James Caan

Alien Nation (1988, Graham Baker)

A film like Alien Nation encourages a lot of thought. For example, I think I’ve decided I want to say the film is badly directed (by Baker) while being poorly lighted (by Adam Greenberg). I already know I wanted to say it was atrociously edited. Kent Beyda’s cuts don’t just jump (there’s a car chase where it appears the cars have turned around and gone back the way they came), they also pop. The sound levels pops, which isn’t exactly Beyda’s fault, it’s more Baker’s fault or the producers’ fault, but there’s got to have something Beyda could do to trying to keep the background noise between shots consistent. Or maybe not. Maybe that base level of post-production care is beyond Alien Nation.

I mean, fixing the editing wouldn’t fix the music and fixing the music wouldn’t fix the script and fixing the script wouldn’t fix the acting. I suppose it’s possible a better script would’ve helped the performances but Baker’s still such a crap director, it’s hard to imagine it.

About the only thing good about Alien Nation is the make-up. Only not so much on the featured cast. Like Terence Stamp’s Mr. Big. His alien make-up is bad. And alien cop Mandy Patinkin’s make-up is occasionally inconsistent between scenes. At least it’s not between shots in scenes, which–really–is kind of a surprise given the way the rest of the film plays out, production-wise.

So Patinkin is the idealistic alien cop while James Caan is the grumpy, bigoted (and questionably skilled) human cop. Writer Rockne S. O’Bannon writes terrible police procedural, but he also writes terrible cop banter. The bonding scenes between Caan and Patinkin are painful. Partially because they’re so poorly written, partially because you just feel so bad for the actors. Caan’s got a lousy part from the opening. Patinkin has potential for a good part but the script is so bad. And the direction, can’t forget Baker’s bad direction. Oh, and if Patinkin does manage a decent delivery–you know, if his makeup isn’t off-center–it’s more likely than not Beyda will screw something up in the cutting.

There are no winners in Alien Nation. There are no gem performances. The production design isn’t special. Maybe the best performance in it is Roger Aaron Brown and only because all he has to do is act like James Caan is a tiresome prick. Caan is a tiresome prick. Alien Nation takes place over like three or four days. It’s about one case. Caan gets Patinkin as a partner for the single purpose of exploiting him being an alien to solve an alien-related murder case.

Odd thing? They never catch the guy Caan is after. They never even try to find out his identity. It’s not only a mess, it’s a forgetful mess.

Not even the short runtime–maybe ninety minutes even–helps things. Because it’s not like the scenes are short. The scenes are painfully long. Watching Baker and O’Bannon try to change tempo during a scene? It’s excruciating.

The whole thing is excruciating. The anguish starts with the opening titles and goes all the way to the finale voiceover.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Graham Baker; written by Rockne S. O’Bannon; director of photography, Adam Greenberg; edited by Kent Beyda; music by Curt Sobel; production designer, Jack T. Collis; produced by Gale Anne Hurd and Richard Kobritz; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring James Caan (Matthew Sykes), Mandy Patinkin (Sam Francisco), Terence Stamp (William Harcourt), Roger Aaron Brown (Tuggle), Peter Jason (Fedorchuk), Tony Perez (Alterez), and Leslie Bevis (Cassandra).


Bottle Rocket (1996, Wes Anderson)

Bottle Rocket is such a masterpiece of narrative design, it eschews drawing any attention to that design. Somehow Anderson and Owen Wilson manage to tell a satisfactory long short film and affix an additional thirty minute postscript to the whole thing.

It’s like a movie and a sequel all in ninety minutes. Or maybe they’re just setting up the train set for the first hour and loosing the trains for the last thirty minutes. It’s hard to say–Anderson employs obvious but unspoken connections and complexities. Even though the film is never simple, he refuses to make anything obtuse. The viewer just has to pay attention.

Like a metaphor for protagonist Luke Wilson’s romance with Lumi Cavazos. He’s ostensibly on the run from a book store hold-up and she’s a housekeeper at the motel where he hides out. Cavazos doesn’t speak English, Luke Wilson doesn’t speak Spanish. The script never goes for easy jokes; their romance is the calm. Even though it involves crime and occasional violence, Bottle Rocket isn’t dangerous. But through the performances and script’s delicate, deliberate treatment of the romance, the importance of a calming factor for Luke Wilson’s peculiarly troubled soul becomes clear.

Offsetting that Wilson is Owen Wilson as his frantic best friend. He gets all the fun stuff, only his performance can’t be easy. Bottle Rocket wouldn’t work if it were too fun or too silly. It’s absurd, but every moment’s real.

Great support from Robert Musgrave, awesome editing from David Moritz.

Bottle Rocket’s magnificent.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Wes Anderson; written by Owen Wilson and Anderson; director of photography, Robert D. Yeoman; edited by David Moritz; music by Mark Mothersbaugh; production designer, David Wasco; produced by Polly Platt and Cynthia Hargrave; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Luke Wilson (Anthony Adams), Owen Wilson (Dignan), Robert Musgrave (Bob Mapplethorpe), Andrew Wilson (Future Man), Lumi Cavazos (Inez), Shea Fowler (Grace), Donny Caicedo (Rocky), Jim Ponds (Applejack) and James Caan (Abe Henry).


Detachment (2011, Tony Kaye)

Detachment is not a message film. Kaye gives it a pseudo-documentary feel and does presents definite thesis about the public education in the United States. Except Detachment isn’t really about that message… it’s about how that setting specifically affects Adrien Brody’s protagonist.

Until the final sequence anyway; it’s one sequence too many. Kaye flubs on an ideal finish because he’s got too many endings and tries too hard to make the important message one fit. Until then, though, Detachment is nearly flawless.

Carl Lund’s script is brilliantly structured. Brody is a short-term substitute teacher. The film opens with him taking a thirty day assignment, giving the film a definite timeline. Lund and Kaye then bring other elements into Brody’s sphere, such as a fetching fellow teacher (Christina Hendricks) and, more importantly, a teenage prostitute (Sami Gayle). Detachment never shirks from its more difficult scenes, even though Kaye does sometimes get too frantic. The film presents Brody with a couple exceptionally difficult scenes and he essays them indescribably well.

He and Gayle’s story arc informs on his arc as the sub, while Brody’s solo arc with his dying grandfather, Louis Zorich, informs back on both. Absolutely brilliant character study plotting.

Kaye’s direction is good, his photography is better. James Caan is the most dynamic in the supporting cast, but Blythe Danner, William Petersen and Lucy Liu are all excellent too. Gayle’s great.

Detachment‘s not perfect… but there are a lot of perfect things about it. It’s an achievement.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed and photographed by Tony Kaye; written by Carl Lund; edited by Barry Alexander Brown and Geoffrey Richman; music by The Newton Brothers; production designer, Jade Healy; produced by Greg Shapiro, Lund, Bingo Gubelmann, Chris Papavasiliou, Austin Stark and Benji Kohn; released by Tribeca Film.

Starring Adrien Brody (Henry Barthes), Sami Gayle (Erica), Betty Kaye (Meredith), Louis Zorich (Grampa), Marcia Gay Harden (Principal Carol Dearden), James Caan (Mr. Charles Seaboldt), Christina Hendricks (Ms. Sarah Madison), Lucy Liu (Dr. Doris Parker), Blythe Danner (Ms. Perkins), Tim Blake Nelson (Mr. Wiatt), William Petersen (Mr. Sarge Kepler), Bryan Cranston (Mr. Dearden) and Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Mr. Mathias).


Honeymoon in Vegas (1992, Andrew Bergman)

Honeymoon in Vegas almost defies description. Bergman drags a sitcom out to ninety minutes. But he also makes his straight man—Nicolas Cage—act like a lunatic. Cage’s performance during the second act features him screaming the end of every sentence.

Wait, I forgot about the utterly useless prologue (though it does give the chance for an Anne Bancroft cameo). Also important is when James Caan’s character reveals himself to be a dangerous psychopath—at the start of the third act, before then he’s just enthusiastic. What else am I forgetting….

Bergman treats the narrative like Johnny Williams’s terribly unfunny flunky, who’s constantly eating. Bergman pays so little attention to his film… he forgets he’s got Cage narrating it in the past tense.

Caan’s bad throughout—it’s the script’s fault, but it’s also his inability to deviate from his normal performance anymore. It’s depressing to see him in Vegas.

Cage is good at the beginning, terrible in the middle and okay at the end. His character is unbelievably stupid because he needs to be, which makes it hard to like him.

And Sarah Jessica Parker, who they both love (Cage had her first, Caan steals her away), is terrible at the beginning. But then she’s great in the middle. She holds up at the end too.

Bergman’s directing of actors is almost as bad as his soap opera composition.

Oh, I didn’t even mention David Newman’s terrible score….

Honeymoon in Vegas is, like I said, indescribable. Except by negative adjectives.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Andrew Bergman; director of photography, William A. Fraker; edited by Barry Malkin; music by David Newman; production designer, William A. Elliott; produced by Mike Lobell; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring James Caan (Tommy Korman), Nicolas Cage (Jack Singer), Sarah Jessica Parker (Betsy), Pat Morita (Mahi Mahi), Johnny Williams (Johnny Sandwich), John Capodice (Sally Molars), Robert Costanzo (Sidney Tomashefsky), Peter Boyle (Chief Orman), Burton Gilliam (Roy Bacon), Seymour Cassel (Tony Cataracts), Tony Shalhoub (Buddy Walker) and Anne Bancroft (Bea Singer).


Misery (1990, Rob Reiner)

So back in 1990, ignorant, bigoted book burning fundamentalist Christian psychopath women were screen villains on par with Norman Bates (by some accounts). Now they’re presidential candidates.

Misery actually owes quite a bit, in its third act, to Psycho. Reiner is no Hitchcock and he doesn’t try to be. His success, directing the film, has more to do with actors than with mood. William Goldman’s script does all the thriller stuff itself, which isn’t to say Reiner doesn’t do a fine job… he just isn’t the one responsible for it being so creepy.

See, for all the praise Kathy Bates gets… James Caan holds the movie together. She’s just playing the psycho–a far less sympathetic one than Norman Bates–whereas Caan is playing the victim. Sonny Corleone is scared of her, the audience will be too.

In fact, Caan’s got Misery‘s only sublime moment (and one of Reiner’s best as a director), sort of saving the film at the very end. Or at least making it something special.

Speaking of Psycho… I almost forgot the music. Marc Shaiman’s score owes quite a bit to Herrmann; it’s definitely the most obviously influenced feature.

Misery is pretty unique–remove the context and you’ve basically got Caan graphically beating some woman to death. With the Meathead directing.

Nice cameo from Lauren Bacall, but it’s all about Richard Farnsworth and Frances Sternhagen’s bickering, aged Nick and Nora. There was definite spin-off potential for those two.

Far more impressive than I was expecting.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Rob Reiner; screenplay by William Goldman, based on the novel by Stephen King; director of photography, Barry Sonnenfeld; edited by Robert Leighton; music by Marc Shaiman; production designer, Norman Garwood; produced by Reiner and Andrew Scheinman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring James Caan (Paul Sheldon), Kathy Bates (Annie Wilkes), Richard Farnsworth (Buster), Frances Sternhagen (Virginia) and Lauren Bacall (Marcia Sindell).


Thief (1981, Michael Mann)

With Thief, Mann leaves plain an American standard–the gangster movie. Halfway through the film, I wondered how it fit, as the energy the film opens with is gone. The film moves these awkwardly handled scenes without much flare. These scenes are presented as the standard dramatic scenes, but with something not quite right about the storytelling in these very familiar scenes. Then it becomes clear.

During the big jewel heist–which Mann could play as an audio and visual feast, but doesn’t–instead he sucks the romance out of the cinematic glitz. In the dystopian bleakness of Thief, nothing matters (not a philosophy Mann could hold on to for long), not friends, not family.

As protagonist James Caan moves through this mobster’s house, even though it’s a crime figure’s home, it’s lived in, versus Caan’s, which looks like a photograph. Seeing Caan in that setting, it’s clear how his presence in that house, in everyone else’s lives too, reveals it all to be a complete illusion. Anything not as bleak and empty as Caan is false.

Caan is great. Tuesday Weld is great. James Belushi’s really good, which is odd, as is Robert Prosky. Willie Nelson is good in his two scenes.

In the second of Nelson’s scenes, it’s clear Caan’s not a reliable narrator and Mann forces a barrier between the audience and the film. The film exists on its own. The characters aren’t beholden to the viewing experience of the audience. Thief‘s contemptuous of such a relationship.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Mann; screenplay and story by Mann, based on a book by John Seybold; director of photography, Donald E. Thorin; edited by Dov Hoenig; music by Tangerine Dream; production designer, Mel Bourne; produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Ronnie Caan; released by United Artists.

Starring James Caan (Frank), Tuesday Weld (Jessie), Willie Nelson (Okla), James Belushi (Barry), Robert Prosky (Leo), Tom Signorelli (Attaglia), Dennis Farina (Carl), Nick Nickeas (Nick), W.R. Brown (Mitch), Norm Tobin (Guido) and John Santucci (Urizzi).


Rollerball (1975, Norman Jewison)

Somehow, it’s impossible to find an actual Tarkovsky quote regarding 2001 online, just tidbits about Solaris being his humanist response to that film.

Damn.

I wanted to open with a comment about Norman Jewison sharing the opinion about the science fiction genre.

Rollerball‘s a technical masterpiece. Jewison’s sense of composition and editing have never been better. It’s unfortunate, very unfortunate, the script isn’t up to snuff. During scenes, some more than others, but during actual scenes and not the frequent exposition scenes–Rollerball seems like it should be fantastic. The film’s a series of vignettes imprisoned by William Harrison’s poor transitionary scenes and endless exposition. Harrison bashes at the viewer with a rubber mallet at every opportunity, when instead–given the film’s distanced view of the future (the viewer never gets to see the rollerball fans outside the stadium, the common people)–just sitting back and letting Jewison try to loose his inner Fellini on a Hollywood movie, would have let the film achieve its full potential.

Jewison’s choices aren’t all perfect, of course. The use of classical music is a serious mistake. The choices are poor and, occasionally, comedically bombastic.

James Caan’s performance is okay. He plays the character ultra-shy at times, murmuring to the point he’s unintelligible. He gets better as the movie goes on.

Rollerball runs just over two hours and, sometime before the first hour’s up, the film’s suffocated the viewer. It’s not exciting, it’s not intriguing, but it’s somehow captivating.

The other performances are generally decent. It’s amazing to see John Houseman play his role straight-faced and well. John Beck and Moses Gunn are both good. Maud Adams is terrible.

Though Jewison’s take is highly derivative–I guess he even owns up to the Kubrick influence–he does a great job. It’s just too bad he didn’t get a good screenwriter.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Norman Jewison; screenplay by William Harrison, based on his short story; director of photography, Douglas Slocombe; edited by Antony Gibbs; production designer, John Box; released by United Artists.

Starring James Caan (Jonathan E.), John Houseman (Bartholomew), Maud Adams (Ella), John Beck (Moonpie), Moses Gunn (Cletus), Pamela Hensley (Mackie), Barbara Trentham (Daphne), Shane Rimmer (Rusty) and Ralph Richardson (Librarian).


Flesh and Bone (1993, Steve Kloves)

Dennis Quaid’s performance in Flesh and Bone is complicated. The character, the hints the film offers into him, is more complicated, but Quaid’s performance somehow encapsulates all those unknowns without defining them. The film has some really strange touching scenes, as Quaid’s character lets down the wall long enough to express himself. And the anguish at not being wooden to everyone plays beautifully on Quaid’s face. I don’t think I’ve ever used wooden as a compliment to a performance before, but here it’s essential. The film wouldn’t make any sense if Quaid were any different.

The surprising performance–it’s no surprise Quaid is good–is Meg Ryan. The kewpie doll almost, but not quite, broken by life’s hardships. Ryan’s great during the “salad days” scenes and the almost comic scenes (Kloves knows how to mix genre), but she’s better during the other scenes. The scenes where she isn’t cute and she especially pulls off the odyssey scene. It’s hard to explain that scene. She walks across endless cornfields, empty of anything else, but full of everything unsaid in her character’s past. It’s a stunning sequence (ably assisted by Kloves and the sound designer and composer Thomas Newman).

As for Gwyneth Paltrow and James Caan… both are fantastic. Caan has one of those beautiful roles–he gets do whatever he wants, but it’s also very grounded and terrifying. Paltrow’s performance suggests dramatic potential she’s never realized.

Kloves’s script and direction are perfect. The script is something singular in its plotting. He gently brings the character relationships to new levels, subtlety, almost with a hands off approach. With the romance between Quaid and Ryan, it makes sense, since their husband and wife status does something for the film. But the odd relationship between Ryan and Paltrow… it’s more impressive. Kloves’s handling of female characters–there are the two main ones, one minor one, and one even more minor–is perfect.

I was a little apprehensive about the film. I haven’t seen it in nine years and it runs over two hours and I remembered it being boring. It’s not boring, not even in a good way. Nothing happens–Kloves’s gimmick, if it qualifies–isn’t an issue for the majority of the film so it’s not getting in the way. It’s a character study with the possibility and ingredients for sensationalism and it never strays. It’s always perfect. Especially given the short present action (four days or so) of the film. It’s exceptional.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Steve Kloves; director of photography, Philippe Rousselot; edited by Mia Goldman; music by Thomas Newman; production designer, Jon Hutman; produced by Mark Rosenberg and Paula Weinstein; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Dennis Quaid (Arlis Sweeney), Meg Ryan (Kay Davies), James Caan (Roy Sweeney), Gwyneth Paltrow (Ginnie), Jerry Swindall (Young Arlis), Scott Wilson (Elliot) and Christopher Rydell (Reese Davies).


The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola)

Talking about The Godfather earnestly has got to be hard. Also talking about it not in relation to its sequel–which happens less and less these days, something I’m going to blame on the sequel discussion scene in Scream 2. It’s stunningly unsurprising. My most profound observations this viewing–and its been ten years or so, since the theatrical release, then the laserdisc remasters (featuring the first letterboxed versions ever on home video)–are twain. It moves incredibly fast–at the half-way point it feels like forty-five minutes–and Al Pacino’s really damn good at the beginning, but you have no idea what he’s capable of doing, acting-wise. It’d be interesting to know if he felt more comfortable at the beginning or at the end. Otherwise, I made the standard observations–Marlon Brando’s fantastic, James Caan’s presented to the audience as the most sympathetic character in film history, Robert Duvall’s really good… I could probably chart it out, on paper not here (because I’d want to make boxes and arrows), when characters change, when we discover things, et cetera, et cetera.

That response is the problem with talking about The Godfather. More than any other film (yes, even more than the second one), discussing it devolves into some kind of dissection. This scene does this, this scene does that. There’s the scene when Michael turns. Another problem talking about the film is the novel. Having read the novel, I know the film is a shorter version of the novel, without much change. Puzo’s novel is derided, the film is praised. What does Coppola bring to the filmic storytelling Puzo didn’t bring to the text? I don’t know. Novels have a language films don’t. And it’s fine because they do different things, but this case, where the two are so similar, is particularly interesting.

A great book tends not to make a great movie. I can’t say bad books make good movies as often, but sometimes they do. (Coppola’s the master at that particular genre, given The Rainmaker novel versus film).

Someone had a story about George Clooney–maybe Brad Pitt, I don’t remember–and how Clooney had constant attention in public and attributed it to television–you’re in people’s homes once a week. Somehow The Godfather creates that feeling, that attachment. The melodramatic sensationalism plays out in the novel, I’m sure (I don’t remember and I don’t read things like that anymore), but in the film it’s different. When Sonny beats the shit out of Carlo, even though the book has a funny detail (Carlo’s been telling his crew how he could kick Sonny’s ass), it’s rewarding in the film. The audience goes to the wedding as guests, as full access guests. The morality of these characters never comes into question–maybe I noticed that one too. The FBI is messing up the wedding, Sterling Hayden is a corrupt SOB. The drug thing is manipulative, turning the Corleone’s into the good guys….

Anyway, the wedding opening. The brief moments with the characters, the almost real time pacing. It works really well for the film and Coppola knows it. That manipulative drug thing is probably the least manipulative thing in the film. But he’s manipulative in interesting ways. Why, for example, do people side with Sonny instead of Sonny’s wife? When he gets shot to pieces, why’s it so tragic–the level of violence, sure. But it’s real late in the film and it’s only to set the viewer up to accept the conclusion. But Coppola’s also interesting technically (though not particularly visually–Coppola not being fluent in that filmic language). Nino Rota’s score does good stuff, imparting information to the viewer and so on.

The Godfather‘s kind of a guarantee. It doesn’t knock the world of its axis, but it’s still really freaking great. Maybe I’m just still confused why movielens thinks I’d given three.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola; screenplay by Mario Puzo and Coppola, based on the novel by Puzo; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by William Reynolds, Peter Zinner, Marc Laub, and Murray Solomon; music by Nino Rota; production designer, Dean Tavoularis; produced by Albert S. Ruddy; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Marlon Brando (Don Vito Corleone), Al Pacino (Michael), James Caan (Sonny), Richard S. Castellano (Clemenza), Robert Duvall (Tom Hagen), Sterling Hayden (Capt. McCluskey), John Marley (Jack Woltz), Richard Conte (Barzini), Al Lettieri (Sollozzo), Diane Keaton (Kay Adams), Abe Vigoda (Tessio), Talia Shire (Connie), Gianni Russo (Carlo), John Cazale (Fredo), Al Martino (Johnny Fontane), Morgana King (Mama Corleone), Lenny Montana (Luca Brasi), Alex Rocco (Moe Greene) and Richard Bright (Al Neri).


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