Six Dramas from MGM
Bright Young Things (October 27/12)
Based on the novel Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh, Bright Young Things follows aspiring author Adam Symes (Stephen Campbell Moore) as he and his on-again-off-again fiancée (Emily Mortimer's Nina Blount) are drawn into the upper-class world of swinging 1930s London. Filmmaker Stephen Fry has infused Bright Young Things with a freewheeling and persistently plotless feel that is, perhaps, an accurate representation of Waugh's 1930 book, yet Fry proves utterly unable to capture the viewer's interest virtually from start to finish - with the writer/director's continuing emphasis on one-dimensional, hopelessly underdeveloped characters compounding the movie's hands-off feel. There's little doubt, too, that the film only grows more and more uninvolving as it progresses, as Fry's increasingly superficial approach to the material results in a decidedly oppressive atmosphere that's nothing short of intolerable (ie the protagonists' fun-loving shenanigans eventually and inevitably become interminable). The repetitive and uneventful midsection paves the way for an incongruously dramatic third act detailing the impact of WWII on several key characters, with one's palpable disdain for these people preventing one from working up any sympathy for their climactic exploits. And although Fry has peppered the proceedings with a very small handful of compelling moments (eg Adam wins a bet by expertly performing a magic trick), Bright Young Things is, in the end, a thoroughly misguided adaptation that would seem to indicate that Waugh's book has long-since lost whatever relevance it may have once possessed.
Crooked Hearts follows Peter Berg's Tom Warren as he arrives home after dropping out of college, with the film subsequently detailing the ongoing exploits of (and strife between) Tom's siblings (Noah Wyle's Ask, Vincent D'Onofrio's Charley, and Juliette Lewis' Cassie) and parents (Peter Coyote's Edward and Cindy Pickett's Jill). Filmmaker Michael Bortman has infused Crooked Hearts with an almost excessively relaxed pace that, when coupled with a palpably overlong running time, ultimately diminishes the movie's overall impact, as the emotional revelations of the narrative's final stretch are, as a result, simply unable to pack the punch that Bortman has clearly intended. And while Bortman has admittedly peppered the proceedings with a handful of compelling sequences - eg Tom goes out on a blind date with Jennifer Jason Leigh's Marriet - the writer/director's terminally subdued sensibilities hold the viewer at arm's length from start to finish and, for the most part, prevent one from wholeheartedly embracing the characters and their problems. The film's watchable atmosphere, then, is due primarily to the efforts of its impressive cast, as the various performers, D'Onofrio especially, manage to elevate the material on a fairly consistent basis (ie it's due to their efforts that Crooked Hearts ultimately doesn't come off as a garden-variety movie-of-the-week). The end result is an almost passable familial drama that is, generally speaking, undone by its extreme deliberateness, and it's finally clear that the movie would've been better off had it been capped at around 90 minutes.
Horton Foote's Convicts
Horton Foote's Convicts unfolds in early 20th century Texas and follows Lukas Haas' Horace Robedaux as he reluctantly spends an evening with the grizzled farmer (Robert Duvall's Soll Gautier) that owes him six months wages - with the movie, for the most part, detailing the (mostly dull) conversations that transpire over the course of one very long night. There's never a point at which it's not painfully clear that Horton Foote's Convicts has been adapted from a stage play, as the movie suffers from a decidedly uncinematic feel that's compounded by an oppressively deliberate pace and an emphasis on the characters' meaningless chatter. The film's pervasively uneventful atmosphere ensures that one's efforts at embracing the protagonists fall flat on an all-too-regular basis, which is a shame, certainly, given that both Haas and Duvall are quite good here (although, admittedly, this is far from new territory for the latter, as the actor has long-since cornered the market on crotchety old coots). There's a lack of drama within Foote's screenplay that highlights the film's many, many deficiencies and consistently prevents the viewer from embracing either the characters or the wafer-thin plot, with the end result an actor's showcase that is, for the most part, far more tedious than it is watchable.
Philip Yordan's Anna Lucasta
Based on a play by, obviously, Philip Yordan, Philip Yordan's Anna Lucasta details the turmoil that ensues after a prostitute (Eartha Kitt's Anna Lucasta) returns home to turn her life around - with Anna's impending marriage to a respectable college graduate (Henry Scott's Rudolph) threatened by her father's persistent meddling (ie he doesn't believe that she's changed her ways). It's fairly obvious right from the get-go that Philip Yordan's Anna Lucasta has been adapted from a theatrical endeavor, as the movie boasts a palpably stagy vibe that's reflected most keenly in the affected and persistently stilted dialogue (eg "the streets are like graveyards, houses like tombstones"). There's little doubt, however, that the movie improves slightly as the plot begins to kick in, with the dynamic performances going a long way towards cultivating a surprisingly passable atmosphere (ie Kitt and, especially, Sammy Davis Jr's engrossing work enhances the material on an all-too-frequent basis). And although the narrative has been peppered with a handful of admittedly compelling sequences - eg Davis Jr's Danny Johnson pleads with Anna to leave Rudolph - Philip Yordan's Anna Lucasta suffers from a progressively stagnant midsection that, although infused with a few promisingly soapy twists, builds to a completely anticlimactic finale stretch (which, in turn, paves the way for a frustratingly vague conclusion). It's finally impossible to label the film as anything more than a mildly engaging yet hopelessly dated relic of its time, and it seems likely that the movie would've long-since been relegated to the trash bin of history were it not for the presence of Kitt and Davis Jr.
It's not terribly surprising to discover that The Ranch was originally designed to function as the pilot episode of a salacious new Showtime series, as the film, which follows the ongoing exploits of several employees of a Reno brothel, unfolds in as episodic and television-like a manner as one could possibly envision. There's consequently little doubt that several of the movie's storylines are left dangling once the end credits start to roll, which, when coupled with scripter Lisa Melamed's sporadic reliance on clichéd and conventional elements, ultimately ensures that The Ranch boasts the feel of a fairly needless piece of work. It's just as clear, however, that for the majority of its brief running time, the film comes off as a consistently watchable drama that benefits substantially from its engaging performances, as the viewer is increasingly drawn into the trashy, unabashedly melodramatic exploits of the almost uniformly colorful characters (eg one of the girls is attempting to leave her past behind by marrying an oblivious guy, another is struggling with her ex over how to raise their child, etc). The lack of momentum is, as a result, generally not as problematic as one might've feared, and although it's entertaining from start to finish, The Ranch is simply not able to justify its existence due to the frustratingly open-ended manner with which it leaves its various characters (ie Did Emily make it as a singer? Was Rickie Lee able to buy that house? etc, etc).
River's Edge (October 28/12)
River's Edge follows several teenagers, including Crispin Glover's Layne, Keanu Reeves' Matt, and Ione Skye's Clarissa, as they attempt to cope with the news one of their own (Daniel Roebuck's Samson) has committed a murder, with the film, for the most part, detailing the characters' ongoing efforts at both processing the news and deciding what to do about it. There's little doubt that River's Edge fares best in its early stages, as director Tim Hunter does a nice job of capturing the blue-collar environment in which the protagonists reside - with the vivid atmosphere heightened by the uniformly compelling work from the movie's various actors. It's just as clear, however, that the movie slowly-but-surely loses its grip on the viewer as it progresses, with the midsection's decidedly sluggish bent serving only to highlight the aggressive uneventfulness of Neal Jimenez's spare screenplay. There's a stagnancy here that does, unfortunately, grow more and more oppressive as time passes, and it consequently does become increasingly difficult to work up any real interest in or sympathy for the protagonists' ongoing exploits. And although the film ultimately succeeds as a portrait of aimless, apathetic teens, River's Edge is simply not, for the most part, engaging or engrossing enough to warrant its pervasively subdued vibe.