Denis Leary

The Ref (1994, Ted Demme)

Every once in a while, The Ref lets you forget it’s just a comedy vehicle for stand-up comic Denis Leary and so doesn’t need to actually be a good drama and just lets you enjoy the acting. Demme’s direction is simultaneously detached, thoughtful, and sincere. He and editor Jeffrey Wolf craft these wonderful comedic scenes. Sure, they’re usually some mixture of smart and crass and good old shock vulgar, but they’re good. They’re funny. The Ref starts as a straight-faced spoof of a hostage drama. Lovable master thief Denis Leary takes viciously fighting and profoundly unhappily married Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey hostage. On Christmas Eve. Eventually their extended family shows up and the film culminates in Leary, who’s spent the movie refereeing the fighting couple—refereeing, The Ref, a little punny but, you know, fine. Makes you think about sports not the movie actually being a Bergman spoof.

It’s not. I wish it were, but it’s not. It’s a mainstream comedy with just the right amount of jokes at people and with people, once you get over the nastiness between Spacey and Davis. The opening scene is them in marriage counseling—an uncredited BD Wong plays the overwhelmed counselor who’s just there for the eventual movie trailer… and to normalize their behavior. Their exceptionally mean comments to each other. Hateful, spiteful, so on and so forth. The film’s giving us permission to laugh at Spacey and Davis trying to manipulate and hurt one another. It comes right after an Americana intro to the rich, idyllic suburb where the action takes place. We meet the friendly, personable cops, the children looking in the window at Christmas decorations, on and on. There are a lot of disparate pieces to The Ref, like Raymond J. Barry as the weary police chief with the department of lovably dumb cops, the It’s a Wonderful Life anecdote scene with a bunch of those lovably dumb cops, or J.K. Simmons as a blackmailed military school administrator. The movie makes them all fit. Sometimes with help from composer David A. Stewart, but always thanks to Demme and editor Wolf. The Ref’s got a great flow.

So then too is credit due screenwriters Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss; Weiss has a story credit but LaGravenese is top-billed so there’s a story, I’m sure. Maybe it explains why the melodramatic writing for Spacey and Davis—because Spacey and Davis need meat, they need something they can devour. They both get various solo scenes throughout where they get to let loose. Showcases, really. Because in addition to having a lot of funny scenes, The Ref is about watching Davis and Spacey do these character examinations of what would otherwise just be caricatures. They’ve got to be funny being dramatically mean and hateful to each other, while building the foundation to support the performances when the roles finally get stripped to the bone and laid bare for melodramatic purposes. While in what’s basically a sitcom situation involving Leary pretending to be their marriage counselor while he waits for his getaway boat to be ready. See, Spacey’s got an evil mom (Glynis Johns, who’s inexplicably British) and remember it’s Christmas Eve so it’s going to be Johns, apparently Spacey’s moron brother Adam LeFevre—nothing’s more unrealistic in the film than LeFevre and Spacey being brothers; they don’t exchange any lines; it’s like the film wanted to avoid it. LeFevre’s monosyllabic and lives in fear of wife Christine Baranski, who’s nasty to their kids—Phillip Nicoll and Ellie Raab but in a stuck-up White lady sort of way. Yeah… sitcom is the way to describe The Ref, actually.

Anyway.

Then there’s Spacey and Davis’s son, Robert J. Steinmiller Jr., who’s fine. The movie doesn’t ask too much of him and Demme directs him well. He’s a burgeoning criminal mastermind, a sophomore shipped off to military academy. He’s a plot foil more than a major supporting player—basically the film demotes him in the second act because it’s not fun watching Spacey and Davis berate each other in front of Steinmiller, which isn’t a great situation.

The filmmakers do what they can but there’s an inherent unevenness to The Ref. It feigns being different things—wry hostage spoof, hateful family Christmas movie—without ever trying to actually be those things. It’s comfortable just relying on Davis, Spacey, and Leary to get it through.

Because Leary’s the emcee. The film hints at giving him some stand-up rants throughout but soon makes it clear it’ll never interrupts the action for them. It’s a Leary vehicle but not a base one. He’s excellent. Not clearly profoundly talented like Davis and Spacey—which, note, is much different than their performances being profound—but excellent in the part. He’s very good at making room from his more talented, second and third-billed costars.

The Ref’s good.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ted Demme; screenplay by Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss, based on a story by Weiss; director of photography, Adam Kimmel; edited by Jeffrey Wolf; music by David A. Stewart; production designer, Dan Davis; costume designer, Judianna Makovsky; produced by Ron Bozman, LaGravenese, and Jeffrey Weiss; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Denis Leary (Gus), Judy Davis (Caroline), Kevin Spacey (Lloyd), Robert J. Steinmiller Jr. (Jesse), Richard Bright (Murray), Raymond J. Barry (Huff), Glynis Johns (Rose), Christine Baranski (Connie), Adam LeFevre (Gary), Phillip Nicoll (John), Ellie Raab (Mary), Bill Raymond (George), John Scurti (Steve), Jim Turner (Phil), Robert Ridgely (Bob Burley), J.K. Simmons (Siskel), Rutanya Alda (Linda), and BD Wong (Dr. Wong).


The Amazing Spider-Man (2012, Marc Webb)

The Amazing Spider-Man is melodramatic trifle, but not in any sort of bad way. I mean, it doesn’t succeed but it does try a lot. Director Webb really goes for a high school romance, with such saccharine effectiveness it probably ought to be an ominous foreshadowing for leads Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone’s burgeoning romance. Except, although Webb’s going for the melodrama and there’s a sappy, though heroic, and familiar in many parts James Horner score, John Schwartzman’s photography is super flat. It’s unclear if Webb’s messing it up or Schwartzman or some combination; I lean more towards Webb, if only because Schwartzman knows how to light J. Michael Riva’s early seventies style sets and Webb doesn’t know how to shoot them.

If The Amazing Spider-Man were a period piece set in the late sixties, with a lot more for Denis Leary to do in the first half of the film, it could’ve been something. Instead, it’s this weird mushing together of various ideas, from Spider-Man comics, from popular movies, from unpopular movies, probably something from a TV show. Webb and screenwriters James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves throw just about everything in. The heart shows. The film’s enthusiastically sappy.

And it usually works, because the good performances weather occasional weak scenes and subplots and manage to sell the sap. Martin Sheen can sell the sap, so can Denis Leary. It’d help if Rhys Ifans’s could sell it too, but he’s pretty terrible as the de facto villain. The writing on the villain stuff is terrible throughout, but Ifans still isn’t any good in the part. Sheen, Leary, and Ifans make up Garfield’s surrogate father trinity in the film, which should be important but isn’t.

Instead of continuing anything the first act threatens with daddy issues, as soon as the delayed second act is underway, the film quickly veers into mostly unrelated territory. The familiar Spider-Man origin has frequent, small tweaks. Usually so director Webb can avoid the action, but not the Spider-Man in New York stuff. Webb likes that stuff.

But the fighting? Webb’s fumbles it. Even when the special effects are good–which is never with Ifans’s CGI alter ego–Webb doesn’t know what he’s doing. Someone–either Webb, the screenwriters, or just the plain old studio–sets up action scenes ripe for video game realization. The action in the third act is almost like the target demographic is Spider-Man gamers. With the gaudy Horner music and Schwartzman’s flat, “realistic” photography, the sequences even amuse. The Amazing Spider-Man goes all out when it’s got an idea, good or bad.

It goes for it for over two hours. It goes for it to the point the narrative has two or three major shifts where previous subplots just get dropped. At some point, the film decides it just wants to set up Garfield as a pretty cool Spider-Man. And then everything builds towards it, sometimes with stupid stuff like C. Thomas Howell inexplicably having an extended cameo, like Tobey Maguire or Nicholas Hammond wouldn’t have been far better.

Great Stan Lee cameo though, during the one time the effects all come together and Webb goes along with it and it all works out. It’s a big high school fight sequence between Garfield’s CGI stand-in and Ifans’s CGI stand-in. It’s just fun, but with some danger. Amazing Spider-Man’s balance of danger to fun is one of its strengths.

The greatest strength, however, is Garfield. He’s socially obtuse and pensive, sympathetic without being lovable, occasionally justified in his insensitivity. And instead of losing his place once he and Stone get involved, Garfield just gets better. The fun flirting just informs later serious concern and chastely suggestive sequences. Especially one where Stone and Leary have this awkward family moment and it’s almost good enough, but Webb fumbles it. Stone and Leary try hard enough they get it to pass… but it should be better.

Like Stone. Stone’s underutilized. More Stone would make it better. But the script’s too busy. There are too many characters crowding Garfield. Stone’s just another one of them; after setting her up for her own character development time and again, the film just keeps cutting her off. It’s got no idea what weight to give to what character. Garfield’s just haphazardly visiting people who should have good subplots, but then they never do.

Despite it having nothing to do with anything, it’s got a pretty good ending. As far as melodramatic trifle goes. With the exception of Ifans and a little Leary, Webb’s good with actors. He relies on Garfield and Stone heavily throughout the film and the epilogue’s got some acknowledgement (even if not enough for Stone).

The Amazing Spider-Man has some heart to it, which helps it immeasurably.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Marc Webb; screenplay by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves, based on a story by Vanderbilt and the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; director of photography, John Schwartzman; edited by Alan Edward Bell, Michael McCusker, and Pietro Scalia; music by James Horner; production designer, J. Michael Riva; produced by Avi Arad, Matt Tolmach, and Laura Ziskin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Andrew Garfield (Peter Parker), Emma Stone (Gwen Stacy), Sally Field (Aunt May), Rhys Ifans (Dr. Curt Connors), Denis Leary (Captain Stacy), Martin Sheen (Uncle Ben), Irrfan Khan (Rajit Ratha), Chris Zylka (Flash Thompson), and C. Thomas Howell (Jack’s Father).


Demolition Man (1993, Marco Brambilla)

Umm. Yeah. Where to start with Demolition Man. Stallone’s really personable in it. It might be his most personable, because the viewer automatically identifies with him as the modern (mostly modern) guy in the strange future.

The real star is Sandra Bullock, whose performance is far from perfect and her character is poorly written, but she’s fun and cute, which is what Sandra Bullock is supposed to be. She’s likable and genial.

Wesley Snipes is bad. He looks good with the blond hair and the contacts, but he doesn’t have enough personality (frighteningly, he’s too much of an actor) to go wild as needed. Also, the script seems to be scared to mention he’s black, which is interesting.

The direction is okay. The real problem is the editing. I’ve never seen such bad editing from Stuart Baird before. Maybe the direction isn’t okay, the composition is okay and the coverage is awful.

Oh, it did shoot in Los Angeles? I figured it was a runaway production, which would explain the lousy production values. The sets are confined and pseudo-grand, like Batman and Robin, which is fine, since Elliot Goldenthal’s score is the same as his Batman scores.

Some of the film feels very solid. Well, maybe only in hindsight. It’s the kind of movie you watch in the middle of the night and fall asleep during and only are awake for the good parts so you think it’s better than it turns out to be on a complete viewing.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Marco Brambilla; screenplay by Daniel Waters, Robert Reneau and Peter M. Lenkov, based on a story by Lenkov and Reneau; director of photography, Alex Thomson; edited by Stuart Baird; music by Elliot Goldenthal; production designer, David L. Snyder; produced by Joel Silver, Michael Levy and Howard Kazanjian; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (John Spartan), Wesley Snipes (Simon Phoenix), Sandra Bullock (Lt. Lenina Huxley), Nigel Hawthorne (Dr. Raymond Cocteau), Benjamin Bratt (Alfredo Garcia), Bob Gunton (Chief George Earle), Glenn Shadix (Associate Bob), Denis Leary (Edgar Friendly) and Steve Kahan (Captain Healy).


Monument Ave. (1998, Ted Demme)

An utterly depressing Mean Streets knock-off–but beautifully directed by Ted Demme, who manages to make it both derivative and affecting–which might not have much potential, but certainly has the cast for it. Even though Denis Leary is over forty as the guy who wants to get out but they keep pulling him back in–and, honesty, if the film had taken Leary’s age into account, it would have been a lot better–he’s real good. It helps Demme shoots it so well, but the movie’s got a great cast.

Besides Leary–and Billy Crudup, fantastic in a small role–there’s, in particular, Ian Hart and Colm Meaney. Hart’s got the sidekick role. He doesn’t do anything to break out of it, but he inhabits it perfectly. Meaney’s the heavy and he’s great at it, looking like he should be having more fun than he is–but he never lets the character go wild like most heavies in the genre do and the result is a much finer performance. Meaney and Leary are both these exhausted men… one of the other nuances ignored.

There are some mediocre performances, of course, given this one’s a neo-indie film from the late 1990s and everyone has to be a name. Famke Janssen, for example, isn’t entirely bad, but she is completely unbelievable as the neighborhood girl who never could get away. Noah Emmerich, however, is just bad. And Martin Sheen turns in one of his least impressive performances ever.

But John Diehl’s great.

Demme also shoots these wonderful drug use scenes–I suppose, given his death by overdose, it would have been better if he’d shot them poorly–and he really makes Monument Ave. work better than the script deserves. Besides some stylistic flourishes on Demme’s part, as well as the good acting, nothing makes the movie stand out. To some degree, those qualities ought to be enough, but Demme was obviously trying for more… but the script just doesn’t have anything more to give.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ted Demme; written by Mike Armstrong; director of photography, Adam Kimmel; edited by Jeffrey Wolf; music by Todd Kasow; production designer, Ruth Ammon; produced by Joel Stillerman, Demme, Jim Serpico, Adam Doench, Nicolas Clermont and Elie Samaha; released by Lions Gate Films.

Starring Denis Leary (Bobby), Ian Hart (Mouse), John Diehl (Digger), Jason Barry (Seamus), Noah Emmerich (Red), Billy Crudup (Teddy), Greg Dulli (Shang), Famke Janssen (Katy), Colm Meaney (Jackie O’Hara), Martin Sheen (Hanlon) and Jeanne Tripplehorn (Annie).


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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