Joaquin Phoenix

Signs (2002, M. Night Shyamalan)

It’s impossible to overstate what a profoundly, risibly bad movie Shyamalan has made with Signs. As the end credits started rolling, after the most disappointing “epilogue” Shyamalan could’ve come up with—it’s not just disappointing, it’s also pointless (pointless is the probably the best adjective to describe scenes in Signs)—my wife joked the movie took two weeks to film. To which I responded, “Thirteen and a half days longer than it took to write.” Because even with all the bad in Signs—and there’s so much bad—the writing is the worst.

And Shyamalan does this non-committal “camera as POV” thing—cinematographer Tak Fujimoto should be ashamed of himself for enabling Shyamalan to do it and embarrassed with how poorly he shoots the thing; Signs looks terrible–so, in other words, there’s a lot of competition for what’s worst in Signs. Shyamalan’s direction of the talking heads scenes—and there so many talking heads scenes because Shyamalan, who’s ego is literally oozing from every grain of film–involves characters almost looking directly into the camera but then just a little diagonally. Shyamalan is going for something with Signs, with his very intentional direction, his very intentional casting of himself as the guy who kills star Mel Gibson’s wife in a traffic accident (Shyamalan was asleep at the wheel) and vehicular manslaughter isn’t a thing and it just turns reverend Gibson into an atheist (but they never say the a-word because while Signs is definitely a millimeter thinly veiled Christian movie, there’s still the veil and it’s never going to get confrontational about it). Also… Shyamalan wrote the movie, so he did kill the wife.

Symbolism. Pass it on. Like the dog tchotchkes at the end to remind the viewer there are dogs, even if everyone forgot about them because they don’t matter because Signs is insipid.

Signs is full of symbolism but not really full because there’s not much because Shyamalan gets frequently bored with things like mise en scène because there’s better things to do like write the awful scenes between Gibson and his family. I went into Signs at least thinking Gibson would get through it unscathed (performance-wise). No. No. Not at all. It’s a godawful performance. He is incapable of pretending to be a former reverend, a widow, a husband, a father, a brother, and a farmer. The scenes with Gibson and kids Rory Culkin (who’s kind of terrible; it’s not his fault, Shyamalan seems to be having him do a Macaulay impression circa Uncle Buck but he’s still bad) and Abigail Breslin, who gets terrible material and terrible direction, but is still phenomenal. Shyamalan can’t figure out how to direct her because she’s not terrible like the rest of his cast.

Though, not Joaquin Phoenix. He’s leagues better than Gibson, though it helps Phoenix’s character is a dope. Gibson’s ostensibly functional enough to get to this point in his life—whereas Phoenix apparently always had Gibson to lean on—yet Gibson is real dumb. Real dumb.

Other bad things about Signs? Cherry Jones. She’s awful. Ted Sutton is so bad SAG should’ve shut the production down. Bad editing from Barbara Tulliver; Tulliver’s editing, cut for cut, is probably even worse than Fujimoto’s photography. Tulliver—presumably unintentionally—screws up all of Shyamalan’s jump scares. Larry Fulton’s production design is bad.

James Newton Howard’s score, while inexplicably a complete Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock rip-off (oh, wait, was Signs in the middle of Shyamalan being the new Hitchcock era), and poorly utilized, isn’t poorly composed. It’s competent, just misapplied. Everything else is incompetent and misapplied.

I was looking through Rodale for a good, fresh adjective to describe Signs but I think vapid does the job best. It’s worse than I expected it to be, which is saying a lot, but it also surprised me. I had no idea Gibson would so spectacularly fail or Phoenix would be—with a lot of conditions—so much better. And I guess Shyamalan managed to be inventively terrible, it’s just he’s a pointless kind of inventively terrible.

Oh, you know what… there’s the word.

Puerile.

Signs is puerile.

CREDITS

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan; director of photography, Tak Fujimoto; edited by Barbara Tulliver; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Larry Fulton; costume designer, Ann Roth; produced by Frank Marshall, Sam Mercer, and Shyamalan; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Mel Gibson (Graham Hess), Joaquin Phoenix (Merrill Hess), Rory Culkin (Morgan Hess), Abigail Breslin (Bo Hess), Patricia Kalember (Colleen Hess), Cherry Jones (Officer Paski), Ted Sutton (SFC Cunningham), Merritt Wever (Tracey Abernathy), and M. Night Shyamalan (Ray Reddy).


To Die For (1995, Gus Van Sant)

To Die For’s got one of those effortlessly smooth but obviously intricate narrative structures. Screenwriter Buck Henry is adapting a novel, which author Joyce Maynard structured with many different first person accounts. Van Sant and Henry and editor Curtiss Clayton keep the sense of different perspectives—including some interview sessions where someone is obviously making a documentary, maybe not even necessarily the same documentary between interviewees—but the film’s never actually first person. There’s always a narrative distance. Because To Die For only shows so much of its characters. They’re all still mysteries at the end. The film’s got a very definite, very dark sense of humor and it’s never clear just how much Van Sant and Henry are bending reality.

For example, Tim Hopper and Michael Rispoli’s almost entirely dialogue-free police detectives. They’re absurdly intense, emphasis on the absurd. Only Van Sant never plays them for laughs. They cut through the film, their absurd unreality somehow realer than what’s been going on in the film.

To Die For is about cable access weatherperson Nicole Kidman seducing a teenage boy (Joaquin Phoenix) to kill her husband (Matt Dillon). The first act of the movie covers the basic setup and then how Kidman and Dillon got together and how their families clash. Dillon’s Italian, Kidman’s a WASP. It’s quite wonderfully never clear what attracted Kidman to Dillon. Apparently she really did “go wild” for him, but then he got in the way of her career. In addition to her nightly weather duties, Kidman’s making a documentary about local teenagers, including Phoenix. Once Dillon decides it’s time for Kidman to start popping out babies—he gave her a year—well, Kidman starts having sex (apparently a lot of sex, which isn’t initially clear and adds a bunch of layers to things in hindsight) with Phoenix, the end plan being getting Phoenix to kill Dillon.

The film almost entirely shows Kidman’s planning the murder from Phoenix and Alison Folland’s perspectives. Folland is one of the other teenagers in the documentary. Kidman’s documentary, not the pseudo-documentary narrative device. Casey Affleck is the third kid. Folland just wants a friend, Phoenix is in love, Affleck is an ass. They’re all poor, all neglected or abused, all dumb. Affleck gets assigned the project (by Henry, who cameos as their school teacher), but Folland and Phoenix sign up. They’re the only two in the class who don’t see Kidman is a little too much. There’s something clearly off about her.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, that off is she’s an undiagnosed sociopath, something no one suspects—including her—because her parents have spoiled her for so long. Their pampering of Kidman hid it, which the film momentarily and brilliantly addresses when Kidman freaks out dad Kurtwood Smith, who until then seems like it’s completely aware of her peculiar personality. Kidman’s obsessed with wanting to be a newscaster, which motivates every action until she realizes she doesn’t have to be a newscaster to be famous. It’s another of the film’s awesome little character development moments, when Van Sant and Henry reveal they’ve been discreetly layering in an arc, using the pseudo-documentary structure to give it some extra kick. Sometimes for humor (not laughs, humor), sometimes just because.

There are seven concurrent narrative layers. They all take place sometime after the events. There’s Illeana Douglas (as Dillon’s sister who always knew Kidman was bad news); she’s being interview for a documentary. There’s Phoenix in prison. There’s Folland not in prison. Then there’s the parents on a daytime talk show—just the straight talk show footage—Smith and Holland Taylor as Kidman’s parents, Dan Hedaya and Maria Tucci as Dillon’s. Susan Traylor plays Kidman’s sister, who never has anything to say but always has this knowing look. There’s Wayne Knight as Kidman’s boss at the TV station. Then there are the flashbacks. And, finally, there’s Kidman narrating to the camera.

Only she’s not confessing so her material is very different. The reality she presents is very different from what we see transpire. Maybe it’s never clear with Taylor, but Smith seems to know Kidman’s guilty.

Listing the best performances in the film is basically just like listing the cast. Kidman and Phoenix are both phenomenal. And even though they have a bunch of scenes together and Kidman’s manipulating him and Phoenix is bewitched, their character arcs are entirely separate and so are their performances. They don’t have “chemistry” because it’s not possible for them to have it in those conditions. Folland’s great. Douglas is great. Knight’s great. Smith’s great. Affleck, Dillon, Hedaya, Taylor, Tucci; they’re all good. They just can’t compare. They don’t get the material, though there’s always this implicit material. Like Traylor’s looks, whatever they mean.

Good photography from Eric Alan Edwards, good production design from Missy Stewart, perfectly matched Danny Elfman score (it’s a constant, emotive, supportive but never ambitious score). To Die For’s technicals excel. Everything about it excels, especially Kidman, especially Phoenix, especially Van Sant, and especially Henry.

It’s gang busters.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Gus Van Sant; screenplay by Buck Henry, based on the novel by Joyce Maynard; director of photography, Eric Alan Edwards; edited by Curtiss Clayton; production designer, Missy Stewart; music by Danny Elfman; produced by Laura Ziskin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Nicole Kidman (Suzanne Stone), Joaquin Phoenix (Jimmy Emmett), Alison Folland (Lydia Mertz), Casey Affleck (Russel Hines), Illeana Douglas (Janice Maretto), Wayne Knight (Ed Grant), Kurtwood Smith (Earl Stone), Holland Taylor (Carol Stone), Dan Hedaya (Joe Maretto), Maria Tucci (Angela Maretto), Susan Traylor (Faye Stone), Tim Hopper (Mike Warden), Michael Rispoli (Ben DeLuca), Gerry Quigley (George), Buck Henry (Mr. H. Finlaysson), and Matt Dillon (Larry Maretto).


The Master (2012, Paul Thomas Anderson)

It would be wrong to call The Master a self-indulgent masterpiece, as it’s not a masterpiece (except maybe for Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s photography and Mark Bridges’s costumes… oh, and the sound design) but it’s also not self-indulgent. Anderson shows no personality until the end credits, when he sends shouts out to family members. Well, I guess that inclusion does qualify as self-indulgent (or worse).

The Master actually isn’t easy to talk about. There’s a purple elephant in the room as far as a twist and I don’t want to give it away. Not to say I want anyone else to suffer through the film–and especially not the end credits–but it’d just be mean. I will say Anderson does blatantly rip off a rather famous line from Midnight Run. It’s for one of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s scenes. Their scenes are usually pretty good. Hoffman’s absolutely wonderful in the film. His performance doesn’t make up for the rest of it, but he does distract from it.

As for Phoenix, it’s hard to say. Anderson’s got him limping, got him walking around with a distinctive hands-on-his-hips look, got him talking with a jaw injury… And I haven’t even mentioned Phoenix looking forty-five but playing a guy in his mid-to-late twenties.

Amy Adams has the next biggest part. She’s so affected, Phoenix looks like he’s giving a natural performance.

The Master‘s a bloated mess of self-important, faux profundity.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; director of photography, Mihai Malaimare Jr.; edited by Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty; music by Jonny Greenwood; production designers, David Crank and Jack Fisk; produced by Anderson, Megan Ellison, Daniel Lupi and JoAnne Sellar; released by The Weinstein Company.

Starring Joaquin Phoenix (Freddie Quell), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Lancaster Dodd), Amy Adams (Peggy Dodd), Laura Dern (Helen Sullivan), Ambyr Childers (Elizabeth Dodd), Jesse Plemons (Val Dodd), Rami Malek (Clark), Lena Endre (Mrs. Solstad), Madisen Beaty (Doris Solstad) and Kevin J. O’Connor (Bill William).


Parenthood (1989, Ron Howard)

I’m trying to find a synonym for genial… excuse me a moment. I like the look of gregarious, but the definition doesn’t fit. Convivial is going to be the compromise word. Parenthood is convivial. Somehow, Howard and company manage to convince the viewer to be touched by the movie’s events, but not to give them enough thought to realize how contrived and unrealistic the situations get. It’s kind of brilliant in a way–Ganz and Mandel don’t exactly mature their humor of the early 1980s, but they add parental responsibility to it. To some degree it works. Parenthood is a pleasant, if too long and too saccharine, experience.

But it fails in some special ways. For instance, I think I remembered, while watching, Keanu Reeves’s character’s name and only because Dianne Wiest says it so many times. The rest of the characters, the names sound kind of familiar, but I could never do a lineup. It’s the Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen family or the Dianne Wiest family or the Rick Moranis. Howard cast very recognizable people. The two least recognizable main cast members–Tom Hulce and Harley Jane Kozak, are the only ones recognizable because of their characters. Even so, a lot of the acting is excellent. Wiest, Martin, Steenburgen… actually almost everyone is good. Except Hulce. Hulce is terrible. So’s Joaquin Phoenix, showing youth and a different name do not a better actor make. Hulce and Phoenix’s scenes get painful at times, taking the onus off Reeves, who isn’t good, but at least has a few solid moments. Jason Robards has some great scenes, but the movie–the problem with it–is there aren’t enough. There aren’t enough scenes with Robards and Martin together, since the movie blames Robards for all of Martin’s problems. There aren’t enough–really any, the funny grandmother (Helen Shaw is a lot of fun), gets more scenes–with Eileen Ryan. She’s mother to main cast, wife to Robards, but takes a backseat to everything. At best, she gets a few extra seconds of screen time being mortified at having an interracial grandkid. At best. There’s literally nothing for her to do in the movie, which probably speaks volumes if anyone wants to stop and listen.

Howard’s direction is only distinctive in tone–look, he’s found a way to make a very special episode of a sitcom into a two hour movie–not in composition, certainly not in direction of actors. Hulce and Phoenix strain the suspension of disbelief, particularly Hulce. Phoenix, though atrocious, at least has the excuse of playing the weakest character in the script. It’s cheap and obvious, but passable.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Howard; screenplay by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, based on a story by Ganz, Mandel and Howard; director of photography, Donald McAlpine; edited by Mike Hill and Daniel P. Hanley; music by Randy Newman; production designer, Todd Hallowell; produced by Brian Grazer; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Steve Martin (Gil Buckman), Dianne Wiest (Helen Buckman), Mary Steenburgen (Karen Buckman), Jason Robards (Frank Buckman), Rick Moranis (Nathan Huffner), Tom Hulce (Larry Buckman), Martha Plimpton (Julie Buckman), Keanu Reeves (Tod Higgins), Harley Jane Kozak (Susan Buckman), Joaquin Phoenix (Garry Buckman-Lampkin), Eileen Ryan (Marilyn Buckman) and Helen Shaw (Grandma).


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