Ben Gazzara

The Spanish Prisoner (1997, David Mamet)

Every moment, every line of dialogue, every shot–every use of sound–is so precise in The Spanish Prisoner, it’s sometimes hard to comprehend of Mamet put it all together. There are not a handful of precise moments, or a few precise scenes. Minute after minute, from the first shot, everything in the film is precision.

But none of the filmmaking precision–Carter Burwell’s score is the most obvious, but Gabriel Beristain’s photography and especially Barbara Tulliver’s editing are essential components as well–none of these components would matter without the acting. Between Ricky Jay, who delivers his lines–usually quotes–with enough memorability, even though Mamet never makes them obvious, the viewer can call back to them and how they relate to the film’s events.

Or lead Campbell Scott, who is simultaneously sympathetic and annoying because of his deep-seated desire for wealth, so much it causes him to ignore a possible romance with nice, regular girl Rebecca Pidgeon. She’s a little annoying herself, which often implies the pair is perfect for one another.

The important part about Scott, Pidgeon, Ben Gazzara (who has the perfect voice for Mamet dialogue), Jay, Felicity Huffman and Steve Martin (cast against type as a mystery man) is how they’re able to sell their roles. Mamet’s dialogue should put a glass pane between the viewer and The Spanish Prisoner, the unreality should pulse, but thanks to the cast (and Mamet’s direction) it feels realer than real.

It is an exceptional piece of filmmaking.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by David Mamet; director of photography, Gabriel Beristain; edited by Barbara Tulliver; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Tim Galvin; produced by Jean Doumanian; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Campbell Scott (Joe Ross), Rebecca Pidgeon (Susan Ricci), Steve Martin (Jimmy Dell), Ben Gazzara (Mr. Klein), Felicity Huffman (Pat McCune), Lionel Mark Smith (Detective Jones) and Ricky Jay (George Lang).


Buffalo ’66 (1998, Vincent Gallo)

Near as I can recall, outside film noir, there isn’t a film like Buffalo ’66. The protagonist, played by writer/director/composer Gallo, isn’t just unlikable, he’s comically unlikable. I can very easily see the film remade with Will Ferrell in the lead. It’s like a Will Ferrell comedic tragedy, only it’s not so tragic.

I don’t really know how to talk about the film, since it’s almost more a gesture than a narrative (Gallo’s insistence on making his character such a ogre isn’t actually the problem, it’s more how he’s not willing to give anyone else a real character), so I guess I’ll just ramble.

As a director, Gallo’s got multiple personality disorder. Besides being high contrast, the film rarely looks uniform. Instead, he goes for what’s most effective scene-to-scene without taking previous scenes into account. For example, he’s got a car conversation with the actors looking into the camera, Demme-style. He doesn’t return to it. Then there’s the overly distinctive dinner scene (an intended, recognized homage). It’s actually not disjointing, just because Gallo and Christina Ricci are basically in every scene.

Buffalo ’66 is from the era when Christina Ricci was going to be a great actress. She’s fantastic in it, overcoming her thinly written character (Gallo apparently couldn’t come up with a conceivable reason she’d like him in the film). It’s terrible she hasn’t been able to fulfill her nineties promise.

It almost goes bad at the end, but doesn’t. It’s a great save.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Vincent Gallo; screenplay by Gallo and Alison Bagnall, based on a story by Gallo; director of photography, Lance Acord; edited by Curtiss Clayton; music by Gallo; produced by Chris Hanley; released by Lions Gate Films.

Starring Vincent Gallo (Billy Brown), Christina Ricci (Layla), Ben Gazzara (Jimmy Brown), Mickey Rourke (The Bookie), Rosanna Arquette (Wendy Balsam), Jan-Michael Vincent (Sonny), Anjelica Huston (Jan Brown) and Kevin Corrigan (Rocky the Goon).


The Thomas Crown Affair (1999, John McTiernan)

Every time I watch Thomas Crown, I wonder if there’s some magical explanation for all John McTiernan’s other films (except Die Hard, which is, too, singular). Because The Thomas Crown Affair, as I love saying, is the last great utterly mainstream film. But there’s something more… the tone of the film, the Bill Conti score, the editing… it’s completely different but McTiernan knew what he was doing as he was making it. It’s clear from some of the longer sequences–the glider, for instance–but also from shorter ones, like Rene Russo despondent in the rain. McTiernan knew what he was putting together here.

But Thomas Crown is also–there’s a lot to get to, I’m hoping I remember everything–a New York movie. It’s not a New York movie in the sense a native made it, it doesn’t have that familiar excitement about the city, but it has the fan’s excitement, which makes me wonder if McTiernan just really liked shooting the third Die Hard there. The film has two major reminders of the original, Faye Dunaway’s excellent cameo (it’s the first time I can remember her having so much fun with a role) and the repeated uses of the song from the original (before the end credits Sting cover), and the original was not one of the famous 1970s New York movies, but McTiernan uses the city to–visually–set some of the film’s tone.

I’m thinking I should get Brosnan and Russo out of the way. I think, though I’m not a hundred percent sure (I’m remembering telling my mom about reading this tidbit), MGM was–back around 2000–thinking about a Thin Man remake with Brosnan and Russo. Saying it would work is about all I need to say about their performances and their chemistry. The film sets itself up to fail if the two of them don’t click, but also if Russo can’t pull off, essentially, becoming the lead in the second half. She and McTiernan handle the refocusing beautifully.

Since Russo does become the protagonist, it’s very important her supporting cast is helpful. Frankie Faison is great and the little moments and the exceptionally fast establishing of he and Russo’s camaraderie is fantastic. Denis Leary has the film’s least flashy role and gives an incredibly sturdy and deeply likable performance.

Both Leary and Faison’s characters raise some questions about the screenplay, which–as I recall–split duties. Leslie Dixon handled the relationship between Russo and Brosnan while Kurt Wimmer took over the rest (the heists and the pursuit). Either someone came in and did a fantastic evening draft or… it’s a seamless script, if it truly was written in that manner.

The Thomas Crown Affair is hard to easily sum up because it’s a confident success. McTiernan doesn’t make a single misstep–more, he makes a great move every chance he gets. It’s wonderful.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John McTiernan; screenplay by Leslie Dixon and Kurt Wimmer, based on a story by Alan Trustman; director of photography, Tom Priestley; edited by John Wright; music by Bill Conti; production designer, Bruno Rubeo; produced by Pierce Brosnan and Beau St. Clair; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Pierce Brosnan (Thomas Crown), Rene Russo (Catherine Banning), Denis Leary (Michael McCann), Ben Gazzara (Andrew Wallace), Frankie Faison (Paretti), Fritz Weaver (John Reynolds), Charles Keating (Golchan), Esther Canadas (Anna), Mark Margolis (Knutzhorn) and Faye Dunaway (Psychiatrist).


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