F. Murray Abraham

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013, Joel and Ethan Coen)

Just over half way into Inside Llewyn Davis, there’s a moment where lead Oscar Isaac looks into the face of responsibility–weighs it, weighs the consequences of not accepting it, makes his decision. Until that moment, the Coen Brothers hadn’t candidly identified the film as a character study. It happens in the middle of an epical sequence–the film splits into three (really, five) sections–and they don’t stop the existing momentum. It just changes, ever minutely, how Isaac is going to relate to the viewer. The film acknowledges the viewer wants to make a judgement of the protagonist–as one well should given the protagonist’s name is in the title and that title can easily be seen as an invitation–but refuses that judgement. There’s no need. After all, the film has up until that point warned the viewer and the training wheels are then off.

So with the rest of the film, the Coen Brothers do a lot of different things. They give Isaac some more excellent moments, they craft a really spectacular third act and denouement. They even acknowledge they’ve taken quite a journey–a bigger one than the viewer (or Isaac) realize–and they fit all their many pieces back into the box they so carefully unpacked in the first act.

The film concerns Isaac’s early sixties Greenwich Village folk singer and his callous behavior and interactions with other people, both in the folk music culture and out. Isaac’s performance is outstanding, as are many of the supporting performances. It’s a character study so Isaac’s is the most important and he hits every moment, ably assisted not just by the Coen Brothers’ script and direction, but the fine editing from Roderick Jaynes, who knows just how to cut a talking heads scene for emphasis.

Davis beautifully recreates the period–Jess Gonchor production designing–and Bruno Delbonnel’s crisp photography makes it all even more vivid. It’s a quiet, precise film. Many of the actors–Carey Mulligan and John Goodman in particular–speak in short monologues. The sound is phenomenal, not just because it’s about music, but because of the tone the Coen Brothers get out their cast’s deliveries amid such static, aching quiet.

Isaac’s great, Mulligan’s great. Excellent support from Justin Timberlake (no, really), F. Murray Abraham and Jeanine Serralles. Phenomenal composition and editing from the Coen Brothers (with Jaynes’s assistance, of course).

Inside Llewyn Davis is awesome–big when it needs to be, small when it needs to be. It’s a beautiful extinguishing of hope and, better, watching as Isaac experiences that extinguishing. It’s also phenomenally plotted; I don’t want to forget about that element. The script organically layers the revelations throughout the narrative, forcing the viewer to not just identify–willingly or not–with Isaac, but also with his protagonist’s particular point of view.

It’s a singular character study.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; director of photography, Bruno Delbonnel; edited by Roderick Jaynes; production designer, Jess Gonchor; produced by Scott Rudin, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; released by CBS Films.

Starring Oscar Isaac (Llewyn Davis), Carey Mulligan (Jean), Justin Timberlake (Jim), John Goodman (Roland Turner), Garrett Hedlund (Johnny Five), Jeanine Serralles (Joy), Adam Driver (Al Cody), Stark Sands (Troy Nelson) and F. Murray Abraham (Bud Grossman).


Star Trek: Insurrection (1998, Jonathan Frakes)

Star Trek: Insurrection has a lot of problems, but they’re peculiar ones. None of them affect the film’s overall quality. Sure, it’d be nice if the sci-fi action sequences worked out better, but they aren’t the point. Even though director Frakes clearly has some set pieces in the film, he always relies instead on his actors instead of the effects.

Given Insurrection has some terribly pedestrian CG, it’s a good move.

Characters disappear for long stretches of film–Gates McFadden gets a couple lines at the beginning, a kicker later on, and does hang out, she has nothing to do. LeVar Burton gets a tiny bit more. Michael Dorn gets to hang around Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner. Frakes does give himself an amusing romantic subplot with Marina Sirtis. But, in the end, Insurrection gives everyone enough to do. The characters are appealing, have chemistry, make the plot work well.

Michael Piller’s script is this gentle, “extended” episode of the “Next Generation” show with Spiner going renegade and Stewart and company showing up to figure out what’s going on. It all leads to Stewart going renegade too (and cavorting around with the fetching Donna Murphy). Stewart and Murphy are great together, though Stewart’s just strong throughout. He has a fun time with the film. The light tone helps the film get through some of its other problems, like Herman F. Zimmerman’s questionable production design and Matthew F. Leonetti’s too crisp photography, which never matches the digital composites.

And villain F. Murray Abraham isn’t good. He’s goofy. Gregg Henry’s good as his sidekick though.

The film moves. It never runs long, never has to hurry through anything. It’s not good because it’s likable, it’s likable because it’s good. It’s just a shame the production values are so wonky, because Insurrection would be one heck of a Star Trek picture if the visual tone were right.

Jerry Goldsmith’s score, regardless of it heavily borrowing from his previous Trek scores, is good.

Insurrection stumbles all over the place, but always ends up firmly footed.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jonathan Frakes; screenplay by Michael Piller, based on a story by Rick Berman and Piller and “Star Trek” created by Gene Roddenberry; director of photography, Matthew F. Leonetti; edited by Peter E. Berger; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Herman F. Zimmermann; produced by Berman; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Patrick Stewart (Picard), Jonathan Frakes (Riker), Brent Spiner (Data), LeVar Burton (Geordi), Michael Dorn (Worf), Gates McFadden (Beverly), Marina Sirtis (Troi), Donna Murphy (Anij), F. Murray Abraham (Ru’afo), Gregg Henry (Gallatin), Daniel Hugh Kelly (Sojef), Michael Welch (Artim) and Anthony Zerbe (Dougherty).


Slipstream (1989, Steven Lisberger)

A lot of Slipstream plays like The Road Warrior with gliders. In this post-apocalyptic wasteland, everyone flies around because of a jet stream ravaging the surface. It’s never clear where this jet stream is located and not, in a geographic sense, because they always manage to safely take off and land… while at other times it’s so bad it blows things apart.

Lisberger doesn’t know how to operate on a small budget; the film looks awful because of his composition. It doesn’t help his cinematographer, Frank Tidy, is incompetent. Long sequences are completely incomprehensible because Tidy doesn’t give them enough light and Lisberger doesn’t know how to shoot in cramped spaces.

But the big problem is Tony Kayden’s script. How a producer like Gary Kurtz didn’t know he had a bad script is beyond me. The dialogue’s so bad, it makes me wonder if it wasn’t intended to be a kids’ movie… only one rampant with Bill Paxton’s character’s misogyny.

The acting is, similarly, bad. I suppose Bob Peck is all right. His part is terribly written, but Peck’s abilities are enough he can turn in a dignified performance. Paxton is playing Hudson from Aliens again, just with long hair. Mark Hamill is hilariously bad. Kitty Aldridge and Eleanor David are weak too. Ben Kingsley’s awful in an unrecognizable cameo.

Even the Elmer Bernstein is bad—well, half of it. The other half is actually quite good.

On the other hand, the second unit shoots the Irish countryside beautifully.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Lisberger; written by Tony Kayden; director of photography, Frank Tidy; edited by Terry Rawlings; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, Andrew McAlpine; produced by Gary Kurtz; released by Entertainment.

Starring Mark Hamill (Tasker), Kitty Aldridge (Belitski), Bill Paxton (Matt Owens), Bob Peck (Byron), Eleanor David (Ariel), Robbie Coltrane (Montclaire), Ben Kingsley (Avatar) and F. Murray Abraham (Cornelius).


Mimic (1997, Guillermo del Toro), the director’s cut

Based on one of the edits, I’m assuming Mimic isn’t exactly a director’s cut (i.e. del Toro finished his cut, the Weinsteins took it and reedited it) as an approximation. He went back and did what he could to make it fit his intent. Maybe there are more examples—I haven’t seen the original cut—but the one I noticed was jarring.

Mimic’s not a bad film, but no one was really trying except the actors. I make that statement assuming Jeremy Northam was trying to be a thinking American action hero… but he just couldn’t do the accent.

The script takes a lot of short cuts. You’re supposed to care about Northam and wife Mira Sorvino because they’re having trouble having a baby.

Sorvino makes Mimic work—her early scenes with sidekick Alix Koromzay do wonders to establish the character.

Having the protagonists be married and in this thriller does show some ingenuity on del Toro’s part. It would work if Northam were good. And if del Toro didn’t have a little autistic kid in danger. del Toro does kill off a couple kids, which is a shock.

The cast is all strong—Giancarlo Giannini as the autistic kid’s guardian, Charles S. Dutton as a transit cop who’s stuck with Northam, Josh Brolin as Northam’s partner.

Oh, I forgot that ludicrous bit. The script has Northam and Brolin acting like movie detectives… only they’re CDC employees.

Great special effects. Terrible Marco Beltrami music. It evens out.

Mimic’s fine.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Guillermo del Toro; screenplay by Matthew Robbins and del Toro, based on a screen story by Robbins and del Toro and the short story by Donald A. Wollheim; director of photography, Dan Laustsen; edited by Peter Devaney Flanagan and Patrick Lussier; music by Marco Beltrami; production designer, Carol Spier; produced by Ole Bornedal, B.J. Rack and Bob Weinstein; released by Dimension Films.

Starring Mira Sorvino (Dr. Susan Tyler), Jeremy Northam (Dr. Peter Mann), Alexander Goodwin (Chuy), Giancarlo Giannini (Manny), Charles S. Dutton (Leonard), Josh Brolin (Josh), Alix Koromzay (Remy), F. Murray Abraham (Dr. Gates), James Costa (Ricky), Javon Barnwell (Davis), Norman Reedus (Jeremy) and Ho Pak-kwong (Preacher).


Last Action Hero (1993, John McTiernan)

Though pre-Internet, one can still find all sorts of trivia about why Last Action Hero supposedly failed. Apparently the studio rushed the release, not allowing for editing or proper post-production. That rush might explain why some of the special effects appear far cheaper than one would expect (I’m thinking of the magic beams appearing drawn and the gunfire lacking definition). But those excuses don’t refer to the film’s real problem–the child star in the lead, Austin O’Brien, gives one of the worst mainstream child actor performances ever. Forget the Episode I kid… O’Brien makes you wish someone would run him over just so the movie could stop.

Otherwise, Last Action Hero still isn’t very good, but it’s far from terrible. Michael Kamen’s score is amusing, aping the composer’s other action movie scores. But the score does signal the film’s problem–it’s not really aping Joel Silver movies or most Schwarzenegger movies, it’s aping even lesser works. It’s a Joel Silver movie without Joel Silver. It clearly needed him.

McTiernan’s direction is subpar. He does well with the action sequences, making them exciting against the odds (they’re intentionally absurd and have no dramatic weight)… but when it comes to the emotional, he’s got that awful O’Brien performance and can’t defeat it. The magic stuff is just awful.

It’s too bad because Hero‘s probably Schwarzenegger’s best performance. And Charles Dance is amazing as the villain. His performances alone almost recommends it.

But I can’t. Not with O’Brien’s depthless awfulness.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John McTiernan; screenplay by Shane Black and David Arnott, based on a story by Zak Penn and Adam Leff; director of photography, Dean Semler; edited by Richard A. Harris and John Wright; music by Michael Kamen; production designer, Eugenio Zanetti; produced by Stephen J. Roth and McTiernan; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (Jack Slater), F. Murray Abraham (John Practice), Austin O’Brien (Danny Madigan), Art Carney (Frank), Charles Dance (Benedict), Frank McRae (Lieutenant Dekker), Tom Noonan (Ripper), Robert Prosky (Nick), Anthony Quinn (Tony Vivaldi), Mercedes Ruehl (Irene Madigan) and Ian McKellen (Death).


The Big Fix (1978, Jeremy Kagan)

The Big Fix is a fundamentally different detective movie. While there are some elements updating it to time period, a lot of it is still a detective investigating in LA, meeting all sorts of people all around town and so on. It’s still Raymond Chandler to some degree–with Dreyfuss playing his (marginally) goofy, but caring standard and the setting changing from film noir to plastique (the exploration of America post-1960s) but the film makes an even severer change. Richard Dreyfuss’s detective is not defined by being a detective, the genre norm. Instead, Dreyfuss is a guy who happens to be a detective and finds himself in this whole mess, but the character’s truest moments are when he’s with his kids, when he’s trying not to fight with his ex-wife, when he’s getting excited about a date. These are not detective movie norms.

The big mystery is sufficiently convoluted enough for the genre. It’s a little simpler then Chandler–and the anti-establishment air of Chandler is present here, sort of finally finding the perfect fit of tone and setting–but it’s a good mystery. The ending, even if some of the details are perceivable, is a surprise. But the ending–the mystery’s ending, the supposed a-plot’s ending–is lackluster. It’s quiet and subdued, something Dreyfuss rarely is during the film. Then the close comes and the close is where The Big Fix becomes something else entirely. There were the moments throughout where it broke from the genre, but it always got back on track with a car chase or a gun cleaning. The close erupts from genre constraints and then, once it’s genre-less, takes it a little higher. Kagan–who I’ve never heard of before this film–closes off the mystery and the film on an appropriately humorous plane… but then he does something else, something I never would have seen coming. It’s kind of forward, but only in its simplicity. For a detective movie, with the comedy, with the socially relevant updating, it’s stunning. Kagan just lets the viewer see the characters for a bit, totally free of story or character establishing. It’s beautiful.

The acting in the film is generally excellent. Dreyfuss is bombastic when he needs to be and touching when he needs to be, it’s one of his most sure-footed performances and he’s great. He plays it with a fortified vulnerability. Susan Anspach and John Lithgow are both okay, effective at times, not so much at others. Bonnie Bedelia is great as Dreyfuss’s ex-wife. The second tier supporting cast, Ron Rifkin as Bedelia’s boyfriend and F. Murray Abraham, are fantastic. Abraham’s performance is unexpected; it’s so long before he nosedived, he still has enthusiasm and, given his character’s one of the plot’s enigmas, he surpasses expectation. Rita Karin is also particularly wonderful as Dreyfuss’s senior center revolutionary.

The Big Fix is important for a couple reasons. First (and easier), it’s about the aftereffects of the 1960s, an important period consigned to–and not even anymore–big network miniseries. It occurred to me, watching the film, even with all the film footage from the period, all the books, it’s going to be forgotten… even though the protestors’ billboards say a lot of the same things as, well, the banners on liberal blogs today and the politicians are still talking about identity cards. The second and more important thing is, obviously, that genre-bust at the end. The Big Fix isn’t out on DVD anywhere. It never even came out widescreen on laserdisc. It’s forgotten and it shouldn’t be.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jeremy Kagan; screenplay by Roger L. Simon, based on his novel; director of photography, Frank Stanley; edited by Patrick Kennedy; music by Bill Conti; production designer, Robert F. Boyle; produced by Carl Borack and Richard Dreyfuss; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Richard Dreyfuss (Moses Wine), Susan Anspach (Lila Shay), Bonnie Bedelia (Suzanne), John Lithgow (Sam Sebastian), Ofelia Medina (Alora), Nicolas Coster (Spitzer), F. Murray Abraham (Eppis), Fritz Weaver (Oscar Procari Sr.), Jorge Cervera Jr. (Jorge), Michael Hershewe (Jacob), Rita Karin (Aunt Sonya) and Ron Rifkin (Randy).


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