James Cromwell

Star Trek: First Contact (1996, Jonathan Frakes)

First Contact works out well for a number of reasons. The script’s structured beautifully, it’s well-cast, Frakes knows how to direct for both humor and action… but also because it’s not a possessive picture. The film involves time travel, sending the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” crew into the past (but still the future) and introduces James Cromwell and Alfre Woodard as locals. In the third act, I realized they’re the only ones with anything at stake. The Enterprise crew… well, sure, the franchise could be in jeopardy, but not the actual characters. Frakes and screenwriters Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore obscure that situation quite well.

The film also gives Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner a lot to do. After some lengthy exposition at the open, the script splits into three parts–Stewart and Woodard on the Enterprise, Spiner and villain Alice Krige on the Enterprise, Frakes and Cromwell on Earth. It might even be fun to sit down and time how the film handles passing from one subplot to the next. It’s always rather well done, possibly because the pairings are so good.

Frakes–the director–doesn’t give Frakes–the actor–much to do. He just gets to be amused at Cromwell’s fun performance as a drunken, reluctant genius. Meanwhile, even though Stewart’s great, it’s because Woodard’s there to act off him. She’s wonderful. Krige’s good, Spiner’s pretty good.

The special effects are good in space, less so in the action scenes.

Contact is a fine time.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jonathan Frakes; screenplay by Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore, based on a story by Rick Berman, Braga and Moore and on the television series created by Gene Roddenberry; director of photography, Matthew F. Leonetti; edited by John W. Wheeler; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Herman F. Zimmerman; 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), James Cromwell (Zefram Cochran), Alice Krige (Borg Queen), Neal McDonough (Lt. Hawk), Robert Picardo (Holographic Doctor), Dwight Schultz (Lt. Barclay) and Alfre Woodard (Lily).


Murder by Death (1976, Robert Moore)

Writer Neil Simon did not adapt Murder by Death from one of his plays, which I’ve always assumed he did. While the film does have a more theatrical structure–a great deal of Death is the cast in one room–the action does follow the characters around and some of their experiences would be impossible without cinematic storytelling.

Simon’s structure for the film, which takes its time not just introducing the characters, but the mystery and all the elements involved, is brilliant. Death‘s a spoof and practically a spoof of a spoof, something Simon plays with in the dialogue. He’s very playful in the dialogue–there’s a great exchange with David Niven, Alec Guinness and Maggie Smith where Smith’s character gets tired of listening to Simon’s banter. And Simon discreetly gets it in. Death isn’t about misdirection, it’s about being so constantly funny the viewer can no longer anticipate gags.

Besides the actors–everyone is outstanding, with Eileen Brennan and James Coco probably being the best. James Cromwell is also really good as Coco’s sidekick. And Peter Sellers as the Charlie Chan stand-in can only get funnier with Peter Falk’s Sam Spade analogue harassing him. It’s hard to list all the funny moments because there are ninety-some minutes of them.

Moore’s direction is ideal. He doesn’t get in the way of the cast or the script. Great Dave Grusin music.

Death is utterly fantastic. It doesn’t even matter the film’s narrative doesn’t work. Simon’s a very funny guy.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Moore; written by Neil Simon; director of photography, David M. Walsh; edited by John F. Burnett; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, Stephen B. Grimes; produced by Ray Stark; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Eileen Brennan (Tess Skeffington), Truman Capote (Lionel Twain), James Coco (Milo Perrier), Peter Falk (Sam Diamond), Alec Guinness (Bensonmum), Elsa Lanchester (Jessica Marbles), David Niven (Dick Charleston), Peter Sellers (Sidney Wang), Maggie Smith (Dora Charleston), Nancy Walker (Yetta, the cook), Estelle Winwood (Nurse Withers), James Cromwell (Marcel) and Richard Narita (Willie Wang).


The Artist (2011, Michel Hazanavicius)

While The Artist is a silent film about the silent film era, it quickly moves into the talking era. Probably in the first third of the film. Hazanavicius technically engages the transition a little–a dream sequence for protagonist Jean Dujardin–but for the majority of the film, it’s set in the late thirties and still told as a silent. Hazanavicius’s commitment to the constraint produces some great results.

The film juxtaposes the fall of Dujardin’s silent film star and the rise of Bérénice Bejo’s talking star. The two are tied from the beginning, but Hazanavicius isn’t telling a traditional love story. There’s no room for it in his narrative structure–The Artist is often told in summary, the film taking place over twelve years.

This approach focuses all the film’s attention on Dujardin; his performance is magnificent. Even when he’s on screen with other actors, particularly at the beginning, he is the whole film. But Bejo is astoundingly good too. She and Hazanavicius manage to keep her character vital yet never overshadow Dujardin.

Hazanavicius is comfortable with silent film storytelling techniques, though a lot of his composition mixes modern ability with silent sensibilities. He also embraces the sensibility of the cast staying youthful over a decade.

The supporting cast is small, but good. John Goodman and James Cromwell do well. Penelope Ann Miller is excellent.

The Artist excels because of Hazanavicius’s devotion to his constraints, but also because of Bejo and Dujardin. Without them, the film simply wouldn’t work.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius; director of photography, Guillaume Schiffman; edited by Anne-Sophie Bion and Hazanavicius; music by Ludovic Bource; production designer, Laurence Bennett; produced by Thomas Langmann and Emmanuel Montamat; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Jean Dujardin (George Valentin), Bérénice Bejo (Peppy Miller), James Cromwell (Clifton), John Goodman (Al Zimmer), Penelope Ann Miller (Doris) and Missi Pyle (Constance).


Surrogates (2009, Jonathan Mostow)

So they take Bruce Willis and de-age him, but then they put Rosamund Pike in old age make-up? That one doesn’t make much sense.

Surrogates is another modern future concept movie–like iRobot or Minority Report–the future comes crashing down because of the movie star hero, there’s some kind of conspiracy involving the new technology, on and on it goes. Surrogates has a lot of potential, but it’s like Mostow doesn’t get it–they can throw people around and have them break, they can have this extensive chase scenes (robot vs. car), but Mostow only uses such devices sparingly.

The film runs less than ninety minutes and barely has time for one subplot, let alone any texture. The script’s, on a scenic level, okay; the film needed a firmer hand, kind of a mainstream Tati approach (the end reminds of Play Time, visually, for just a moment). Oliver Wood’s fantastic photography helps.

Surrogates doesn’t take any time to delve into the film’s society either–the concept of people piloting beautified versions of themselves around is incredibly interesting, but where are the broken down models people can’t afford to have repaired or the old ones. The logic only works when these robots equate to cars and the American devotion to them. But these aspects aren’t pitfalls, they’re missed opportunities. Instead of making a mainstream Play Time, it’s a Bruce Willis movie. And a short one.

It would have been amazing with Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange, for example.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jonathan Mostow; screenplay by Michael Ferris and John Brancato, based on the comic book by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele; director of photography, Oliver Wood; edited by Kevin Stitt; music by Richard Marvin; production designer, Jeff Mann; produced by David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman and Max Handelman; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Bruce Willis (Tom Greer), Radha Mitchell (Peters), Rosamund Pike (Maggie), Boris Kodjoe (Stone), James Francis Ginty (Canter), James Cromwell (Older Canter), Ving Rhames (the Prophet), Michael Cudlitz (Colonel Brendon) and Jack Noseworthy (Strickland).


Tank (1984, Marvin J. Chomsky)

I wonder if the U.S. Army would like to get a movie like Tank out today. The movie’s politics are… well, they’re not hilarious, but they’re so blatant, it’s stunning. It’s a pro-Army film and an intensely anti-Georgia film. It likes Tennessee though. From Tank, a future cultural historian could surmise the residents of Georgia are a bunch of fascist, backward bigots, people from Tennessee are not. The U.S. Army, this future historian would also observe, was on the cutting edge of racial equality and family rights. The first half of the film, with James Garner and family moving to a new base and getting situated. The beauty of Dan Gordon’s script–besides how well he pulls off the one liners in the second half–is the unassuming first forty minutes. Tank could be about Garner and son C. Thomas Howell following the (undeveloped) death of Howell’s older brother, or it could be about Garner and wife Shirley Jones’s marriage as he gets ready to leave the Army. In many ways, the film is about those things, with the unexpected turn of events changing the story’s course. Gordon’s script runs out of steam after a while, once Garner has broken Howell out of jail, but Tank still works on its basic level–it’s a James Garner movie. The viewer engages with it on that level first. Everything else is gravy.

The second half of the film moves awkwardly; instead of sticking with Garner, Howell and Jenilee Harrison (from “Three’s Company”) in the fugitive tank, the film moves between the cultural reaction to them being on the lam, with some time spent with evil sheriff G.D. Spradlin. Tank‘s a movie about a guy with his own personal tank who uses it to break his son out of (unjust) imprisonment, which doesn’t imply a lot of restraint, but Gordon’s script stays reasonably grounded. It’s improbable and absurd, but the first forty minutes, with Garner charming the viewer, make it pass right by. There are occasionally some problems thanks to Howell’s lame performance (he has trouble emoting and emphasizing), but Tank‘s a fine ride until its finish. The ending’s got a fair amount of tension–then descends into slapstick for its send-off of Spradlin, who’s got to be one of cinema’s evilest villains. Gordon’s script, again sticking to a semi-reality, never gives Spradlin what he deserves.

The acting is all excellent (besides Howell). James Cromwell’s good as a dimwitted (but evil) deputy, Shirley Jones is great as Garner’s wife. Her turn in Tank, which relies on her making a deep impression off just a couple scenes, reminded me she’s an actor, not just the mom from the “Partridge Family.” John Hancock and Dorian Harewood are both good in too small roles. The big surprise is Harrison. She’s fine. It’s probably the best performance out of a female actor from “Three’s Company” ever.

One big disappointment is Lalo Schifrin’s score. It’s a bad score, the kind of 1980s music I never wanted to see Schifrin’s name on. There are some synthesizers and it’s always obvious. I had high hopes when I saw Schifrin in the opening titles, but once Garner gets into the tank, the score immediately… well, tanks.

Director Chomsky almost always directed TV movies, but he’s got a fine understanding of the theatrical frame. His direction’s never awe-inspiring, but it’s impossible to imagine the film directed any other way.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Marvin J. Chomsky; written by Dan Gordon; director of photography, Donald H. Birnkrant; edited by Donald R. Rode; music by Lalo Schifrin; production designer, Bill Kenney; produced by Irwin Yablans; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring James Garner (Cmd. Sgt. Maj. Zack Carey), Shirley Jones (LaDonna Carey), C. Thomas Howell (Billy Carey), Mark Herrier (SSgt. Jerry Elliott), Sandy Ward (Maj. Gen. V.E. Hubik), Jenilee Harrison (Sarah), James Cromwell (Deputy Euclid Baker), Dorian Harewood (Sfc. Ed Tippet), G.D. Spradlin (Sheriff Cyrus Buelton), John Hancock (Mess MSgt. Johnson) and Guy Boyd (Sgt. Wimofsky).


The Queen (2006, Stephen Frears)

Glibly, I can say the most amazing thing The Queen does is humanize Tony Blair, seeing as he’s been decency’s biggest quisling in recent memory. But seeing a sympathetic portrayal of politician–one still in power when a film is released–is uncommon. Michael Sheen really creates a Tony Blair, certainly a Tony Blair one wishes the real person measured up to. And royalty is often sympathetically portrayed, just not modern royalty, which is where The Queen becomes rare. I had assumed the screenwriter adapted a book, something with some non-reporter-like confirmation (apparently, the screenwriter got independent confirmations of specific facts)… because The Queen then becomes a fictionalization of a real person, but a fiction striving for truth… is a truly exceptional attempt for a work.

I watched this film with tears in my eyes for much of it, because it made me privy to something private. An autobiography isn’t private, it’s published. I don’t like considering the impetus behind a film’s creation–it’s money, almost always, unless the film’s really cheap (and then it’s usually the desire for future money)–but this film mustn’t have easy to make in that regard and–I’m losing my train of thought. My film review vocabulary isn’t geared for admiring people’s intentions. Anyway.

Superficially glibly… James Cromwell. Cromwell’s been a ham for a good ten years or so. The Queen really rescues him from it. The role lends itself to ham and he doesn’t do it. Alex Jennings is also excellent as Charles. Some of The Queen‘s easy effectiveness comes from the majority of the characters being privately conflicted, unable to release it. Sheen acts as a bit of a release valve, getting to vocalize frustration, which the other main characters cannot do.

As for Mirren–being disinterested in the history of the Windsors, my fiancée proved invaluable in explaining certain details to me (the film would work just fine without the knowledge, of course)–but I did find it odd, back when I heard about the film, the quintessential British female actor (from the American perspective anyway) playing the quintessential British female. I assumed it would be an easy fit, but Mirren–a little differently from Sheen’s Blair, since Blair isn’t a world figure in the same way–creates the Queen. Through her interactions with her staff, from assistant to groundskeeper, Mirren gradually establishes more than a visible humanity, but really makes the audience understand more her feelings than the response to her actions.

In terms of handling–storytelling handling–if The Queen were an absolutely fictional piece, it’d be good but not revolutionary. It’s a somewhat standard structure, two main threads, one secondary one, but, again, the subject matter and the handling of it–I love the scenes Frears cuts a little short, in the middle of dialogue, when the Queen ceases listening and then so too must the audience–makes the film a particular achievement. Oddly, the only other thing I can think of to even compare this film to is… Bubba Ho-Tep, but whereas that film brought deep feeling to the fictionalized life of a real person, The Queen brings it to the real life of a real person. It’s really something.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Frears; written by Peter Morgan; director of photography, Affonso Beato; edited by Lucia Zucchetti; music by Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Alan Macdonald; produced by Christine Langan, Tracey Seaward and Andy Harries; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Helen Mirren (The Queen), Michael Sheen (Tony Blair), James Cromwell (Prince Philip), Sylvia Syms (the Queen Mother), Alex Jennings (Prince Charles), Helen McCrory (Cherie Blair), Roger Allam (Sir Robin Janvrin) and Tim McMullan (Stephen Lamport).


L.A. Confidential (1997, Curtis Hanson)

I haven’t seen L.A. Confidential since 1998 or so, whenever the laserdisc came out. Before the film came out–I saw it in the theaters of course, being a big Russell Crowe fan back then–I read James Ellroy’s book. So, obviously, the film cuts a lot and I don’t remember the book very well, except that it took place over a long period of time. I don’t think it was that good, but you did get to know the characters… You don’t in L.A. Confidential: The Movie. Instead, you get to know and care when the filmmakers tell you to care. It’s Oscar-bait. As I started watching it, I thought it would be okay Oscar-bait, but it really isn’t. For a few reasons.

First, since I’ll be on and on about it if I don’t get it out of the way: Kim Basinger. 1) She does not look like Veronica Lake, she does not resemble Veronica Lake, never in a million years would I think she does. According to IMDb, Izabella Scorupco turned down the role and she owes me dinner for the thirty minutes or so of Basinger “acting” I just had to endure. 2) Kim Basinger is awful. The number of films, probably starting with Batman, that she has hurt or ruined with her aforementioned “acting” probably equals the number of films she has “acted” in. I sort of remember once saying Nine 1/2 Weeks was her only reasonable acting job. Since I haven’t seen it in a long time, I won’t make such a claim. However, after seeing her “talents” on display in L.A. Confidential, I doubt I’d be able to reinforce said claim.

There: a paragraph for Basinger’s bad acting. Does Guy Pearce get a whole paragraph? Maybe. He is not good. His character needs to be good. The audience needs to identify with him, not against him. We aren’t suppose to think cops beating the shit out of and murdering innocent (or misdemeanor-committing) people is okay. Does that mean Pearce is actually so good that I’m just upset because he was so good–he was supposed to appear unlikable, correct? No, he was terrible. The scenes between him and Basinger at the end were awful. Not to mention how terrible their actual sex scene was. That was a special kind of awful. Made me want to stick pencils in my ears to break the drums.

However–and I’m breaking up the crap with some pearls–Russell Crowe is good. He has very little do. Most of his scenes are with Basinger and so he had no one to work with, but he still shines through. His character is decent and deserving of a better film. However, L.A. Confidential has got to be one of Kevin Spacey’s best performances. Since Spacey has turned into such an embarrassing Oscar-whore (sort of like Crowe), I’d forgotten how good he could be. If L.A. Confidential had been about Spacey’s redemption… Oh, one can only dream. The film also has David Straithairn and underuses him, which is an incredible affront to the species.

No, the problem with the film, why it doesn’t achieve or overcome the awful acting, is the writing. Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson kept a couple parts of the book (I think, the Nite Owl murders seem to be how I remember), tossed the rest, but kept scenes from the book and lines of dialogue. Scenes and lines that mean nothing without the rest of the book. Or they didn’t keep the rhyming parts. So, the film deceives. In the middle, until about the 90 minute mark, it still seems like something good could come of all this stuff. A period cop movie called The Nite Owl Murders could have been amazing, but this film isn’t a cop movie. It’s not noir or neo-noir or anything like that. It’s Oscar-bait and, as Oscar-bait goes, I suppose it’s on par for 1997. If I remember correctly, 1997 was actually a good year, it was just that a bunch of shit was popular… as it goes. Gattaca, for instance, was from 1997. Comparing the two films is an incredible insult to Gattaca and possibly the whole idea of art in general.

I watched the DVD (my laserdisc is probably long gone–I rented the DVD for a buck and quarter and the laser cost $32 from Ken Crane’s). There are some audio looping problems, but I don’t think it’s the disc, because I noticed the mouths didn’t match the dialogue. Maybe there’s a good version of it out there somewhere, in the Warner vaults or something, but I really doubt it….

One last thing about 1997. I just saw that it’s the year Air Force One came out. I’ve never pinpointed, specifically, the downfall of American popular cinema. I can tell you when it was good, when it was better than it is now, and when everything was shit. But is there a turning point? I think it might be Air Force One–you had the previously reliable Harrison Ford in a complete piece of garbage. Petersen was already done, so I’m not putting anything on him, so I think I’ll hang it all on Ford whoring himself for money–in Air Force One. With a few blips–and pretty insignificant ones–his career has been downhill from that specific film. So it’s all his fault. I guess. None of this rant had anything to do with L.A. Confidential….

Okay, I’m done. (Damn Izabella Scorupco. Somebody ought to make her sit down and watch Basinger epic The Real McCoy over and over again. Except cut out all the Val Kilmer parts, because he was funny).

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Curtis Hanson; written by Brian Helgeland and Hanson, based on the novel by James Ellroy; director of photography, Dante Spinotti; edited by Peter Honess; music by Jerry Goldsmith; produced by Arnon Milchan, Hanson and Michael Nathanson; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Kevin Spacey (Jack Vincennes), Russell Crowe (Bud White), Guy Pearce (Ed Exley), James Cromwell (Capt. Dudley Smith), Kim Basinger (Lynn Bracken), David Strathairn (Pierce Morehouse Patchett), Danny DeVito (Sid Hudgens), Graham Beckel (Dick Stensland), Paul Guilfoyle (Mickey Cohen), Ron Rifkin (Dist. Atty. Ellis Loew), Matt McCoy (Brett Chase) and Paolo Seganti (Johnny Stompanato).


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