Monday, January 23, 2023

1917 (2019)

Director: Sam Mendes                                 Writers: Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Film Score: Thomas Newman                      Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Starring: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Benedict Cumberbatch & Colin Firth

Honestly . . . I’m not sure what the point of this was. In 1948 the great Alfred Hitchcock proved with Rope that a film shot to give the appearance of a single, unbroken take could be done—and that it wasn’t really worth the effort. The proof of that assessment is that no one has felt the need to do it again for decades. But in the last few years the idea has been taken out of mothballs, shined up, and like a glossy turd, has been presented to filmgoing audiences as if it’s some unique, cutting-edge technique. It’s not. And it’s still just as boring as it always was. 1917 is a World War One film about two British soldiers sent across enemy territory to another part of the front lines to call off a planned attack that the general staff has learned is actually a German ambush. The two soldiers are Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay. The two friends are called in for a meeting with Colin Firth, a general who informs them that recent recognizance shows an apparent German retreat is actually a feint to draw in British troops in order to ambush them. Telephone lines have been cut, and the only way to reach the distant part of the front lines is to go out across no-man’s land. The reason Chapman has been tabbed for the job becomes clear when he’s told his brother is going to be among the assault troops and the only hope of saving him from certain death is to successfully complete the mission.

The film was something of a pet project for writer-director Sam Mendes, whose grandfather served in World War One. Mendes has done some pretty impressive work in his career, beginning with American Beauty, in addition to films like Road to Perdition and Revolutionary Road. To be sure, his work is heavily stylized as a rule, but with the added burden of the single-take gimmick—and it is most decidedly a gimmick—this film can’t sustain anything like basic cinematic artistry and is ultimately crushed under the weight of its own pretentions. The main problem is that, at the end of the day, the single-take gimmick simply isn’t cinematic. The story, however good it may or may not be as a story, winds up stripped of all cinematic grammar and not only does that fail to add anything to the story, in the process it jettisons everything that might have made the story great. There are no closeups, no cross-cutting, no ability at all for the editing to create tension and release, or even to allow the audience to stop and take a breath. No, as Maggie Smith said about a completely different subject in Downton Abbey, the “on and on-ness” of it is simply enervating. And because of that it doesn’t really qualify as a film anymore. The whole thing plays out like one, long pseudo-cinematic YouTube video of an unending screen shot from a video game.

The fact that this type of film is nominated for awards, and that people pay to see it, says a lot about the decline of motion picture art in the twenty-first century—and perhaps even more about the dimwittedness of modern audiences. It’s an abysmal time for cinema, and there’s little hope that it will ever recover. With absolute garbage like superhero movies, idiot teen (and now thirty-something) films that pass themselves off as comedies, trama-drama instead of genuine drama, and non-stop action films flooding the screens, there is no incentive anymore—much less the money—to make an actual, cinematic story. And story is really the key. Quentin Tarrantino has said that the one thing Hollywood used to be really great at, the best in the world in fact, was telling a story. Those days are long gone, however, and 1917 is a perfect example of why. It’s not a story. It’s a sequence—a long-ass sequence, to be sure, but little more than that. Without giving the audience time to stop and reflect; without time for the actors to narrate their feelings—the only way for the audience to know what they’re thinking; without the slightest effort on the part of filmmakers to actually use the cinematic language of editing, it’s not really a movie. And so in the end, what’s the point? 1917 might have been a good film, might even have been a great film. But with the gimmick of the single-take sucking the life out of it, it’s little more than a cartoon that debases not only the audience that watches it, but the honorable men who actually fought and died in the First World War. And that’s not something anyone should recommend.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Total Recall (1990)

Director: Paul Verhoeven                             Writers: Ronald Shusett & Dan O'Bannon
Film Score: Jerry Goldsmith                         Cinematography: Jost Vacano
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Michael Ironside and Ronny Cox

Total Recall is based on a story by science-fiction author Philip K. Dick, and whatever merit there is in the original story was lost by the time it made it to the screen. Screenwriters Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett, who had already penned Alien, were apparently attempting to write some kind of space-comedy-action-drama and failed miserably on all counts. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, however, considering that Shusett admitted they were trying to make “Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars.” The real death knell of the film, however, came when it failed to materialize after several attempts by several studios and several directors, including David Cronenberg, and was eventually purchased by Carolco and Arnold Schwarzenegger was given complete creative control on the picture. It shows. While lots of fans love the zany antics, and the non-stop chase, the whole exercise is just so juvenile that there’s very little for an adult viewer to care about. After all, how many crotch kicks can Schwarzenegger take in one movie? It’s almost like a drinking game. While I will grant that it might have played better in its day, I never saw it at the theater then or even as a video rental. It seems like the kind of thing the film was striving for wouldn’t ultimately be realized until Men in Black, which is played completely for camp. This film, however, tries to have it both ways and it just doesn’t work.

The film opens up with Schwarzenegger walking around on Mars with Rachel Ticotin. Then he falls down an embankment and the shield on his helmet breaks, but just as he’s about to die he wakes up in bed with Sharon Stone. He’s obsessed with going to Mars, and she seems bent on keeping him in domestic bliss--when he’s not working his job in construction. Same with co-worker Robert Costanzo, who tries to warn him off after Schwarzenegger says he’s thinking about going to Recall, a company that implants memories. But he’s already made the appointment, and maybe if he has memories of going to Mars, he will finally be able to put the place out of his mind. Then he lets salesman Ray Baker convince him to upgrade to the Secret Agent package where he’ll think he’s a spy. But something goes very wrong. Before they can even implant the memory, Schwarzenegger wakes up thinking he’s an actual secret agent whose cover has been blown, and they have to sedate him. Recall tries to put his memories back, but when he meets up with Costanzo again he’s kidnapped as a rogue spy and winds up killing all four guys. When he gets home, Stone calls Michael Ironside, and then she tries to kill him too. It turns out Schwarzenegger really had been a spy, but his memory has been erased and Stone was set up as his wife to make sure he didn’t start remembering things from his past. His trip to Recall, however, only managed to erase the erasure and for the moment he doesn’t remember who he really was.

The central plot then becomes Michael Ironside, who works for The Agency, trying to terminate Schwarzenegger. But the longer he lives and tries to figure out what happened to him, the more his considerable skills reassert themselves, and the more dangerous he becomes--especially to Ronnie Cox and his attempt to quash a rebellion on Mars. Then, over halfway through the film, he’s finally reunited with Ticotin. Schwarzenegger had just come off of filming the comedy Twins before getting back to his bread and butter macho roles, and he does as well as he can given his limited acting range. But it’s difficult to judge exactly how much of the poor characterization is his fault. He could be fairly compelling in films like Running Man and Predator from three years earlier, but seems downright amateurish in this film. Whether the fault lies in the screenplay or the direction by Paul Verhoeven is anybody’s guess, but pretty much everyone overacts--and the cheesy sets don’t do them any favors. It’s always fascinating to see futuristic films that are now mired in outdated technology. Some things are cool, like the giant picture screens in the house that can show incredibly realistic nature scenes, or the fingernails that change colors with a touch of a pen, but with tube computer monitors all over the place and everything clean and sterile--as if things in the future aren’t just as dirty--it’s difficult to forget this is a thirty-year-old film.

The film’s still watchable, to a certain extent, but to enumerate all of the things wrong with it would need a dozen reviews of this size. Ultimately the film doesn’t know what it’s trying to be. Most of it feels Luc Besson’s failure with The Fifth Element, a lame attempt to inject comedy into the plot. But the humor doesn’t come from the situations or the characters, its just gags shoehorned in where they don’t belong. The result is that the entire suspense part of the story is completely undermined. And then there are practical considerations like a dome on Mars made of regular old breakable glass, that the idiot Agency men shoot through--as they seem to fire thousands of rounds at every turn--so that it sucks everyone out through the broken windows. The dialogue is insipid, the sets are phony and don’t make a lot of sense, and most of the supporting roles are so outsized as to be utterly unbelievable. But then maybe that’s the point. I don’t know. I’m not a big fan of these kinds of juvenile comedies anyway, in addition to the major eighties jet lag that this film has in abundance. Schwarzenegger is essentially himself, but in a bad role. Michael Ironside, who had done such a fantastic job in Scanners a decade earlier, is completely wasted in this film. And in trying for the same type of character Ronny Cox played in RoboCop, he goes completely over the top and chews the scenery whenever he’s on camera. The film even manages to make Sharon Stone seem kind of goofy. Total Recall is a total miss, probably not an outright horrible film for most people but close enough for me that I’ll never watch it again.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Black Swan (1942)

Director: Henry King                                    Writers: Ben Hecht & Seton I. Miller
Film Score: Alfred Newman                         Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Starring: Tyrone Power, Maureen O’Hara, Laird Creger and Thomas Mitchell

The Black Swan is definitely lesser Sabatini--otherwise Warner Brothers would have purchased it long before Darryl Zanuck got his hands on it. The film was a Technicolor spectacular, however, a hit at the box office that went on to win an Academy Award for Leon Shamroy’s color photography. But seen today, the film pales in comparison to Errol Flynn’s best Sabatini films, Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, and can’t even approach the magnificence of The Adventures of Robin Hood. Even in black and white Errol Flynn was more vibrant onscreen than Tyrone Power is in color. The direction by Henry King is uninspired, the color rear projection by Shamroy painfully obvious compared to the same thing done in black and white, and Alfred Newman’s tepid film score doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the artistic triumphs achieved by Erich Wolfgang Korngold in all three of the Warner Brothers films. After Flynn’s colossal success in swashbucklers in the thirties, he had already moved on to other types of leading roles by the time World War Two began, and so in many ways this film feels as if it’s five years too late. It had all been done before, much better, and every member of the cast seems like a poor man’s version of the ones in the Flynn films. Finally, as great as Ben Hecht was at writing certain other kinds of films, he definitely failed in this attempt.

The story begins with an attack on one the many Spanish possessions in the Caribbean by English pirates Tyrone Power and George Sanders. It’s an easy conquest and the two captains proceed to get drunk afterward. When Spanish soldiers stage a counter attack Power is captured and put on the rack by Fortunio Bonanova. The tables quickly turn when Thomas Mitchell arrives and frees Power, but when George Zucco arrives as the Governor of Jamaica and claims that the English have signed a treaty with Spain, Power ignores the news and captures Zucco as well. That’s when the pirate leader, Laird Creger, shows up, claiming to have been knighted by the king and sent to replace Zucco in Jamaica. Creger wants to clean up the Caribbean for the English, but Sanders is having none of it and wants only to continue plundering Spanish towns and ships. He is able to get a sizable number of the other captains to go along with him, while Creger only manages to enlist Power and Mitchell to his cause. Maureen O’Hara is Zucco’s daughter, betrothed to Edward Ashley, and so she is naturally antagonistic to Power and his friends. But it turns out Ashley is a traitor, selling information on the whereabouts of English ships so that he can split the treasure with Sanders. All is not as it seems, however, as he is working for Zucco who is actually using the attacks to discredit Creger and get his position back.

First of all, Tyrone Power is just too little to be playing a pirate of any consequence--while at the same time Cregar is far too fat to be believable as a pirate at all. Only Thomas Mitchell and Maureen O’Hara from the principal cast were shorter than Power, and even then not by much. But the worst problem is with the screenplay. Unlike the Warner Brothers films, which were written by Casey Robinson, Howard Koch and Norman Raine and contain clever and compelling dialogue and action, the screenplay by Hecht and Seton Miller is so bogged down by cliché and a lack of ingenuity that it goes nowhere. What’s so ironic is that Miller had worked on both The Sea Hawk and Robin Hood at Warners. What happened here is hard to fathom. Alfred Newman had already tried to copy Korngold when he scored another Power film earlier that year, Son of Fury, with dismal results. Incomprehensibly, this score is even worse. There’s no subtlety to the characterizations at all, and Sanders, Creger, and Zucco chew the scenery all the way through, and even manage to make the great Thomas Mitchell look bad by association. O’Hara’s acting is just as blunt, and she’s like a bad B-film actress compared to Olivia de Havilland. Everything, from Power’s blustering to the cartoon-like speeded up duel at the end, is just bad. In the end The Black Swan is just that, the very opposite of what it should be.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

The FBI Story (1959)

Director: Mervyn LeRoy                                Writers: Richard L. Breen & John Twist
Film Score: Max Steiner                                Cinematography: Joseph F. Biroc
Starring: Jimmy Stewart, Vera Miles, Murray Hamilton and Nick Adams

There’s nothing that can kill a screenplay faster than working in cooperation with a government agency in trying to come up with a story they’ll accept. The only exception to this rule seems to be the U.S. Navy. Two great films came out of collaboration with the Navy, The Caine Mutiny in 1954 and The Final Countdown in 1980. But these seem to be the exceptions that prove the rule. This 1959 effort by Warner Brothers, The FBI Story, is a case in point. It’s a tepid, watered-down drama that turns nearly every impressive feat in the history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation into a bad TV show. To make matters worse, because they had Jimmy Stewart the screenwriters then attempted to compensate by making the rest of the story into a combination of It’s a Wonderful Life and an afternoon soap opera. The associations with Capra’s great post-war film are too pointed to miss. Vera Miles is simply a more modern version of Donna Reed. It rains on their honeymoon, just like it did on George and Mary’s wedding day. Their car could be the very one used in the Capra film, and the train station he leaves from is named Granville--just like the old Granville house the Bailey’s own in Bedford Falls. By the time Miles becomes pregnant, the fact that he doesn’t say, “Lucy, you’re on the nest?” is almost a shock.

The film begins with the worst possible opening there is, something they teach students in grade school to avoid: the dreaded dictionary definition. But here we have Jimmy Stewart on the voiceover quoting the Webster’s International Dictionary definition of murder. The prologue tells the story of Nick Adams, who plants a time bomb in his mother’s suitcase and blows her and the plane she’s on out of the sky. Even J. Edgar Hoover has a cameo in the beginning. The tale of how Adams is caught turns out to be a speech by Stewart to new recruits to the FBI. Then he takes his audience back to his own beginnings as an FBI agent and the way his career mirrored the growth of the national investigative police force. Stewart was working for Parley Baer in the twenties, and courting Vera Miles. She doesn’t want to marry him because being an FBI agent seems like a dead-end job, but she agrees when he says he’ll quit. When he meets Hoover, however, he reneges and they spend the next two decades moving all over the country. The film spends what seems an inordinate amount of time on the Osage Murders in the twenties, which is interesting to a point, but when it comes to the excitement of hunting down the gangers of the thirties each one is given between thirty seconds and a minute before moving on to the next. Finally Miles has had enough and moves back in with her parents and takes the three kids with her, but she eventually comes back. And that’s only half the film. The rest is just as mind-numbing.

When you stop to consider that this film was made the same year Hitchcock made North by Northwest with Cary Grant, it seems shockingly bad by comparison. Murray Hamilton is Stewart’s partner for much of the film but, like the rest of the principals, the dialogue is so bland and the drama so torpid that no actors could have made it interesting. Stewart’s character is also strangely drawn. He says incredibly inappropriate things at the wrong times, behaving selfishly when his wife has a miscarriage and his son dies. World War Two, the Cold War, the film just keeps going on and on. Any one of the vignettes might have made an interesting film, but strung together as they are in digest form there’s no possibility for any real dramatic arc or central conflict to emerge. And further, the idea that Jimmy Stewart’s character is in on every major development of the agency is patently unbelievable. Mervyn LeRoy’s direction is pedestrian at best, and even Max Steiner’s score is unable to provide any real artistry to the production. Apparently Hoover himself wanted to approve every frame of film, forcing the director to re-shoot several scenes--and it shows. It’s also said that Hoover wouldn’t let the production go forward until he had collected a file full of “dirt” on Mervyn LeRoy. In the end, what was such a shock for me is that this is the first time I’d ever seen Jimmy Stewart in a really bad film--which is the only way to describe The FBI Story.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Westworld (1973)

Director: Michael Crichton                              Writer: Michael Crichton
Film Score: Fred Karlin                                  Cinematography: Gene Polito
Starring: Yul Brynner, James Brolin, Richard Benjamin and Dick Van Patten

For all his popular success, Michael Crichton was never a great writer. Most of the time it’s not that evident in his film productions, when someone else is adapting screenplays from his novels. But Crichton wrote and directed Westworld, and it shows. It was his first original screenplay and none of the studios wanted to go near it. But he finally was able to strike a deal with MGM, and filmed it primarily on their back lot. Even compensating for the fact that it was filmed in the early seventies, the film still looks like a television production rather than a feature. The sets are clearly TV sets rather than anything remotely realistic, and much of the crew was from television as well. The cheapness of the sets can be explained away by the premise of the film in which a sort of computerized theme park gives guests a realistic experience of being able to kill or sexually dominate robots, allowing visitors to experience the illicit without the illegality. So it stands to reason that the park wouldn’t be that realistic. Still, while the premise is intriguing, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The special effects, especially the shots out of the windows of the futuristic plane in the beginning, might have been advanced for the day but they are hopelessly phony here. The practical effects, on the other hand, are well done. Even so, the production was never going to be able to rise above its obvious artistic deficiencies.

The film begins with television reporter Robert Hogan interviewing people who have finished vacationing at a futuristic resort that allows visitors a full immersion experience in either Roman times, the Middle Ages, or the American West. All of the interviewees are gushing in their praise. Then the scene shifts to James Brolin and Richard Benjamin who are on their way to Westworld. After landing and being outfitted they wander down to the saloon where Yul Brynner verbally abuses Benjamin at the bar. Brolin, who has been there before, urges Benjamin to confront him. When he finally does, the two draw and Benjamin kills him with three shots to the chest. Brynner is dragged away soon after and back in their room Benjamin wonders aloud if Brynner might have been a guest rather than the realistic robots that inhabit the theme park. Brolin suggests he try to shoot him, but the gun won’t work when aimed at a warm target. Later the two go to a whorehouse and have sex with robot prostitutes, and all the while a bank robbery is going on across the street. In a somber scene that night, workers come out and remove the robot bodies that litter the street. They are taken behind the scenes and repaired, with head “doctor” Alan Oppenheimer in charge of the operation. He notices that there has been an increasing rate of central mechanism breakdowns in the robots in all three worlds and, most disturbing, it’s acting like a virus that threatens to infect all of the robots.

Eventually a series of minor mishaps leads to the death of one of the guests in the Medieval World, and though the technicians try to turn off the power in the complex it does no good and the robots begin to go rogue, especially Yul Brynner in Westworld. Brynner, who earned his western bona fides in The Magnificent Seven in 1960 and Invitation to a Gunfighter four years later, is the perfect relentless robot in the film. The look of his character was even based on that from the earlier movie. Barrel chested, with pale eyes and a hard face, he shows no signs of stopping as he pursues Richard Benjamin. But there are a number of things that strain credulity, chief among them the fact that the entire complex was apparently designed so that the technicians will be locked in if the power goes out. Of course they shut down the power and then can’t get it back on, trapping themselves inside, powerless to do anything as the robots go on their rampage. Also, for no apparent reason, they upgrade Brynner’s optical and audio systems, enabling him to chase down Benjamin with even greater efficiency. This was also one of the first films to use pixelated imaging to suggest the robot’s point of view. But that is sort of negated by the bulk of the computer screens in the control room displaying nothing but meaningless computer art of the kind found on early screensavers.

One of the things Crichten is able to do well early on in the film is to inject the repair scene with a lot of pathos. The technicians are dressed like doctors, and computer readouts look and sound like medical machines in a hospital. The effect--as intended--is jarring. There’s also no denying the influence of the Brynner character on the Terminator films. But overall the film is little more than a string of clichés, from the TV sets, the corny music by Fred Karlin, the costuming, right down to the acting. Yul Brynner is the best actor of the bunch and he’s playing a robot. While James Brolin and Richard Benjamin made a lot of feature films in the seventies, they are primarily associated with television as well, and for good reason: they’re just not that convincing. Add to that Dick Van Patton as the new sheriff in town, as well as a host of low-level television talent rounding out the rest of the cast and it was always going to look like a TV movie. Nevertheless, fans at the time made it a huge hit, but to Crichton’s dismay it was more because of its camp value than for the cautionary tale he had tried to tell. The film spawned a sequel, Futureworld, that starred Brynner again but that Crichton had nothing to do with, and quite naturally a television series called Beyond Westworld. And it has been recently revived by HBO as a series as well. The concept of Westworld is intriguing, and there is much that could have been done with it, but it never really rises above its television pedigree and remains a missed opportunity.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Director: Wes Anderson                                Writer: Wes Anderson
Film Score: Alexandre Desplat                      Cinematography: Robert D. Yeoman
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Tony Revolori and Jude Law

While Wes Anderson’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel was something of a critical darling, and was even nominated for a best picture Oscar, it is actually more of a disappointment than anything else. It seems as if what he’s attempting here is a cross between the Coen Brothers and Tim Burton, but Anderson lacks the narrative sophistication of the former and the visual imagination of the later and so what results is the worst version of both. The story is based upon the writings of Stefan Zweig, an Austrian author who was popular between the World Wars but had nevertheless received mixed reviews for his numerous works. Anderson’s story takes from some of the fictional and some of the autobiographical incidents in Zweig’s work and fashioned from them an abstract tale that attempts to make up for in humor what it decidedly lacks in artistry. I fully admit to finding these types of work distasteful because of the dearth of intellect they display, so it’s not that I don’t get it. But like a Jackson Pollack “artwork” or an Ornette Coleman “song,” Anderson’s “film” is utterly bereft of the kind of intellectual discipline that has informed genuinely great films from the inception of the art form. The fact that critics like it is almost a warning label for those who see film’s greatness as a narrative art being slowly eroded by the increasingly vacuous intellects of young filmmakers like Anderson.

The film begins with Tom Wilkinson as a famed author, talking about the tedious question of where an author’s stories come from. He states that, if one is willing to listen to others, the stories will come to the author. From there he relates his visit as a young man to the Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional Eastern European country of Zubrowka. In the flashback the younger author is played by Jude Law. Curious one day about the appearance of an old man, F. Murray Abraham, he is told he is the owner of the hotel. In the baths the two strike up a conversation and over dinner Abraham tells Law the story of his life. In this flashback, the young Abraham is played by Tony Revolori who suddenly appears at the hotel as a Lobby Boy. The officious but charming concierge, Ralph Fiennes, at first dubious about his capabilities, nevertheless takes him under his wing and this sets Revolori off on numerous adventures that he experiences traveling in the wake of the eccentric hotel manager. This includes seducing wealthy old women like Tilda Swinton, confronting her son Adrien Brody and the family’s lawyer Jeff Goldblum over the will, talking himself out of an arrest by de facto Nazi Edward Norton, evading hit man Willem Dafor, escaping from prison with the aid of Harvey Keitel, and calling on the network of hotel managers led by Bill Murray to help him find the man responsible for his false arrest.

The film itself is highly stylized, with no real concession to realism in either the look or the narrative. This is done through the use of miniatures of exteriors of the hotel, and wide-angle lenses in the interiors. The colors are manipulated to give the film a faded, sepia-toned look to invoke the historical nature of the tale while the set design verges on a sort of steampunk aesthetic to go along with the surreal nature of the story. The real draw of the film seems to be the number of well-known actors in the piece, as well as the bizarre nature of the narrative. But while it was nominated for nine Academy Awards, the categories in which it won the Oscar are indicative of its failure as a captivating piece of filmmaking, winning for production design, costume design, hair and makeup, as well as the Eastern European folk music score by Alexandre Desplat. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how many big stars are in a film if they are given one-dimensional characters to portray in the screenplay. And that is certainly the case here. The characters are cartoons, mirroring the kind of graphic novel approach of the visuals. There are some funny lines, and some winning moments, which seems almost inevitable given the density of acting talent shoehorned into the film, but on the whole endeavor lies flat and curiously unengaging through most of its running time. The Grand Budapest Hotel will certainly have a lot of fans who have been weaned on Twitter feeds and YouTube videos, but I’m never going to be one of them.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Double Jeopardy (1999)

Director: Bruce Beresford                              Writers: David Weisberg & Douglas Cook
Film Score: Normand Corbeil                         Cinematography: Peter James
Starring: Ashley Judd, Tommy Lee Jones, Bruce Greenwood and Annabeth Gish

Double Jeopardy makes a valiant attempt at being an action movie, at being suspenseful, and at telling an engaging mystery story. Unfortunately the film can’t bear the weight of all the mistakes it makes and, as such, is a huge disappointment. Despite star power and a veteran director with two Oscar nominations, the screenplay is so incredibly bad that it drops like a rock tossed into Puget Sound. The set up is interesting enough, but it is over by the time the credits have finished. Ashley Judd and her businessman husband Bruce Greenwood live on the beautiful shores of Whidbey Island in Washington State, just north of Seattle. They have a small son, Benjamin Weir, and Greenwood is throwing a lavish party to raise money for his small school on the island. The boy’s teacher is Annabeth Gish, who also acts as something of a nanny for him. Judd has always wanted a particular sailboat and when Greenwood buys it for her they set out on the water that evening. The first head scratcher is when Judd is pointing out the geography while they are out of sight of land. She claims that while Alaska is to the north, and Japan is to the east, that the Straight of Juan de Fuca is off to the south of them, but the Straight runs slightly northwest and it couldn’t be south of them unless the were practically on top of Vancouver Island. Granted, that one depends on a knowledge of the setting, but there are plenty more to come that don’t.

After a night of romance and drinking Judd wakes up covered in blood like John Marley in The Godfather, but instead of a horse’s head she finds a trail of blood leading up to the deck and no Greenwood. She sees the bloody knife on the deck and, of course, she picks it up, just in time to have the coast guard arrive and see her with it. I realize that this film is already fifteen years old, but that was a tired trope even then and I think it’s time to retire it. Soon she’s thrown in jail, with no bail, and then brought to trial . . . even though Greenwood’s body has never been found! None of the trial preparation is shown at all. Suddenly we’re in the courtroom with her hearing a tape of Greenwood sending a distress call to the Coast Guard saying he’s been stabbed. Prosecutor Betsy Brantley tries for the sarcasm of Glenn Close in Jagged Edge, but the writing is so poor and juvenile that it’s actually embarrassing. Even with the tape, and the insurance policy, a murder conviction without a body is incredibly rare and so it doesn’t just strain credulity it utterly torpedoes any suspension of disbelief. But wait, there’s more. Since she doesn’t get the money, Judd begs Gish to adopt their son so that she’ll have access to the money in trust, and then is sent to prison. Again, however, the abysmal pacing destroys the story. Absolutely no time is taken to establish her relationship with the great Roma Maffia, who happens to have been a lawyer and holds the key to the title and the rest of the film.

When Judd hasn’t heard from Gish or her son in a month she makes a call to the school, pretending to be Gish and checking on the address for her “severance check.” First of all, there is no such thing as severance pay for teachers. And secondly, the school wouldn’t handle it even if there was. The state handles all of that from the teacher’s individual retirement fund. Anyway, Judd manages to find out Gish’s new address and phone number in San Francisco. She chews out Gish first, but when she’s talking to her son Greenwood walks in the door and he calls out, “Daddy,” which Judd hears. Now she knows he’s faked his death. Maffia, in another brief drive-by appearance, tells her to do her time quietly and try to get out on parole because of double jeopardy, which means no one can be tried twice for the same crime. “That means you can walk right up to him in Times Square, put a gun to his head and pull the trigger, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.” Wrong. When she gets out she’ll be on parole, which means that any violation of parole, including that gun, will send her right back to prison to finish her original sentence, I’m guessing, without another chance of parole. It’s maddening just how stupid this film is. So then she starts buffing up while she waits to get out, but she’s not Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, and when she’s done she looks just as skinny and fragile as when she went in. She doesn’t meet Tommy Lee Jones, the head of the halfway house, until after she gets out but by then it’s too late. The film is already a lost cause and it’s only a half hour old.

Ultimately the screenplay is the downfall of the film. David Weisberg had only written three films prior to this . . . and wasn’t able to sell another one for fifteen years, which makes sense considering how bad this one was. His partner on all of those previous films was, no surprise, Douglas Cook. What’s so mystifying about all of this is that the director, Bruce Beresford, didn’t demand that changes to the screenplay be made. Beresford actually earned an Academy Award nomination for his own screenplay on Breaker Morant, and another for his directing on Tender Mercies. In addition he was nominated for a Golden Globe for his direction of Driving Miss Daisy. In this film he seems to have gleefully purchased a ticket on the Titanic and decided to go down with the ship. Judd’s journey of revenge lurches along with no time to develop anything like concern for the characters including, ironically, Judd herself. Her miraculous escapes that Weisberg and Cook have written for her are as sophomoric as they are unbelievable, and Beresford just went ahead and filmed them. Tommy Lee Jones is wasted, Roma Maffia is wasted, and so is Bruce Greenwood, all of which renders the star power of the film moot. If you though the deus ex machina was working overtime in The Pelican Brief, you’ll want to steer well clear of Double Jeopardy.