1996

The Daytrippers (1996, Greg Mottola)

There are two profoundly well-directed scenes in the third act of The Daytrippers, including the last one, so you really want to give what you can of it a pass. Daytrippers is very straightforward, even through the various complexities of the third act, but just because Mottola (who wrote as well as directed) knows what he needs to do with the characters at a given point in the story doesn’t mean he knows how to do it with them. The film spends most of its runtime promising to give Anne Meara and Pat McNamara these great roles but instead reduces them both to caricature. Sure, not the initially implied caricatures—she’s an overbearing Long Island housewife and he’s the hen-pecked husband—but changing from one caricature to another isn’t character development. Because Mottola asks for a lot of leeway on Meara, who’s shown as terrible person throughout and one not even deserving of empathy, implying along the way any woman over a certain age are raving harpies, only to make her even worse than predicted.

It’s a lot.

And then Mottola’s done with her because she’s just a distraction. She’s been distracting the film from Hope Davis, the ostensible lead, for the previous seventy minutes or so and then all of a sudden it’s like… oh, yeah, she’s just MacGuffin. Because we couldn’t get Stanley Tucci for anything but a supporting role. Tucci is Davis’s husband. The film opens with them coming home from Thanksgiving and having an intimate moment. The next day, Tucci goes off to work in the city and Davis discovers what appears to be a love letter on the floor. Presumably fell out of his briefcase. So she heads over to mom Meara’s, where we’ve already met the rest of the cast. We get introduced to Meara and McNamara as they make as much noise as possible to wake other daughter Parker Posey, who’s home from college for the holiday with boyfriend Liev Schreiber. Posey and Schreiber are going into the city and waiting for McNamara to give them a ride to the train.

But then Davis arrives with her problems and, counseling against her calling Tucci, Meara decides McNamara is going to drive everyone into the city. Hence The Daytrippers.

The family has various misadventures getting into the city, their journey set to Schreiber summarizing his novel to the mostly disinterested audience. Watching Posey and Schreiber’s relationship slowly implode over the film as the pressure in the car keeps on ratcheting up is one of Daytrippers’s most deliberate and least successful subplots. Eventually Posey meets author Campbell Scott—Tucci’s a literary agent or something—and he’s everything Schreiber wishes he could be—published, self-confident, smarter. The scene where Scott takes Schreiber’s insipid political philosophy out back and beats it with a stick until it crumbles is something else. The Daytrippers always feels very indie, with John Inwood’s realistic (and gorgeous) photography, Richard Martinez’s score, Mottola’s long takes… but the story’s basically a sitcom episode and a lot of the characterizations are similarly shallow. Even Meara’s performance works more appropriately in that context.

Only Mottola is very clearly not directing a sitcom. He directs against the script, which somehow works, but the script’s still got its problems. And then there’s Schreiber, who’s too tall to be puppy dog and a little bit too absurd. Six foot three, Cambridge-educated, mama’s boy fops who work construction in Michigan require a lot of… something. And neither Mottola or Schreiber know how to do that something.

Davis gets very little to do in the first half of the film—see, they can’t find Tucci so they have to traverse the city through the runtime with the aforementioned adventures, which are have limited budgets and often involve parties or at least social gatherings with food and alcohol present—but then she gets a bunch in the third act. Only not a lot of dialogue, just a lot of long takes of Davis thinking. She’s awesome at them and you wish Mottola had been doing them the whole time because they add up while the stuff he had been focusing on did not.

McNamara’s okay. I was expecting more from him, but he’s solid. Posey’s good. Not a great part overall (which is a big problem), but she’s good. Tucci’s great. Great cameo from Marcia Gay Harden.

The Daytrippers is a well-made picture, with a few moments of inspired brilliance. In the end those moments just make you wish Mottola had figured out how to do them sooner. And more frequently.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Greg Mottola; director of photography, John Inwood; edited by Anne McCabe; music by Richard Martinez; production designer, Bonnie J. Brinkley; costume designer, Barbara Presar; produced by Nancy Tenenbaum and Steven Soderbergh; released by Cinépix Film Properties.

Starring Hope Davis (Eliza Malone D’Amico), Parker Posey (Jo Malone), Liev Schreiber (Carl Petrovic), Anne Meara (Rita Malone), Pat McNamara (Jim Malone), Campbell Scott (Eddie Masler), Andy Brown (Ronnie), Paul Herman (Leon), Marcia Gay Harden (Libby), Marc Grapey (Aaron), Douglas McGrath (Chap), and Stanley Tucci (Louis D’Amico).


Emma (1996, Douglas McGrath)

Emma keeps misplacing things. For a long stretches, it misplaces second-billed Toni Collette (who goes from being the subject of the first half to an afterthought in the most of the second half to just a plot foil in the third act). There’s also lead Gwyneth Paltrow’s painting. The film opens with Paltrow’s paintings of her friends, home, and familiar places, which get used again to identify locations for a bit in the first act, and then the painting becomes a plot point… but then it’s gone, both from the narrative (which could make sense with the plot point if you’re being generous) and the film’s visuals. It’s indicative of Emma’s greatest problem—even greater than Paltrow not really being up to snuff for the lead and often mugging her way through scenes, her costars all doing the double duty of load-bearing and acting—is director McGrath. He’s got some ideas, but he’s rarely consistent with them (outside he and cinematographer Ian Wilson’s astoundingly ill-advised attempt at “natural” lighting), and even if he were… he doesn’t have the chops to pull them off. Not in directing actors (there are some rather oddly bad performances throughout), not in composing shots, and definitely not in establishing a narrative distance. Particularly bad form on the last one, as McGrath adapted the Jane Austen novel himself.

The film’s got two competing narrations, one from Paltrow and one from what we assume is one character but is actually another because getting in a pointless wink is more important than verisimilitude. But the misleading narration—which only works because the supporting cast is so thinly drawn—is just a third act problem. Paltrow’s narration, which kicks off in earnest somewhere in the second half, is from the character’s diary. The diary doesn’t come into play until well after the narration is established and has very little interesting to convey. It’s good writing (so presumably from the source novel) but it doesn’t add anything to the film because the film’s already established itself without needing diary or narration. McGrath’s constantly introducing elements the film’s already shown it can do without. Sometimes they’re competent, sometimes they’re piddling.

Ewan McGregor, for instance, is piddling.

McGregor plays Paltrow’s eventual de facto suitor. So, the film starts with Paltrow just having succeeded in marrying off governess Greta Scacchi to local widow James Cosmo and deciding she’s going to become a matchmaker. Her next subjects? Vicar Alan Cummings (who’s more middling than piddling) and aforementioned second-billed Collette. Now, Collette doesn’t have any money and Cummings is out for a rich dowry only Paltrow thinks love will conquer all. Except the condescending, gently demeaning way Paltrow treats Collette is duplicated in how the film treats her. Collette, and many of the other women in the film, are often used for laughs. Weird since Paltrow getting her eventual comeuppance involves her punching down, you’d think McGrath, adapted the novel, would be able to do something like foreshadowing… but he cannot because he does a poor job of adapting the novel. Seriously; you get done with Emma and don’t even wonder if you should read the novel. Given the film’s from the renewed era of Austen adaptations… it ought to at least encourage readership.

Anyway.

Eventually McGregor shows up as Cosmo’s son and, presumably, Paltrow’s intended. Except he’s playing the part like he’s in a bad Muppet Jane Austen’s Emma and not just because of the hair. In some ways he perfectly compliments Paltrow’s performance; they both mug for the camera, he just does it with more volume, more bluster. Their similarities even potentially become a plot point but not really because of the way McGrath directs the scene, which… is again the biggest problem with the film. McGrath’s well-meaning enough in his direction, just inept with it. And when he does try to show flourish, usually with a silly camera move—one does have to wonder about cinematographer Wilson’s agency—it ends up silly at best.

There are some okay supporting performances: Jeremy Northam’s fine as Paltrow’s male friend, though there’s a way too big performance differential between the two of them and never the right chemistry, Collette’s good, especially given the circumstances, Sophie Thompson’s probably the best, as the woman Paltrow meanest girls. Sacchi’s all right. Cosmo mugs. Denys Hawthorne, as Paltrow’s father, is literal scenery. Juliet Stevenson, as a second half punchline, does a lot better than she should given the part and the direction.

Not great editing from Lesley Walker doesn’t help things. Rachel Portman’s score has its moments but also the ones where it seems more appropriate for an ostentatious adventure picture, which then just introduces the false promise of personality to the filmmaking and what could be, if only McGrath had the chops.

The third act’s particularly disappointing as all it really needs is some narrative sincerity. It doesn’t even need to have Paltrow step up… though I guess it does make some sense how McGrath then takes the movie away from her. It’s like he gives her a vote of no confidence after he’s just made a two hour movie of her.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Douglas McGrath; screenplay by McGrath, based on the novel by Jane Austen; director of photography, Ian Wilson; edited by Lesley Walker; music by Rachel Portman; production designer, Michael Howells; costume designer, Ruth Myers; produced by Patrick Cassavetti and Steven Haft; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma Woodhouse), Toni Collette (Harriet Smith), Alan Cumming (Mr. Elton), Ewan McGregor (Frank Churchill), Jeremy Northam (George Knightley), Greta Scacchi (Mrs. Weston), Juliet Stevenson (Mrs. Elton), Polly Walker (Jane Fairfax), Sophie Thompson (Miss Bates), James Cosmo (Mr. Weston), Denys Hawthorne (Mr. Woodhouse), and Phyllida Law (Mrs. Bates).


Greetings from Africa (1996, Cheryl Dunye)

In Greetings from Africa writer, director, and star Dunye mixes formats. Her first person comments to the camera are black and white video. The dramatized story is color film. Very, very colorful film. Dunye and cinematographer Sarah Cawley have some affected, formalist shots–even though Dunye’s the only one giving first person narration, Nora Breen (as Dunye’s romantic interest) gets some emotive and stylized close-ups. But then there are the more realistic sequences, where the sets are fully adorned–both the first person video shots and the stylized sequences with Breen and Dunye flirting in private have mostly blank walls. Even when Dunye and Breen have scenes in regular sets (Dunye’s apartment’s bathroom and kitchen), the composition emphasizes the actors, not the scenery.

The short runs about eight minutes, with Dunye recounting her time spent with Breen. They meet (off screen, but with the some of the audio played over, in some of Greetings finest editing), hang out a bit, then Dunye discovers Breen has some secrets.

There’s the scene in the kitchen, which has multiple conversations overlaid in voiceover, all with Dunye and Crawley’s stylized composition and colors and with Joan Caplin’s fantastic editing. Greetings is short, but full of content. Between Dunye’s first person exposition expanding it and contextualizing it, there’s also the technical stylizing in scenes to make it bigger. It’s great.

Greetings is mostly comedic; well, it’s not entirely anything, but it’s more comedic than anything else. Dunye’s got a wry sense of humor, not just in her performance, but in the dialogue and plotting of the short. She’ll cut away from a scene for maximum comedic impact. The short’s exquisitely made.

Dunye gives the best performance (there are three other actors) thanks to her silent expressions as she takes in the events, as well as her recounting of them for the first person. With the video to film and film to video changes, there’s a visual cue to differentiate between Dunye the narrator and Dunye the protagonist. Neither is unreliable or so much contrary as Dunye establishes a different narrative distance. It’s very cool.

Breen’s also good, though she really only gets a few scenes and they’re short ones. She’s playing an enigmatic character but not enigmatically. Again, Greetings excels in its subtle disconnects.

There’s a lot of subtlety to the short overall–it plays very much like a culmination of two of Dunye’s previous shorts. Being familiar with them probably makes the quiet jokes funnier, but seeing them isn’t necessary. The film’s more strong enough on its own.

The editing and cinematography are phenomenal. Perfect score by Glorified Magnified and Rebecca Coupe Franks–and perfectly cut to the action. Greetings from Africa is confident and boisterous and confident in its boisterousness. Dunye, her cast, and her crew, all do excellent work.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Cheryl Dunye; director of photography, Sarah Cawley; edited by Joan Caplin; music by Glorified Magnified and Rebecca Coupe Franks; produced by Dunye, Mary Jane Skalski, and Karen Yaeger.

Starring Nora Breen (L), Cheryl Dunye (Cheryl), Jocelyn Taylor (Dee), and Jacqueline Woodson (The Girlfriend).


Dear Diary (1996, David Frankel)

Dear Diary was originally a TV pilot, which didn’t get picked up, then got (slightly) re-edited into a short. It’s impossible to imagine it as a weekly show, just because Diary does so little to establish what would be its regular cast.

It opens with star Bebe Neuwirth writing about her day in her diary. She narrates the whole film, with her musings about what she encounters–usually about people she meets, sometimes about herself, sometimes memories, or a lot of concepts (golf, photography)–visualized. If it’s people in the cast, they’re in the musings. If it’s an idea or a memory, it’s stock footage. On video. But Diary is shot on film. So it’s constantly visually jarring. Director Frankel is constantly moving the camera after cuts. It’ll tilt to focus on the actor, it’ll tilt away. It’s not effective. And it’s a problem for the first act.

The first act introduces Neuwirth and her family. They’re New York yuppies. She’s a magazine editor, husband Brian Kerwin is an attorney, they’ve got a couple kids who don’t matter except to remind Neuwirth she’s forty. Kerwin doesn’t figure into the plot at all. He’s an accessory, albeit one with more going on than the kids.

Neuwirth goes to work, where she ends up quitting almost immediately after her boss, Bruce Altman, gets introduced. Then she’s just got a free day; that free day is where Diary starts getting a lot better. She goes lunch golfing, where she meets avid golfer and department store security guard Mike Starr. They hang out for long enough to see her old college friend, Haviland Morris, rip off a dress. So Neuwirth tracks down Morris, meeting her husband (Ronald Guttman) eventually, and he knows Altman, which ties it all together with Neuwirth losing her job. Or quitting. That opening scene didn’t play well because Frankel’s not good at directing dramatic or expository scenes.

So Neuwirth’s narration is all-important. And it’s great. And her performance, even as problematic as the first act gets–there are hiccups in the Morris section too–but her performance is always fantastic. You just have to pretend there’s enough character. The diary entry she’s writing aloud is nowhere near as effective as the film postulates.

The third act ties it all together, not just Neuwirth’s days’ events, but also the film in general. It works because its well-acted. It works because of Neuwirth.

Though it’s Starr who saves the thing when it’s still getting through the rockier stuff. Altman’s good, Guttman’s funny (it’s a very small part), Kerwin seems fine. Morris is way too affected, but Dear Diary is way too affected so it fits. Enough.

Given Frankel’s direction and the general production concepts–the stock video footage is a disaster (why not just shoot the whole thing on video)–Dear Diary should be a lot less successful. As for the writing (by Frankel)… it’s fine. But it’s a sitcom. An okay sitcom. So you’ve got an okay sitcom script directed goofy (or worse) and a great lead performance.

Neuwirth makes Diary happen. However, last thing, the diary she’s writing seems to be very thin. Is it a new diary? Doesn’t matter. I guess.

But it does matter. Frankel’s way too loose on detail.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by David Frankel; director of photography, Maryse Alberti; edited by Michael Berenbaum; music by Wendy Blackstone; production designer, Ginger Tougas; produced by Barry Jossen; released by DreamWorks Pictures.

Starring Bebe Neuwirth (Annie), Brian Kerwin (Tom), Bruce Altman (Griffin), Mike Starr (Fritz), Haviland Morris (Christie), and Ronald Guttman (Erik).


Waiting for Guffman (1996, Christopher Guest)

Waiting for Guffman is a story of dreams and dreamers. Director (co-writer and star) Guest opens the film with shots of a small American town, Blaine, Missouri. It’s a town with a lot of history and a lot of heart. Sure, it’s all absurd history, but those absurdities just make the heart beat stronger. Guffman is a mockumentary, starting with the town council going on and on about their sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) celebration. It takes Guffman a while before it gets to the actual storyline.

Because there’s all that absurd history and absurd councilpeople to get through.

There’s going to be a play at for the celebration, directed by a flamboyant, artistically inept New York emigrant (Guest), starring a bunch of local dreamers. Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara are the town travel agents, who also regularly star in Guest’s productions. Willard’s a jerk and O’Hara drinks too much. Neither are talented. Parker Posey is another member of the regular troupe. She’s not talented. Eugene Levy (who also co-wrote the film) is a dentist who wants to be an entertainer. He’s not talented. Matt Keeslar works at the family scrapyard–he’s a hunk who Guest enlists to star then fawns over. He’s not talented. Then there’s Bob Balaban as the high school music teacher who thinks he should be in charge of the production and resents Guest.

Everyone is hilarious. Keeslar least, but he’s still really funny. He’s got a reaction part and he never gets to be in on the joke (of Guest fawning over him). Willard, O’Hara, Guest, Levy, Posey, Balaban–they’re all phenomenal. Much of Guffman is adlibbed and you can just see the actors spark these great ideas and run with them as the scenes unfold. It’s awesome.

Guest is probably the best during these scenes; he’s got the most to do–he’s directing the production, after all–though everyone with a lot of material gives him a run for the money. Meaning everyone but Balaban. He’s sort of an extended cameo, which Guest (as director–of the film, not the stage production in the film) uses to great effect.

But then it’s showtime and Guffman switches gears. Now it’s this absurd stage production and the actors are playing their absurd characters playing these absurdly (and now–intentionally–poorly) written parts. The councilpeople return to do the mockumentary interview spots because, presumably, the leads’ characters are too busy performing. The film mostly gets away with the change in tone, with Guest throwing in some backstage character moments for the actors but never quite enough.

The shift changes the film’s energy and knocks the narrative distance out of whack. Even though Guest establishes the mockumentary device and occasionally the actors even acknowledge it in their performances, it’s gone from how the stage production occurs. Without constant hilarity to distract, the mockumentary device’s problems become a lot more apparent.

When the film wraps up in an epilogue, Guest and company go back to trying to make it funny. They mostly succeed, but the pacing of the jokes is different. Guest and editor Andy Blumenthal cut the epilogue with a different pace–they’re trying to get done, trying to get to the right jokes to close out Guffman.

It works, it just doesn’t match the first act. Guffman suffers from being too funny without strict narrative pacing–even absurd pacing–and not funny enough when Guest has to implement it.

Uneven or not, Guffman’s hilarious, well-directed, and phenomenally acted.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Christopher Guest; written by Guest and Eugene Levy; director of photography, Roberto Schaefer; edited by Andy Blumenthal; music by Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer; production designer, Joseph T. Garrity; produced by Karen Murphy; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Christopher Guest (Corky St. Clair), Fred Willard (Ron Albertson), Catherine O’Hara (Sheila Albertson), Parker Posey (Libby Mae Brown), Eugene Levy (Dr. Allan Pearl), Matt Keeslar (Johnny Savage), Lewis Arquette (Clifford Wooley), and Bob Balaban (Lloyd Miller).


The Phantom (1996, Simon Wincer)

The Phantom has three distinct visual spaces, more or less corresponding to the three acts. First act is in the remote jungle, second act is modern age–New York City–third act is evil villain pirate stronghold. Underground evil villain pirate stronghold. The last half hour of the movie is the cast running around a “slightly better than dinner theatre” pirate set, not a great way to go out.

Because The Phantom does have some excellent actions sequences, usually involving horses, sometimes involving wolves and horses communicating. The Phantom works best when it’s just going with the absurdity. Director Wincer has no sense of humor, which explains James Remar’s performance, but also very little sense with his actors, which explains Kristy Swanson’s. Wincer just wants to do the action, everything else is treading water.

So there are a couple fine action sequences, nicely cut by editors O. Nicholas Brown and Bryan H. Carroll, who don’t really impress at all otherwise. They improve–the first act has some jagged cuts–but they don’t impress other than the two horse sequences.

After the second horse sequence, when it seems like there might not be anything to match in absurdity, Treat Williams finally just becomes utterly consumable by the material and transfixes. Even when the film can’t keep up–either in terms of Wincer or just the special effects budget–Williams just barrels on. He gets The Phantom to the third act; the film then ingloriously dumps him until the last fight.

The terrible last fight on an underground pirate ship. It looks like a theme restaurant. Paul Peters’s production design is always a little questionable in the jungle sequence, but it’s supposed to be too much. The pirate ship isn’t too much, it’s way too little. The New York stuff is all interesting and sometimes successful. The budget gets in the way, but Peters and Wincer try to work it.

The music doesn’t help. Let’s just get the music out of the way. David Newman’s score is shockingly tepid. There’s no more lukewarm music for a dressed-in-purple bodysuit thirties adventurer picture than Newman’s score. It’s not even exciting enough for a movie trailer.

The film does have a good “star” in Billy Zane. Wincer doesn’t really want to use him–The Phantom is the star of the movie. It’s a bad move, hiding what an asset Zane’s likability is going to be, particularly since the only initial time Zane gets out of mask is bickering with ghost dad Patrick McGoohan. But after it becomes clear Swanson is a wash–and before Williams steps up–Zane’s strange, sweet, goof makes it all work. It does start when he’s in costume, however; he flirts with Swanson after rescuing her. Swanson doesn’t give much back, but Zane’s showing off, trying to hold The Phantom together. He’s the hero of the movie not just because of the purple tights.

Catherine Zeta-Jones is great as one of Williams’s cronies. It ends up being a better part than Swanson’s would-be adventurer, partially because Swanson doesn’t have the skills or enthusiasm, but also because Swanson’s part sucks. She starts out playing second-fiddle to crusading newspaper uncle Bill Smitrovich and annoying admirer Jon Tenney. And Smitrovich is badly presented–the script, the direction–but Tenney’s almost all right. He’s cloying but he’s trying hard. Swanson doesn’t take advantage of any of it and Wincer’s not paying attention. He’s not doing thirties screwball, he’s doing thirties serial.

McGoohan’s annoying, but it might not be his fault. Regardless, he’s entirely miscast. John Capodice is good though. Casey Siemaszko’s not. David Proval’s almost good half the time; script gets him good in the end.

The Phantom is a competently executed, poorly conceived mess of a motion picture. Though Williams, Zeta-Jones, and Zane certainly deserve some kudos.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Simon Wincer; screenplay by Jeffrey Boam, based on the comic strip by Lee Falk; director of photography, David Burr; edited by O. Nicholas Brown and Bryan H. Carroll; music by David Newman; production designer, Paul Peters; produced by Robert Evans and Alan Ladd Jr.; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Billy Zane (The Phantom), Kristy Swanson (Diana Palmer), Treat Williams (Xander Drax), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Sala), James Remar (Quill), Jon Tenney (Jimmy Wells), Robert Coleby (Capt. Philip Horton), David Proval (Charlie), Bill Smitrovich (Uncle Dave Palmer), Patrick McGoohan (Phantom’s Dad), and John Capodice (Al the Cabby).


She’s the One (1996, Edward Burns)

She’s the One has a fantastic first act. Some of the banter doesn’t connect, but all of the performances are strong and when the banter does connect, it makes up for the rest. Director, writer, and star Burns relies a little too much on “gentle” homophobia for the banter between his character and Michael McGlone’s. They’re brothers–John Mahoney (easily giving the film’s best performance) is the dad. Mom never appears. I thought she was deceased, but no, Burns just doesn’t give her an onscreen presence, which is a big problem later on. Anyway, Burns’s reliance on the “sister” jokes for McGlone end up just being foreshadowing for the real problem with the film–Burns and McGlone are lousy leads.

But, wait, still being upbeat about the first act. Maxine Bahns is great as Burns’s new wife. They meet in his cab in the second or third scene and go off to get married. Jennifer Aniston is excellent as McGlone’s suffering wife. She gives the film’s second best performance. But she’s not just suffering because McGlone’s an alpha male jerk, but because he’s carrying on with Cameron Diaz.

Diaz, it turns out, is Burns’s ex-fiancee, who he left after she cheated on him. Eight million stories in New York City, of course it turns out everyone knows each other. Except they don’t, so Burns isn’t even trying to do an interconnected thing. Once the second act hits, Burns fully embraces the “movie about nothing.” Short scenes, usually in long shot, setting up what someone else says and then everyone else talking about it. Maybe if it were intentional, but it seems like Burns is trying to find the story. He never does. She’s the One has roughly thirty minutes of actual content. It runs over ninety minutes.

Along the way, there’s some fine acting from Mahoney and Aniston. Frank Vincent is hilarious as Aniston’s father. McGlone’s a funny jerk. The problem is he’s pretty much the lead, because Burns is exceptionally passive in his performance. He gives himself the shallowest character. Well, it’s between his character and Mahoney’s, but at least Mahoney gets an arc, at least Mahoney gets some agency.

Diaz is bad. She’s got a terrible part, which just gets worse for her along the way, but she’s not good in it. The film requires her to have exceptional chemistry with Burns. She has none. She ought to have some chemistry with McGlone too, since he wants to leave Aniston for her. But nope. Aniston and McGlone, when they’re with other people and not just in their own subplot, are great together. Bahns is best in the first act, then her part goes to crap too.

She’s the One is about Burns and McGlone having to accept some responsibility for themselves and doing whatever it takes to get out of it. Burns, as director, tries as hard as he can do get them out of it too. The women of She’s the One are all universally more interesting than the men; Burns just doesn’t want them to be. So there’s some internalized, “gentle” misogyny going on too.

The last act is a rush to save everything and, thanks to Mahoney and Bahns, Burns is almost able to pull it off. Almost.

Great songs and score from Tom Petty (though it’s usually just for Burns and Bahns, McGlone and Aniston don’t get music). Frank Prinzi’s photography is solid, even if a lot of Burns’s composition is questionable. When he finally gets around to letting characters talk and actors act–i.e. the third act–She’s the One shows some of the promise of the first act.

It’s just too little, too late.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Edward Burns; director of photography, Frank Prinzi; edited by Susan Graef; music by Tom Petty; production designer, William Barclay; produced by Ted Hope, James Schamus, and Burns; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Edward Burns (Mickey Fitzpatrick), Michael McGlone (Francis Fitzpatrick), Maxine Bahns (Hope), Jennifer Aniston (Renee), Cameron Diaz (Heather), John Mahoney (Mr. Fitzpatrick), Leslie Mann (Connie), Malachy McCourt (Tom), Amanda Peet (Molly), Anita Gillette (Carol) and Frank Vincent (Ron).


Secrets & Lies (1996, Mike Leigh)

From the opening credits, Andrew Dickson’s score sets the tone for Secrets & Lies. It’s going to be severe. I don’t think there’s a light moment in the score–any of the film’s lighter moments, usually involving Timothy Spall’s ability to make people smile (he’s a photographer, so it’s a good ability), are mostly silent. The film’s simultaneously a marvel of acting and filmmaking; Jon Gregory’s editing, director Leigh’s composition, Dick Pope’s photography, they all enable these unbelievable performances from the cast. Leigh’s script (or his concepts for the story) are also essential. The film’s characters are mostly ragged from the start, with the single exception of Marianne Jean-Baptiste (as far as principals go). Jean-Baptiste is a satellite unaware of the other people she’s orbiting and even though Leigh forecasts the film’s structure from the second or third scene, it still comes as a shock when he crashes everything together. The film, which runs almost two and a half hours, has a singular structure and pace.

Little by little, Leigh and the cast build their characters and their characters’ relationships until the showdown. Everything before would be prologue if it weren’t for Jean-Baptiste, who’s the closest thing to a protagonist. She’s the one who inadvertently sets off the present action, even though she’s desperately trying to remain as passive as possible. She’s looking for her birth mother, not knowing anything about the birth mother (Brenda Blethyn in a spellbinding performance) or Blethyn’s family situation.

Top-billing goes to Timothy Spall, which is sort of appropriate–at least given the first act of the film–but once Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste’s story takes over, it’s really not his film anymore. Only it’s going to have to be his film again later, something Leigh has carefully established with the precise narrative. It’s not just how the scenes run together, it’s how Leigh directs each one. How he directs the actors, how he and editor Gregory cut each scene, how Dickson’s music seemingly compels the characters’ behavior. Secrets & Lies never shies away from being serious about its subject, this extended family in inadvertent ruin. Most of the time, with the exception of Jean-Baptiste, Leigh shoots the actors in close-up. The film rises and falls with their expressions and performances. It’s a good thing he gets such great performances out of them, even the most supporting players (for instance, Lesley Manville has a scene and a half and is spectacular).

The main cast–Spall, Jean-Baptiste, Blethyn, Phyllis Logan, Claire Rushbrook–are all wondrous. The amount of emotion Leigh gets each of them to convey, the complexities of those emotions–especially between Blethyn and Rushbrook, as clashing mother and daughter respectively–is something to behold. Logan has her own somewhat detached subplot, which gives her more and more to do as it comes closer to the rest of the narrative. She’s great. It’s impossible to enumerate the performances. Everyone’s just too good.

Secrets & Lies is long without ever being lengthy, weighty without ever being tiring. Leigh masterfully crafts this picture, essentially aided by his actors and his crew. It’s an astounding motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Mike Leigh; director of photography, Dick Pope; edited by Jon Gregory; music by Andrew Dickson; production designer, Alison Chitty; produced by Simon Channing Williams; released by Channel Four Films.

Starring Brenda Blethyn (Cynthia), Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Hortense), Timothy Spall (Maurice), Phyllis Logan (Monica), Claire Rushbrook (Roxanne), Lee Ross (Paul), Elizabeth Berrington (Jane), Michele Austin (Dionne), Ron Cook (Stuart) and Lesley Manville (Social Worker).


Bed of Roses (1996, Michael Goldenberg)

A couple immediate thoughts occurred to me as Bed of Roses started. First, is it a good idea to be watching Bed of Roses? (Spoiler: no, it’s not). Second, what’s going on with Mary Stuart Masterson’s performance? It’s not a movie saving performance because it’s a terrible part. Only director Goldenberg (who also wrote the film) really wants to make it seem to be a good part. Bed of Roses is a lower, but still reasonably budgeted nineties version of a New York soap opera. Masterson’s the professional woman who just doesn’t have it all, even though it seems like she does. She meets a guy–Christian Slater–who is stalking her and grooming her but it turns out his really okay and wonderful and is just what she needs to get over a childhood of exceptionally bad abuse.

Except Bed of Roses doesn’t talk about the abuse. Masterson’s got this character who is never allowed to develop. It’s mortifying, but that weird thing about Masterson’s performance is she’s great. She is great at making this character, who gets treated terribly by the script and has absolutely no depth beyond being a victim and then awkward holding a baby, she does great. She doesn’t make the character work, she doesn’t make the film work. But she delivers this tragic, terribly written role. She’s acting opposite Christian Slater, after all, and he doesn’t bring anything to the film. He actually seems to enjoy the parts where he’s being manipulative more than the parts where he’s courting.

So, no, I shouldn’t have watched Bed of Roses, but I’m still stunned by how good it is at what it does. Goldenberg does a fine job directing. Sure, he’s stuck with Slater, but he takes full advantage of the more capable actors–Josh Brolin, Ally Walker, Brian Tarantina. It feels serious. Adam Kimmel’s gorgeous photography, Michael Convertino’s score, Jane Kurson’s editing. Bed of Roses can’t be better at what it does. It’s beautifully executed. It’s just manipulative and condescending.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Michael Goldenberg; director of photography, Adam Kimmel; edited by Jane Kurson; music by Michael Convertino; production designer, Stephen McCabe; produced by Allan Mindel and Denise Shaw; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Mary Stuart Masterson (Lisa), Christian Slater (Lewis), Pamela Adlon (Kim), Josh Brolin (Danny), Ally Walker (Wendy), Kenneth Cranham (Simon) and Brian Tarantina (Randy).


Mothra (1996, Yoneda Okihiro)

Mothra has the arguably unlikely problem of having way too many good ideas at once. For over an hour, director Yoneda is able to keep all the balls in the air. Sure, things fall apart in the third act, but the pieces are still glorious and the first two acts are stupendous.

It’s a kids movie with giant monster fights. Suetani Masumi’s script acknowledges a handful of kaiju standards, but doesn’t try to fit them in. Even with a giant monster fight taking up the entire second half (or eighty-five percent of it), Yoneda and Suetani never get too far away from the kids. Yes, Mothra is the kids movie with the relatable kids having the adventure of their lives.

Only it starts–before the kaiju arrive in force–as this crazy kids movie where Fujisawa Maya gets evil powers and imprisons her mom and attacks her brother. Futami Kazuki plays the brother. He and Fujisawa are effective together, which is what Yoneda worries about more with the kids than good performances. He gets good performances out of their parents, especially mom Takahashi Hitomi. Nashimoto Kenjirô plays the dad. He’s a bit of a doof who works too much, which pisses off Takahashi. She’s got to worry about her family, worry about monsters, rescue her brainwashed husband. She’s got lots to do.

I’ve forgotten to mention the three sister fairies. Two good, one bad. It’s absurd and goofy and sort of wonderful. There are big action sequences with these doll-sized fairies flying around the family’s house having a laser battle. Yoneda is bold with these sequences. He’s not enthusiastic exactly, as he seems too aware of his budgetary constraints, but he’s definitely bold. These action scenes are good. They just have technical problems.

Then there’s Mothra, of course. She gets the hero role starting in the second act, doubling it up because there’s a larva version too. Yoneda goes for iconic with a lot of the Mothra shots, something Watanabe Toshiyuki’s score helps with a lot.

Mothra is a wild time with a weak third act. The narrative closes off far more naturally at the end of the second act, leaving the film scrambling to reestablish itself. It’s finish is rocky, but more successful than not.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Yoneda Okihio; written by Suetani Masumi; director of photography, Sekiguchi Yoshinori; edited by Ogawa Nobuo; music by Watanabe Toshiyuki; produced by Kitayama Hiroaki; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Futami Kazuki (Taiki), Fujisawa Maya (Wakaba), Kobayashi Megumi (Moll), Yamaguchi Sayaka (Lora), Takahashi Hitomi (Mrs. Goto), Nashimoto Kenjirô (Mr. Goto), Tanaka Hiroko (Shiraishi) and Hano Aki (Belvera).


Scroll to Top