Catherine O’Hara

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).


Temple Grandin (2010, Mick Jackson)

The best thing about Temple Grandin is Claire Danes’s performance. She even gets through the parts where she’s thirty playing fifteen. It’s a biopic, there a lot of flashbacks. Director Jackson tries to use a lot of visual transitions for them, but they really succeed because of the teleplay and the performances. To give some credit to Jackson though, it’s not like there’s a lot of de-aging attempts. Temple Grandin’s stylistically simple, but Jackson does seem to understand Danes is the whole show and do everything he can to facilitate her performance.

In a way, having Danes portray the character or is it person when talking about a biopic–anyway. Having her play in the flashbacks forces the viewer to think about the actor, think about her performance. Jackson’s so bland, you’re not even considering it as a creative choice. Instead, the film creates another narrative track. Where’s Danes performance going?

Christopher Monger and Merritt Johnson’s teleplay has a lot of detail, but not a lot of exposition. The information dumps are sudden and big. There’s barely any time spent enjoying or appreciating. It’s functionally fluid, pragmatically plotted.

Then sometime in the second half, after all the flashbacks are done, Julia Ormond–playing Danes’s mother–comes back into the film. Even though Ormond and Danes don’t have any relaxed scenes together for the first third at least, gradually–after Ormond is off-screen for a bit–it becomes clear there’s a similar performance. Danes’s performance is off Ormond’s performance. And then when they’re together more often in the second half, there’s so much more of it to see. It’s really cool and, you know, phenomenal acting.

David Strathairn’s great as Danes’s mentor. Catherine O’Hara’s good as her aunt (and Ormond’s sister). They’re both functional parts, but Strathairn gets a lot more to do. By the second act, O’Hara’s only around to tell Ormond what Danes is doing or not doing. Like I said, it’s a functional film. Very functional.

There aren’t any other standouts in the supporting cast because there aren’t many distinct characters. There are likable caricatures and unlikable ones. No one has a role so much as a function–give Danes something good to play off. And they all do.

Temple Grandin is an superior television biopic. (It’s not TV, it’s HBO). But Danes, Ormond, and even Strathairn and O’Hara could’ve done a lot more if they’d had an ambitious director. Still, Jackson does understand how to showcase his actors. So the performances don’t suffer, they just deserve the same level of filmmaking. And, like any biopic, it helps the real Temple Grandin’s got a terrific life story.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mick Jackson; teleplay by Christopher Monger and Merritt Johnson, based on books by Temple Grandin and Margaret Scariano; director of photography, Ivan Strasburg; edited by Leo Trombetta; music by Alex Wurman; production designer, Richard Hoover; produced by Scott Ferguson; aired by Home Box Office.

Starring Claire Danes (Temple Grandin), Julia Ormond (Eustacia), David Strathairn (Dr. Carlock), and Catherine O’Hara (Aunt Ann).


After Hours (1985, Martin Scorsese)

After Hours is meticulous. Director Scorsese, editor Thelma Schoonmaker and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus work with exacting precision throughout, with the first third of the film serving to prepare the viewer for the rest. The film follows boring, regular guy Griffin Dunne as he impetuously pursues an attractive mystery woman (Rosanna Arquette) in Soho in the middle of the night.

Scorsese, Dunne and writer Joseph Minion never spend any time establishing Dunne beyond his office drone existence–the viewer comes to sympathize with him due to the strangeness of the events unfolding around him. And the events in the first third are strange in a far more reasonable way than later in the film. Dunne has to maintain sympathy even after he reveals himself to be shallow and callous.

Also during the first third of the film, Scorsese uses a lot of obvious, repeated stylizing to force the viewer to pay attention. So many of the later coincidences and occurrences are fast and just in dialogue, the viewer has to be ready to grab them.

Amid all the noise–After Hours moves very fast and often loud–there are quiet moments of startling humanity, both good and bad. It's a concentrated whirlwind.

Fantastic supporting turns from John Heard, Teri Garr and, especially, Linda Fiorentino. As the ostensible love interest, Arquette manages to be a different person multiple times in a scene while still maintaining consistency. She's essential. Dunne's great.

Scorsese's direction is often breathtaking, especially in how he makes Ballhaus's graceful camera movements unsettling.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Scorsese; written by Joseph Minion; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; music by Howard Shore; production designer, Jeffrey Townsend; produced by Amy Robinson, Griffin Dunne and Robert F. Colesberry; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Griffin Dunne (Paul Hackett), Rosanna Arquette (Marcy), Verna Bloom (June), Tommy Chong (Pepe), Linda Fiorentino (Kiki Bridges), Teri Garr (Julie), John Heard (Tom), Cheech Marin (Neil), Catherine O’Hara (Gail), Dick Miller (Diner Waiter), Will Patton (Horst) and Robert Plunket (Street Pickup).


Beetlejuice (1988, Tim Burton)

How did Beetlejuice ever get past the studio suits? It really says something about eighties mainstream filmmaking and today’s. It’s not just the absence of a likable protagonist—Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are the main characters for the first forty-five minutes, then hand the film off to Winona Ryder, who carries it until the last quarter, when Michael Keaton finally takes over—but it’s also just really strange.

The script’s a tad tepid. I’d forgotten the conclusion; it turns the movie into a sitcom pilot. I imagine Burton didn’t really care about the script being solid, because he makes the film look spectacular throughout.

It opens with this beautiful shot of a model—Thomas E. Ackerman’s photography is wondrous throughout; it’s a shame Burton didn’t bring him along for Batman—and every subsequent shot is great.

All of the model work is fabulous—even if some of the composite shots are problematic—making Beetlejuice a joy to watch.

What’s not a joy is some of the acting. The script’s weak enough, it’s probably mostly the screenwriters’ fault but still….

Davis and Catherine O’Hara are both bad. Glenn Shadix is, politely speaking, too broad.

But the rest of the cast is great—Baldwin, Jeffrey Jones, Winona Ryder, Sylvia Sidney. Great small stuff from Robert Goulet and Dick Cavett.

And Keaton? He’s funny, but he doesn’t make the movie. The role’s too easy.

But, like I said, Burton’s direction (and the mostly strong performances) make it a joy to watch.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Tim Burton; screenplay by Michael McDowell and Warren Skaaren, based on a story by McDowell and Larry Wilson; director of photography, Thomas E. Ackerman; edited by Jane Kurson; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Bo Welch; produced by Michael Bender, Richard Hashimoto and Wilson; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Michael Keaton (Betelgeuse), Alec Baldwin (Adam Maitland), Geena Davis (Barbara Maitland), Winona Ryder (Lydia Deetz), Catherine O’Hara (Delia Deetz), Jeffrey Jones (Charles Deetz), Glenn Shadix (Otho), Annie McEnroe (Jane Butterfield), Rachel Mittelman (Little Jane Butterfield), Robert Goulet (Maxie Dean), Adelle Lutz (Beryl), Dick Cavett (Bernard), Susan Kellermann (Grace) and Sylvia Sidney (Juno).


For Your Consideration (2006, Christopher Guest)

Apparently, when Christopher Guest doesn’t do pseudo-documentaries, his films simply don’t work. I didn’t realize For Your Consideration was different in that approach until a lot further in than I should have, probably fifteen minutes or something. As it opens and introduces the set-up (I guess that part would be called the first act, which is an odd thing for one of these Guest and Levy improv films to have), the film’s interesting and sort of funny. Giggling funny. Audible laughter. Then it starts going places–there’s a story and it moves. Instead of being about a movie being made, it’s a narrative about the cast and their Academy Award dreams. Guest takes a mocking approach to the characters, then lays on syrup to make the audience care. It really feels like they started making a movie and realized it wasn’t working, so they made For Your Consideration.

Obviously, there are some good performances. Guest himself, as the director of the movie in the movie, is excellent. Except he’s barely in it. At first I thought he was doing a German director, then I thought maybe Woody Allen, then he disappeared so it didn’t really matter. Eugene Levy plays an annoying agent and he’s only interesting because it’s Eugene Levy. It’s not good because it’s Eugene Levy, but somehow, Levy has become someone who is cast for who they are, not what they can do. Very interesting, but it doesn’t make for a good performance. Harry Shearer is fine. Half of Catharine O’Hara’s acting is good, but when she turns into a silicone Sharon Stone, the film really loses her and she loses her. She starts making fun of the character too, just because there’s nothing else to do. Fred Willard’s kind of funny as the annoying entertainment “reporter,” but even he’s nearing Levy territory. Only Parker Posey is great, but I’m more and more frequently coming to the conclusion she’s always great. Posey’s even good in the scenes where she’s supposed to be poorly acting. Some of it she does get the bad acting down, but there’s a little bit when she’s actually good in this horrible scene.

For Your Consideration is either the end of Guest for a while or he’ll come back real strong next time. But I wouldn’t bet on it. Though, obviously, if it has Parker Posey, I’ll see it.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Christopher Guest; written by Guest and Eugene Levy; director of photography, Roberto Schaefer; edited by Robert Leighton; music by Jeffrey C.J. Vanston; production designer, Joseph T. Garrity; produced by Karen Murphy; released by Warner Independent Pictures.

Starring Bob Balaban (Philip Koontz), Jennifer Coolidge (Whitney Taylor Brown), Christopher Guest (Jay Berman), John Michael Higgins (Corey Taft), Eugene Levy (Morley Orfkin), Jane Lynch (Cindy), Michael McKean (Lane Iverson), Catherine O’Hara (Marilyn Hack), Parker Posey (Callie Webb), Harry Shearer (Victor Allan Miller), Fred Willard (Chuck) and Ricky Gervais (Martin Gibb).


Game 6 (2005, Michael Hoffman)

In many ways, Game 6 is the Michael Keaton movie I’ve been waiting ten years to see. He’s the lead, it isn’t a comedy, he’s got a grown kid, it ought to be a return to form. It’s a mildly high profile film, or at least it should have been, as Don DeLillo wrote it. It isn’t high profile though. A film written by DeLillo–or any fiction writer of his stature–won’t excite filmgoers, who tend to shun good literature, and won’t excite fiction readers, who tend to dismiss film as a lesser narrative medium. Unfortunately, Game 6 isn’t a positive example of fiction writers doing films. While DeLillo’s script is good and he’s got some great scenes in the film, too much of what’s going on isn’t going on–in prose, looking at a couple guys sitting on a couch on the street can mean something. In a film, it’s a couple guys sitting on a couch on the street. There are a lot of those moments in the film. Still, I wanted it to work. It’s short, eighty-some minutes, but full of content. Had it worked, I’d be ringing a bell (actually, I probably already rung that bell with Personal Velocity and look how well Rebecca Miller turned out).

Game 6 not working isn’t DeLillo’s fault. While the script gets distracted (and too conventional in the end), the film fails because of Michael Hoffman. Game 6 needs a director who can range from conventional to hallucinatory. Hoffman fails. He can’t create a visually interesting film, much less a visually representation of Keaton’s character’s perception of the world around him. With a stronger director, and maybe eighty-sixing the terrible radio jockey dialogue, Game 6 would have worked out. It has an impeccable cast. Keaton hasn’t been this good in ten years and Griffin Dunne hasn’t been this good ever. Then, near the end, DeLillo sticks Dunne in a TV and has him talk to Keaton and Hoffman didn’t think not to do it (as much as it needed a more visually empathic director, Game 6 needed one who could say no to the higher profile writer). Robert Downey Jr. is a little bit less than he can be–he’s fine enough for the film, but he’s on autopilot, as Hoffman can’t direct his most important scene.

Messing up a film set in a day, in New York City, about a bunch of Red Sox fans during the last game of the World Series should be impossible. I suppose it’s not all Hoffman’s fault. DeLillo skimps on the father-daughter relationship stuff and it end being more important than anything else. Hoffman could have fixed it. A better director would have.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Hoffman; written by Don DeLillo; director of photography, David M. Dunlap; edited by Camilla Toniolo; music by Yo La Tengo; production designer, Bill Groom; produced by Amy Robinson, Griffin Dunne, Leslie Urdang and Christina Weiss Lurie; released by Kindred Media Group.

Starring Michael Keaton (Nicky Rogan), Griffin Dunne (Elliot Litvak), Shalom Harlow (Paisley Porter), Bebe Neuwirth (Joanna Bourne), Catherine O’Hara (Lillian Rogan), Harris Yulin (Peter Redmond) and Robert Downey Jr. (Steven Schwimmer).


Speaking of Sex (2001, John McNaughton)

Let me annotate the opening cast crawl with my thoughts at the time….

James Spader–great, love him on “Boston Legal.”

Melora Walters–from Magnolia, love her, she’s in nothing.

Jay Mohr–liked him in Picture Perfect when I saw it, now can’t believe I liked it…

Catherine O’Hara, Bill Murray… solid people.

So what happened? It’s actually not all John McNaughton’s fault, which is a big thing to say. I mean, I loved McNaughton when I was sixteen. He did Mad Dog and Glory and that film is a great “adult” film to appreciate when you’re sixteen. Especially if you love Richard Price. Then he did Normal Life, back when having Ashley Judd in a film meant good things, and I waited years to see it. It premiered on video and it sucked. It was terrible.

McNaughton’s direction is fine, though it’s the modern “comedy” directing that comes from commercials. The script is awful and the performances are awful. Spader is playing his character from Mannequin or something. Walters is awful and it pains me to say that. Mohr was fine.

Lara Flynn Boyle shows up and a lot of the weight of the first eight minutes is put on her. She can handle weight for about… no, I’m wrong. She can’t handle any weight.

I rented Speaking of Sex from Nicheflix and it’s probably the first film from there I’ve turned off. It’s never gotten a US or UK release and the DVD is from Germany. The Germans appear to have no taste in cinema, which is painfully obvious. I’m not sure Germany has produced a decent film since Das Boot. That’s twenty-two years.

And it was a TV mini-series.

So, all that excitement I had for the first three minutes, all that promise Speaking of Sex got from its cast, it’s all disappeared and I’m reminded of those fond days when I wanted to hide my head under a rock for ever saying nice things about McNaughton.

Sometimes, you find a jewel in a film that’s unappreciated in its country of origin. Sometimes you find a beautifully cast turd. And Speaking of Sex is a big turd.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John McNaughton; written by Gary Tieche; director of photography, Ralf D. Bode; edited by Elena Maganini; music by George S. Clinton; production designer, Joseph T. Garrity; produced by Alain Sarde and Rob Scheidlinger; released by Studio Canal.

Starring James Spader (Dr. Roger Klink), Melora Walters (Melinda), Jay Mohr (Dan), Nathaniel Arcand (Calvin), Megan Mullally (Jennifer Klink), Lara Flynn Boyle (Dr. Emily Paige), Catherine O’Hara (Connie Barker) and Bill Murray (Ezri Stovall).


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