in a way one rarely sees in movies like this. I mean, we're talking Edward-G-Robinson-in-Scarface here.
Plot: O'Brien plays Matt Kelly, a bootlegger in the days when that was a profitable business. Durkin plays Jimmy, one of Kelly's hangers-on. After a job gone bad, Jimmy gets nabbed for a minor crime Kelly committed. After refusing to snitch, Jimmy is sent to a reform school that make the conditions on the Island of Doomed Men seem downright hospitable. While there, he befriends Shorty (the great character actor Frank Coughlin Jr. in one of his few credited roles), who has a heart condition exacerbated by the brutal treatment he receives there. Once Jimmy gets out, he enlists Kelly and Kelly's girlfriend Peggy (Davis) to help spread the word about the deplorable reform school and bring its tyrant of a headmaster (James A. Marcus, another often-uncredited character actor) to justice.
Yes, it's a genre thriller, predictable and manipulative, an otherwise forgettable product of its time save the fame its two leads would go onto and the once-in-a-lifetime performance given by a child star whose ascent to fame was cruelly ended. But those things make it interesting, at least, as a piece of cinematic history; if you're a student of the early days of film, it's worth checking out on that angle. Others can take it or leave it as they will. **