James Gandolfini

Get Shorty (1995, Barry Sonnenfeld)

There’s a gentle quality about Get Shorty, an invitation from screenwriter Scott Frank and director Sonnenfeld to dwell. One can also not dwell on the film’s little moments, because it’s got awesome big moments as well. Except Shorty doesn’t have much in the way of set pieces; Sonnenfeld does whatever he can to reduce action and suspense. He’s making a comedy–a likable comedy–not an action thriller. So those big moments come in dialogue and actors’ deliveries. Sonnenfeld and his actors layer their performances in each scene. Sometimes it’s so Sonnenfeld can do a sight gag, sometimes it’s just for the exit laugh. But it creates these fantastic characters who don’t get much chance at narrative progression. Get Shorty is a concise, impeccably constructed, impeccably edited film.

Frank’s script often gives each character a sidekick for a scene. Someone to watch while someone else has a big moment. The way Sonnenfeld directs these scenes is for the sidekick to react–in close-up–while listening. It’s not a big reaction, it gives Martin Ferrero a few nice scenes and lets Rene Russo excel in her scream queen turned producer part. Russo’s story is always in relation to the boys–lead John Travolta as her new beau, Gene Hackman as her Corman-esque Svengali, Danny DeVito as her movie star ex-husband–but she still gets to have a real, consequential part. And not because of action, but because of her character’s decisions, which the audience gets to see Russo make thanks to Sonnenfeld’s deliberate approach.

Get Shorty is also perfectly acted. No one gives anything less than an excellent performance (even Bette Midler in a cameo) but there are some particularly exceptional ones (i.e. Travolta). The thing about Get Shorty is it doesn’t ask Travolta to be a movie star. It asks him to be a character actor. Even though Travolta’s the lead, Get Shorty is far more of an ensemble piece. Each actor is intentionally memorable–the way Donald Peterman lights them, the way Jim Miller cuts them, the way Sonnenfeld composes the shot–even the bit players are intentionally memorable. It creates an exceptionally affable mood.

Of course, it’s also about Hollywood. The dream of Hollywood, filtered through Travolta’s exuberant nostalgia. Travolta and Russo have these side conversations about old movies; I wonder if Frank wrote the whole conversation or just cut in. It’s all handled perfectly. But with a couple exceptions, it’s not about “real” Hollywood. It’s about everyone’s dream of it. Whether it’s Travolta’s, Hackman’s, Russo’s, Delroy Lindo’s.

Delroy Lindo.

Delroy Lindo gives the film’s greatest performance. He stands out among all the standouts. He stands out in a film where Dennis Farina is able to so exactly embody his caricature, it becomes magic. Because Lindo has the task of being dangerous, loathsome, likable. You’re watching Get Shorty, you’re hoping Lindo gets his comeuppance, but not too soon.

No one else can do these roles. No one else is imaginable in these roles. Sonnenfeld gets the audience buy-in early, sort of doing a “pilot” for the film before the opening titles. There’s a concise little narrative, an introduction to Travolta and nemesis Farina, then the titles. The titles hinting at what’s to come, John Lurie’s Booker T-esque score excitedly dragging things out. Sonnenfeld makes you impatient to watch this Get Shorty picture he’s teasing.

Get Shorty’s great. I’ve always thought so, but it’s been over a decade since I’ve seen it so I’m really glad it’s so great.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld; screenplay by Scott Frank, based on the novel by Elmore Leonard; director of photography, Donald Peterman; edited by Jim Miller; music by John Lurie; production designer, Peter S. Larkin; produced by Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring John Travolta (Chili Palmer), Gene Hackman (Harry Zimm), Rene Russo (Karen Flores), Danny DeVito (Martin Weir), Dennis Farina (Ray Bones), Delroy Lindo (Bo), James Gandolfini (Bear), Jon Gries (Ronnie), Martin Ferrero (Tommy), Miguel Sandoval (Mr. Escobar), Jacob Vargas (Yayo), Linda Hart (Fay Devoe) and David Paymer (Leo Devoe).


Enough Said (2013, Nicole Holofcener)

For most of Enough Said, I marveled at how director Holofcener–apparently in an act entirely lacking irony–created the perfect film to fail the Bechdel test. The Bechdel test, which is all the rage, requires two female characters talk about something besides men.

Well, besides talking about men, the characters in Said do not do much. Lead Julia Louis-Dreyfus otherwise makes acerbic observations about those around her or the minutiae of her life; I wish I could know how the film played if one is unfamiliar with a certain show about nothing starring Louis-Dreyfus, but I cannot. It probably wouldn’t be much better, because Holofcener isn’t just lazy at the plotting, she’s lazy with the characters.

Here’s the idea (straight out of a “Seinfeld”). Louis-Dreyfus starts seeing James Gandolfini (even though he’s fat–she’s supposed to be out of shape too, in one of Enough Said’s more absurd requests for the viewer to suspend their disbelief). She’s a masseuse. Her new client–an exceptionally wasted Catherine Keener–turns out to be really cool and they become friends. Oh, and Keener’s Gandolfini’s ex-wife. Which Elaine–sorry, sorry–which Louis-Dreyfus figures out and keeps to herself.

The film wastes the more interesting empty nest subplot involving Louis-Dreyfus bonding with her daughter’s friend, Tavi Gevinson. Sure, they fail the Bechdel test too, but not as bad as the rest of the film.

Bad editing from Robert Frazen. Great performance from Gandolfini.

Enough’s pointless and slight.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener; director of photography, Xavier Grobet; edited by Robert Frazen; music by Marcelo Zarvos; production designer, Keith P. Cunningham; produced by Stefanie Azpiazu and Anthony Bregman; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Eva), James Gandolfini (Albert), Tracey Fairaway (Ellen), Toni Collette (Sarah), Ben Falcone (Will), Catherine Keener (Marianne), Eve Hewson (Tess), Tavi Gevinson (Chloe), Amy Landecker (Debbie), Toby Huss (Peter) and Kathleen Rose Perkins (Fran).


In the Loop (2009, Armando Iannucci)

In the Loop is a spin-off of a British show… I didn’t know about that connection when I watched it. I guess it doesn’t matter, since In the Loop is–apparently–something of a prequel. The show’s called “The Thick of It,” for those interested.

Now, where to start.

In the Loop is, without being specific with names, about the rush to the Iraq war in 2003. As an anti-war film, it’s probably the most effective one I’ve seen about that war, because it portrays the people behind it as self-serving and callow. It’s hilarious. It’s also rather depressing when one realizes the state of government, but it’s definitely funny.

As really funny–and here’s where In the Loop gets a lot of laughs–is a Scotsman swearing. The film opens with Peter Capaldi and this torrent of obscenities just starts rushing from him. A lot of his particular insults are well-written, but it’s Capaldi’s performance–that accent–is still the most important part.

He’s not really the lead in the film, but the film doesn’t really have one so maybe he’s the closest it does have.

It sort of opens and closes with Chris Addison’s career, but he’s so unlikable after a certain point, it’s hard to call him a protagonist.

The best performances are from David Rasche (a standout), Tom Hollander, Gina McKee, James Gandolfini, Mimi Kennedy (another standout) and Steve Coogan.

It’s great.

But it’s sad the British cast Americans better than Hollywood.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Armando Iannucci; written by Iannucci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche; director of photography, Jamie Cairney; edited by Anthony Boys and Billy Sneddon; music by Adam Ilhan; production designer, Christina Casali; produced by Kevin Loader and Adam Tandy; released by Optimum Releasing.

Starring Anna Chlumsky (Liza Weld), Chris Addison (Toby Wright), David Rasche (Linton Barwick), Gina McKee (Judy Molloy), James Gandolfini (Lt. Gen. George Miller), Mimi Kennedy (Karen Clark), Olivia Poulet (Suzy), Peter Capaldi (Malcolm Tucker), Steve Coogan (Paul Michaelson), Tom Hollander (Simon Foster) and Zach Woods (Chad).


The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009, Tony Scott)

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 might be the worst directed film I’ve ever liked. I haven’t seen a Tony Scott effort in eight years and he just gets more and more obnoxious with the post production effects. It’s like he’s competing with himself to affect more style and be more visually incoherent than any other filmmaker working today. With the possible exception of Simon West, he seems to be succeeding.

But even Scott can’t ruin a solid Denzel Washington star vehicle and, with the exception of John Travolta, Pelham is rather well-cast. Luis Guzmán is wasted, but James Gandolfini has some good moments, as does John Turturro. Instead of teaming with Scott again for this one, Washington should have brought in Spike Lee, whose realistic sense of New York would have played well with Helgeland’s script’s more fanciful, Hollywood characterization.

The film’s only source credit is the novel, which it doesn’t resemble much narratively, and it doesn’t improve anything on the earlier adaptation. In fact, it wastes the potential with Travolta, who does better than usual I suppose, but he’s not interesting to watch opposite Washington. He’s just not in the same caliber of acting and it isn’t interesting.

The film’s way too long, with the third act dragging on and on. The end’s a little bit absurd too, as Scott tries to pretend he’s capable of an honest observation of the human condition.

But it’s a decent hostage thriller. Even if Scott’s mise-en-scène horrifies.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Tony Scott; screenplay by Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by John Godey; director of photography, Tobias A. Schliessler; edited by Chris Lebenzon; music by Harry Gregson-Williams; production designer, Chris Seagers; produced by Todd Black, Scott, Jason Blumenthal and Steve Tisch; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Denzel Washington (Walter Garber), John Travolta (Ryder), John Turturro (Camonetti), Luis Guzmán (Phil Ramos), Michael Rispoli (John Johnson), James Gandolfini (Mayor), Frank Wood (Police Commissioner Sterman), John Benjamin Hickey (Deputy Mayor LaSalle), Gary Basaraba (Jerry Pollard) and Ramon Rodriguez (Delgado).


The Mexican (2001, Gore Verbinski)

No kidding The Mexican has a lot of the same score as The Abyss, Alan Silvestri composed both… oddly, I didn’t even think he was working anymore (or even back when The Mexican came out). Besides the Abyss rips, he turns in a good, funny score. But anyway….

The Mexican is kind of strange and kind of not. The Brad Pitt without Julia Roberts half, the doofus’s adventures in Mexico, plays a lot like a Paul Newman movie from the 1970s, only not as good. Pitt, unlike Newman, can play a doofus though and he does a great job here. The Julia Roberts on the road with gay hit man James Gandolfini is actually the stranger part of the film, because it’s Julia Roberts in a role beneath her movie star stature. Her role’s the girlfriend and while she and Pitt are good together, it’s really not a big enough part for her.

The film’s quirky in its handling of its mega-stars (though Pitt is a lot more comfortable) and it almost seems like a smaller movie, until the last act when the surprise guest star pops in and The Mexican becomes the standard Hollywood movie Dreamworks had so much trouble making. It’s an excellent standard Hollywood movie too.

Gore Verbinski’s direction, much like the big movie stars, seems almost more than the script deserves. The Mexican‘s script is frequently way too cute for itself and way too contrived and it’s a shock no one thought to get a quick rewrite. John Sayles probably would have done wonders in a few weeks. But Verbinski really knows how to shoot Panavision, whether it’s conversation or action….

The other reason the film works is the casting. Pitt, Roberts and Gandolfini (Pitt does the most work in terms of range, though the performance is kind of like Twelve Monkeys, down to the mannerisms) are all good in the three biggest roles, but J.K. Simmons, Bob Balaban, Richard Coca and David Krumholtz are essential in the primary supporting roles. It’s very well-cast.

The Mexican is the kind of movie Hollywood doesn’t make any more and needs to… it’s unspectacularly okay.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Gore Verbinski; written by J.H. Wyman; director of photography, Dariusz Wolski; edited by Craig Wood; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Cecilia Montiel; produced by Lawrence Bender and John Baldecchi; released by DreamWorks Pictures.

Starring Brad Pitt (Jerry), Julia Roberts (Samantha), James Gandolfini (Leroy), J.K. Simmons (Ted), Bob Balaban (Nayman), Sherman Augustus (Well Dressed Black Man), Michael Cerveris (Frank), Richard Coca (Car Thief #1) and David Krumholtz (Beck).


A Civil Action (1998, Steven Zaillian)

A Civil Action is somewhere in between a modestly budgeted Hollywood drama (you know, the kind they don’t make anymore unless it’s for Oscar season) and a wildly passionate–well, not art film, but it’s certainly something else. Steven Zaillian casts the film with a knowing grown-up indie eye (William H. Macy, Dan Hedaya playing a villain almost on par with Blood Simple, and James Gandolfini) but he tells the story in a truly (as truly as possible for the 1990s) filmic fashion. Sure, John Travolta’s reformed ambulance chaser is the film’s main character, but Zaillian concerns himself and the audience with the surrounding characters throughout. Even the film’s antagonist, Robert Duvall, is given some wonderfully engaging material. While Travolta’s lawyer learns, through the process of the film, to value the pursuit for the truth over the cynical dismissal of it, Zaillian never does–the film’s passionate about it’s content, totally sure of all its moves, but all of these moves are precisely calculated for an effect. They’re well-executed, well-conceived, but there’s nothing in A Civil Action I found magical. It’s a true story in that real sense. While Zaillian can do the great comedic bit of the bank manager thinking bankrupt Macy has got a gun, he can’t find a way to lie to the viewer. There’s no wool to A Civil Action–it’s an example of what Hollywood filmmaking has been doing well since 1924 or whatnot. Proof the recipe and casserole dish aren’t broken.

The problem with the film is the ingredients. It’s not a movie. Not a dramatizable film. Zaillian’s apparently not willing to sell out the truth to package it into something consumable. To some degree, he could have made A Civil Action a more satisfying tale about Travolta’s redemptive change, but it’s not about that change. It is a little, but it’s mostly not. He could have made the trial more thrilling, maybe made John Lithgow’s judge a little more treacherous, maybe made Duvall’s lawyer corrupt. Something. The experience of watching the film is incredibly satisfying and filling, but only because of how Zaillian tells his story. For example, he never gives the audience a shot of the redeemed Travolta. Instead, he leaves the audience off-balance, not stumbling, but certainly not on solid ground.

All of the acting in the film is excellent, with Gandolfini probably getting the best role. Macy’s got some good stuff to do, so does Duvall, but it’s really all Gandolfini in terms of depth. Travolta’s performance is a little perplexing–to some extent, he’s doing the Travolta thing (that Travolta used to be able to do), but he’s expanding on it, much in the self-refrential manner of Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, but more significant success.

The film’s probably not challenging to watch, but fully appreciating it requires a certain confidence in what Zaillian’s doing. Zaillian doesn’t start doing it right away–he obviously didn’t want moviegoers to get up and leave in droves–but, quite analogously, around the time Travolta accepts the case, the viewer has to accept the film.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Zaillian; screenplay by Zaillian, based on the book by Jonathan Harr; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Wayne Wahrman; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, David Gropman; produced by Scott Rudin, Robert Redford and Rachel Pfeffer; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring John Travolta (Jan Schlichtmann), Robert Duvall (Jerome Facher), Tony Shalhoub (Kevin Conway), William H. Macy (James Gordon), Zeljko Ivanek (Bill Crowley), Bruce Norris (William Cheeseman), Kathleen Quinlan (Anne Anderson), Peter Jacobson (Neil Jacobs), Mary Mara (Kathy Boyer), James Gandolfini (Al Love), Stephen Fry (Pinder), John Lithgow (Judge Skinner), Dan Hedaya (John Riley) and Sydney Pollack (Al Eustis).


Scroll to Top