Gramercy Pictures

The Big Lebowski (1998, Joel Coen)

There are a lot of interesting things about what the Coens do with The Big Lebowski. The foremost thing has to be how, even though the film is incredibly thoughtful and complex in its homages, the Coens aren’t exclusionary about it. If you don’t know it’s Raymond Chandler, it’s okay. If you don’t know zero budget Westerns had narrators, it’s okay.

If you do, you understand more about what they’re doing, but you don’t better understand the film. Because knowing where they’re coming from isn’t the point. The movie’s the point.

But being accepting of populist viewers aside, the Coens also do something very interesting with the dialogue. When people listen to other people, they’re hearing it for the first time, just like the viewer. Even though John Goodman’s amusing lunatic has been friends with Jeff Bridges’s character for untold years… Bridges’s reactions are in line with the audiences. He’s stunned—just like the viewer—at the stupid things Goodman says.

It’s subtle, but with the film starting in the first scene.

Bridges and Goodman are both great, as is Steve Buscemi as the third in their triumvirate. Of course, he has nothing to say, which is kind of the point.

In the supporting roles, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman and David Thewlis are all fantastic.

Lebowski, now a pop culture icon, succeeds because it embraces pop culture (and assumes everyone should know LA culture). It’s excellent.

Except, however, when there’s a nonsensical reference to an as yet unestablished subplot.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Coen; written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Roderick Jaynes and Tricia Cooke; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Rick Heinrichs; produced by Ethan Coen; released by Gramercy Pictures.

Starring Jeff Bridges (Jeffrey Lebowski), John Goodman (Walter Sobchak), Steve Buscemi (Theodore Donald ‘Donny’ Kerabatsos), David Huddleston (Jeffrey Lebowski), Julianne Moore (Maude Lebowski), Tara Reid (Bunny Lebowski), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Brandt), Ben Gazzara (Jackie Treehorn), Peter Stormare (Karl Hungus), John Turturro (Jesus Quintana), Jon Polito (Da Fino), David Thewlis (Knox Harrington), Jack Kehler (Marty) and Sam Elliott (The Stranger).


Bound (1996, Lana and Lilly Wachowski)

I always thought Gina Gershon got top billing for Bound–even though she’s only the lead for the first third or so–but it’s actually Jennifer Tilly, which is somewhat more appropriate. I say somewhat because at a certain point, Tilly too loses the spotlight. For a good twenty minutes in the middle, the film belongs to Joe Pantoliano.

Pantoliano’s performance here is probably his best; even though it’s firmly in his oeuvre of slimy weirdos… there’s something singular about this one. He’s always scary, even before he’s supposed to be, because his character is so clearly disturbed (he’s a dissatisfied middle-level mobster).

But Pantoliano doesn’t take over until almost halfway through–Bound takes place over a week or so, following Gershon getting a job renovating the apartment next to Tilly’s–and during the Gershon and Tilly romance, it’s got to be perfect and it is perfect.

While the film definitely has its roots in film noir, the Wachowskis break certain rules. Making it about a lesbian couple isn’t one of those rules. In fact, their carefulness in showing that relationship–especially exploring Tilly’s role in it–is what makes Bound different and some of what makes it great. The dialogue in these scenes is superior.

There’re some great supporting performances–John P. Ryan, Christopher Meloni.

It has a small cast in a small film. Bound’s the greatest play adapted to screen (of an original screenplay).

Bound is brilliant–so brilliant, I didn’t even make any Speed Racer jokes.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski; written by the Wachowskis; director of photography, Bill Pope; edited by Zach Staenberg; music by Don Davis; production designer, Eve Cauley; produced by Stuart Boros and Andrew Lazar; released by Gramercy Pictures.

Starring Jennifer Tilly (Violet), Gina Gershon (Corky), Joe Pantoliano (Caesar), John P. Ryan (Micky Malnato), Christopher Meloni (Johnnie Marzzone), Richard C. Sarafian (Gino Marzzone) and Mary Mara (Sue the Bartender).


The Last Days of Disco (1998, Whit Stillman)

I don’t know how to start talking about The Last Days of Disco. I was going to start with saying I first saw it ten years ago (I first saw it on video), but then I realized I probably first saw it eleven years ago and eleven doesn’t have the same ring. People do like things in ten. Then I was going to start with saying I didn’t understand why it isn’t better known or better appreciated, but I guess I do know why it isn’t better known or better appreciated. It’s an unabashedly superior film. It was the first Whit Stillman film I saw and I still don’t think either of his previous works suggest he’s capable of this level of filmmaking.

Where Stillman excels–in terms of the script–is in creating this self-aware (which really comes into play for a joke near the end) envisioning of the disco era. Because he doesn’t deal with any of the modern (in 1998) disco stereotypes, except to point out they are stereotypes, Stillman’s disco club really is, as one character puts it, the greatest club ever. It’s impossible not to think so, not to understand why the characters have to keep going back, even though they talk about never going back. They’re part of a phenomenon and Stillman makes the audience part of it too. In some ways, it really reminds me of the new Star Wars movies–really, it does–because whether or not someone can dance (just like in Star Wars they don’t have any discernible lightsabering skill) doesn’t even fit into it. Stillman fills his dancing shots with as many recognizable faces as possible and leaves it to the viewer to come up with the reason Kate Beckinsale and Matt Ross are dancing next to each other, even though Ross is there with Tara Subkoff. These little narrative tricks, ones Stillman did exhibit in his previous films, make Last Days of Disco feel like a confrontation experience. To say it’s a film requiring a lot of brain power from its viewer is an understatement–Stillman’s composition alone (or Mark Suozzo’s occasional, beautiful score) requires the viewer to pay very close attention.

Which isn’t to say Stillman makes Last Days of Disco particularly dense or heady. He just forces, with his composition, a kind of attention–I think the only thing I’d compare it to is Barry Lyndon. You have to notice the tree outside Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny’s apartment. You miss something if you don’t.

The acting is all spectacular. Seeing the film again, I remember when I had high hopes for Mackenzie Astin’s acting career. Sevigny gives an amazing lead performance. She’s quiet in so much of the film–most of the talking comes from Beckinsale (as a spectacular bitch–she’s just fantastic in making this dislikable character utterly compelling) and Chris Eigeman. I was talking about how good Sevigny is in the film… got sidetracked, sorry. She’s so quiet, just watching, looking, and then Stillman gives her these big–but quiet–moments and she nails all of them. The acting from her and Beckinsale is simply amazing, from the first moment they walk into the film.

Also great is Matt Keeslar, who I’ve longed supported (starting with seeing him in this film). He gets the closet thing to a male protagonist role in the film. He’s great–walking through it with a bemused look–but then Stillman throws all sorts of character revelations at him and he handles every one perfectly.

The supporting cast–Burr Steers, David Thornton (both have some great lines)–is excellent.

I think the first time I saw The Last Days of Disco, I watched it a lot and made other people watch it. I haven’t seen it in eight years, which is way too long to go between viewings.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced and directed by Whit Stillman; director of photography, John Thomas; edited by Andrew Hafitz and Jay Pires; music by Mark Suozzo; production designer, Ginger Tougas; released by Gramercy Pictures.

Starring Chloë Sevigny (Alice), Kate Beckinsale (Charlotte), Chris Eigeman (Des), Mackenzie Astin (Jimmy), Matt Keeslar (Josh), Robert Sean Leonard (Tom), Jennifer Beals (Nina), Matt Ross (Dan), Tara Subkoff (Holly), Burr Steers (Van), David Thornton (Bernie) and Jaid Barrymore (Tiger Lady).


The Usual Suspects (1995, Bryan Singer)

Seeing as how The Usual Suspects popularized the major twist ending–that contrivance having now plagued American cinema for the last dozen years–it’s interesting to see it again. I haven’t seen the film in years (probably ten, at least nine), but I remember the last time I watched it, I thought about what was true and what probably wasn’t. Most twist ending (or late revelation and eureka moment endings)–it’s stunning how Shyamalan stole his standard part and parcel from Singer’s approach here–have clues, easter eggs, whatever. The Usual Suspects has a couple, but given the narrative’s layering, it’s impossible to know what’s true and what isn’t. So The Usual Suspects becomes the crash test dummy for whether a twist ending narrative can survive after countless viewings (well, not countless… I’m almost positive this viewing was my fourth).

And it can. At least, The Usual Suspects can.

There’s that beautiful combination of script and direction here, there’s Kevin Pollak’s jokes and Giancarlo Esposito’s hat. There’s the film’s roaming protagonist (Gabriel Bryne, Chazz Palminteri and Kevin Spacey all wear the hat). Singer’s composition is precise, each shot–in no small part due to cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel–has a unpretentious gravitas. The Usual Suspects‘s greatest achievement is Singer’s direction. He makes the film interesting to watch no matter what the content may be, which is where the script becomes so important.

There are “clues” throughout the film as to the twist ending, but the clues are only for to spin the viewer’s wheels (there’s no truth in any of them), making the relationship between the film and the viewer analogous to the relationship between Spacey and Palminteri. Storyteller and listener. Taken on its own, The Usual Suspects would suggest the possibilities for films with twist endings, the freedoms they can have, their advantages over traditional narratives. Unfortunately, even with good films with twist endings, no one’s really had the same success (Singer certainly did not with his subsequent feature, Apt Pupil).

Christopher McQuarrie’s script, which is so lauded for putting in the clues, is far more successful in its successful use of narration on a modern film and dialogue. McQuarrie’s dialogue is at times both stylized and not, with the title softening the informed viewer to it. Actually, the thing about the title in relation to the film is Humphrey Bogart could have, at different points in his career, played every one of the five main characters.

The long-term effect of The Usual Suspects, besides kicking off the big twist ending (and the handling of the revelation) phenomenon, is the actors. While Stephen Baldwin never did anything good again (his fine performance here is nothing but a–willful–imitation of brother Alec) and Suspects is one of Gabriel Byrne’s finest hours in his hit and miss career, it did introduce popular audiences to Kevin Spacey and everyone to Benicio Del Toro. Spacey immediately took off while Del Toro had to make it through a some bad pictures. Spacey’s excellent, not yet even aware he’d someday have a best actor rote; his delivery of McQuarrie’s narration is what makes it work. He has the hardest job, because he has to sell the twist ending’s revelation throughout. He has to make it seem possible. Kevin Pollak turns in the second strongest performance (after Spacey).

The Usual Suspects is about to turn thirteen (a few days before I turn thirty) and, while I can lament how Singer went nowhere artistically (the possessive use of his credit in the titles is strangely spectacular), it’s not a film to be discounted or dismissed as fanboy fodder. There’s just too much cinematic substance.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bryan Singer; written by Christopher McQuarrie; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by John Ottman; music by Ottman; production designer, Howard Cummings; produced by Michael McDonnell and Singer; released by Gramercy Pictures.

Starring Stephen Baldwin (McManus), Gabriel Byrne (Dean Keaton), Benicio Del Toro (Fenster), Kevin Pollak (Todd Hockney), Kevin Spacey (Verbal Kint), Chazz Palminteri (Dave Kujan, US Customs), Pete Postlethwaite (Kobayashi), Giancarlo Esposito (Jack Baer, FBI), Suzy Amis (Edie Finneran), Dan Hedaya (Sgt. Jeffrey Rabin), Paul Bartel (the smuggler) and Peter Greene (Redfoot).


King of the Hill (1993, Steven Soderbergh)

Two major things about Soderbergh’s approach to a memoir adaptation. They’re somewhat connected, so I might not manage to separate them out. King of the Hill has no frame, it has no narration. It has no context. It does not feel, at all, like a “true” story because there’s no attempt to classify itself as a true story. It drops the viewer right in, gives he or she a subtitle notating the setting and time and nothing else. Soderbergh creates, at times, a stylistic euphoria–starts right at the beginning doing it even, maybe the third or fourth scene–and the approach makes King of the Hill different. Even though it’s based on a memoir, by never involving “reality,” Soderbergh makes the plot’s conclusion unsure. Anything could happen.

As innocuous as the story might sometimes get–since Jesse Bradford’s protagonist is so self-sufficient it’s hard to remember he’s thirteen–Soderbergh infuses the film with a constant danger. Sometimes the danger is age-appropriate, sometimes it’s a lot bigger. Around the midway point, I had to remind myself Soderbergh was not telling a story about his youth. I had to remind myself Soderbergh wasn’t alive during the film’s time period, it wasn’t based on his childhood–the film envelops the viewer. Soderbergh immediately establishes his characters and then everything else is experienced at Bradford’s pace. Characters enter and leave the story, with the entire story through Bradford’s perspective. The viewer occasionally gets other things, very brief glimpses from other character’s perspectives, but the whole show is Bradford, which might be why he’s never been able to follow it up.

The other performances are excellent too, with Adrien Brody in the film’s flashiest role. Soderbergh’s cinematic storytelling here is accomplished, there’s no other word. He incites the viewer to figure things out by a character’s presence, not to be cute, but because a successful King of the Hill viewer is a participatory viewer. It might by with the film did so terribly. Also good are Cameron Boyd as Bradford’s brother; Amber Benson as his friend–I find I’m not enumerating the adults as much, which is because of the way the film portrays them. It’s difficult to put them, having just watched the film, in an easy to discuss context. Spalding Gray is quite good in his small part as is Kristin Griffith in her two scenes.

The film’s character relationships are complicated and hard to unravel. Soderbergh manages moments of severe gravity with silence from the characters and Cliff Martinez’s delicate score. Martinez and Soderbergh seem to take some of the tone–and the music’s effect on the tone–from Badlands, which is an odd influence for a movie about a kid–King of the Hill is not a kid’s movie at all. It isn’t a feel good movie. It’s a sometimes unsettling film about survival and self-sufficience. Without ever using the word “depression,” Soderbergh has made one of the best films about the Great Depression.

It’s kind of like Maugham with kids (and in America and during the Great Depression).

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed and edited by Steven Soderbergh; screenplay by Soderbergh, based on a memoir by A.E. Hotchner; director of photography, Elliot Davis; music by Cliff Martinez; production designer, Gary Frutkoff; produced by Albert Berger, Barbara Maltby and Ron Yerxa; released by Gramercy Pictures.

Starring Jesse Bradford (Aaron), Jeroen Krabbé (Mr. Kurlander), Lisa Eichhorn (Mrs. Kurlander), Karen Allen (Miss Mathey), Spalding Gray (Mr. Mungo), Elizabeth McGovern (Lydia), Cameron Boyd (Sullivan Kurlander), Adrien Brody (Lester Silverstone), Joe Chrest (Ben), John McConnell (‘Big Butt’ Burns), Amber Benson (Ella McShane), Kristin Griffith (Mrs. McShane), Chris Samples (Billy Thompson), Peggy Freisen (Mrs. Thompson), Katherine Heigl (Christina Sebastian) and John Durbin (Mr. Sandoz).


A Good Man in Africa (1994, Bruce Beresford)

A Good Man in Africa is about the British practicing a modified form of the age-old British diplomacy in Africa (duh) in modernity. As such, when I saw John Lithgow’s name in the credits, I did not expect him to be playing a Brit. However, Lithgow does play one and he does so quite poorly. Lithgow doesn’t really create a character in Good Man, he just creates a posture. He’s annoying but not really in the film often enough to hurt it. Unfortunately, the film’s made with the same approach. Colin Friels’s philandering, hard-drinking assistant to the diplomat (Lithgow) is not a likable character, certainly not one the audience can identify with. Friels’s performance is likable–and good–but it’s a losing battle. Watching A Good Man in Africa is like watching a long, drawn-out error. It misfires immediately and never recovers, nor makes any attempt to do so.

The film’s based on a novel and the novelist wrote the film. I’m not a fan of such behavior because it usually doesn’t work right. I have no idea if A Good Man in Africa is a good novel, but after seeing the movie, I’ll never know. The film toys with having Friels narrate it, but appears to have inserted that narration as an afterthought. If it were going the whole way through, it might work better. Friels is barely the film’s protagonist, since all of the scenes are about other people.

As for the other people, while Lithgow is easily the worst, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer is pretty awful too. The titular Good Man is actually Sean Connery, who gives a better performance than usual, but again, it’s certainly not anything of note. The film’s most underused resource was Diana Rigg and I spent the last act wishing she and Friels would run off together so I’d at least get to see fifteen minutes of good acting and chemistry.

I only watch Good Man because of Friels and knew, given Bruce Beresford directed it, the film would be severely lacking. Maybe that lack of any expectation dulled me to the film’s more obvious deficiencies. Or maybe they were just too dull to care about.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Bruce Beresford; screenplay by William Boyd, based on his novel; director of photography, Andrezj Bartkowiak; edited by Jim Clark; music by John du Prez; production designer, Herbert Pinter; produced by John Fiedler and Mark Tarlov; released by Gramercy Pictures.

Starring Colin Friels (Leafy), Sean Connery (Murray), John Lithgow (Fanshawe), Diana Rigg (Chloe Fanshawe), Sarah-Jane Fenton (Priscilla Fanshawe), Louis Gossett Jr. (Adekunle), Maynard Eziashi (Friday) and Joanne Whalley (Celia).


Mallrats (1995, Kevin Smith), the extended version

Of all my youthful indiscretions, I think my affection for Kevin Smith is–today–the most embarrassing, simply because it perplexes me. I watch Mallrats and I don’t get how I could have watched and liked this film multiple times. By 2000 or so, I didn’t. But from 1996 to 1999, I must have watched this film six or seven times and thought it was good. Even the things I thought were good about–things I thought I would still think were good about it (namely, Jason Lee)–they aren’t good. He isn’t good. He’s bad. His acting is bad. All of the acting is bad. Jeremy London is worse than Lee and I am a little surprised Shannen Doherty is so much better than Claire Forlani, but I just can’t believe I sat and watched this movie.

I rented the ten year anniversary edition because it finally has the original cut. On the original DVD, there are deleted scenes and a lot of talk about the longer version, and it has been a while since I’ve Mallrats. I thought maybe I was wrong. No, I didn’t. I thought at the least, I’d laugh. But it’s not funny. Maybe Kevin Smith’s Mallrats style has so saturated modern Hollywood film I can’t appreciate it for the constant… no, I lost the thought it was so silly. Essentially, the longer edition makes the film more about Jeremy London, which is not a good idea, because it means Claire Forlani is in more scenes and Michael Rooker is more scenes. The film finally gets to the mall at the thirty-five minute mark, after the first act, making the title a little perplexing. The additional footage probably makes the film better, because it gets worse when they get to the mall. Smith isn’t in his element anywhere in this film–I kept thinking about Clerks’ tight opening and the lack of one in Mallrats, theatrical or extended versions.

Mallrats is an incredibly influential film–it created the expectations of a significant portion of a filmgoing generation. This film was a big video hit and, though the general “fanboy” public has abandoned him, Smith tapped something the audience desired in Mallrats. The film is not good, the characters are not good–the dialogue is stagy and bad and a high school drama class could do better–but it connected. It’s filled with pop culture references and bad dirty jokes and people (unfortunately, mostly of my age group) wanted this experience. And they didn’t grow out of it because Mallrats isn’t about actual film reference, like Tarantino’s films. It’s about faking it.

I realize Mallrats doesn’t deserve all this vitriol (the audience’s reaction is offensive, not the film itself; the film is just awful), but I really didn’t know how bad a film it truly is… and, of course, I’m only angry at myself because I was a member of said audience.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kevin Smith; director of photography, David Klein; edited by Paul Dixon; music by Ira Newborn; production designer, Dina Lipton; produced by Sean Daniel, James Jacks and Scott Mosier; released by Gramercy Pictures.

Starring Shannen Doherty (Rene Mosier), Jeremy London (T.S. Quint), Jason Lee (Brodie Bruce), Claire Forlani (Brandi Svenning), Ben Affleck (Shannon Hamilton), Joey Lauren Adams (Gwen Turner), Renée Humphrey (Tricia Jones), Jason Mewes (Jay), Ethan Suplee (Willam Black), Stan Lee (Himself), Priscilla Barnes (Miss Ivannah) and Michael Rooker (Mr. Jared Svenning).


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