Joe Mantegna

The Quiet Room (1993, Steven Soderbergh)

The Quiet Room really, really, really, relies on its twist. The ending is really predictable too; like, director Soderbergh and writer Howard A. Rodman do way too well on the foreshadowing. Because Room is a slightly exaggerated noir–part of the “Fallen Angels” TV anthology–nothing really needs to be foreshadowed. There’s a twist Soderbergh and Rodman set up in the first third, the end just delivers on it in an extreme way. Two twists for the price (or time) of one.

By the last third, when it’s just the countdown to the reveal, both lead performances softly crater. Soderbergh makes sure the lovely Emmanuel Lubezki and luscious Armin Ganz production design slow the descent. But the descent is inevitable because it’s just a noir TV anthology episode. With a source short story. And a somewhat salacious twist, at least as far as noir goes; if Quiet Room were going for homage, it might work better. Instead, it tries to be something different.

Joe Mantegna and Bonnie Bedelia are dirty cops. They’re having a love affair, which no one knows about; besides them, the only significant character is Mantegna’s teenage daughter, Vinessa Shaw (in the most important performance and the consistently worst). Mantegna is a single dad, out all hours because he and Bedelia have a shakedown racket going. Bedelia collars prostitutes and then beats information out of them about their johns so Mantegna can go and shake down the johns. Peter Gallagher has what seems like a great cameo as one of them, but then J.E. Freeman is one of the other ones and he’s freaking amazing in a much smaller role. Freeman walks away with the whole thing. Especially given how it finishes up.

Mantegna is mostly all right. He really whiffs when he needs to make it work. Bedelia’s better. Neither of them get good roles though. It’s all about Freeman though, performance-wise.

Soderbergh’s direction is fine. He’s got a handful of nice shots and does well with the actors. Sometimes well with the actors. There’s only so much to do with the script, especially as it starts barreling towards the inevitable conclusion. Soderbergh doesn’t do anything to slow its descent, much less stop it.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Soderbergh; teleplay by Howard A. Rodman, based on a short story by Frank E. Smith; “Fallen Angels” created by William Horberg; director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki; edited by Stan Salfas; music by Peter Bernstein; production designer, Armin Ganz; produced by Horberg, Lindsay Doran and Steve Golin; released by Showtime Networks.

Starring Joe Mantegna (Carl Streeter), Bonnie Bedelia (Sally Creighton), Vinessa Shaw (Jeannie Streeter), Patrick Breen (Doc), J.E. Freeman (Johnny Cabe), and Peter Gallagher (Dr. Yorgrau).


Liberty Heights (1999, Barry Levinson)

Liberty Heights is about protagonist Ben Foster's last year in high school. Levinson never puts it in such simple terms because the film is about quiet, deliberate, but perceivable life events. Every moment in the film's memorable because Levinson is going through these people's memorable moments of the year. Of course, he never forecasts the film will take place over a year. Heights is an epical story, lyrically told.

Levinson splits the film primarily between Foster and Adrien Brody, as his older brother. But Joe Mantegna, as their father, and Orlando Jones, as Mantenga's business antagonist, also get some of the individual focus. So Levinson, along with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, editor Stu Linder and composer Andrea Morricone have to figure out how to identify these moments for the characters. Through the sound, the light, everything has to be perfect because of Levinson's approach.

It seems like a precarious approach–to set up a film to only have intense scenes; even scenes with Foster watching television or Brody talking to a friend, they all have to be intense in some way or another. Morricone's score is gorgeous and exuberant, but Levinson also uses contemporary popular music to get the scenes done too.

The performances are essential. Foster, Brody, Jones. All three are phenomenal. Bebe Neuwirth's great as Foster and Brody's mother, Rebekah Johnson is excellent as Foster's friend. The entire supporting cast is perfect.

Heights is simultaneously ambitious in its filmmaking, but also in its sincerity. It never hits a false note.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Barry Levinson; director of photography, Christopher Doyle; edited by Stu Linder; music by Andrea Morricone; production designer, Vincent Peranio; produced by Levinson and Paula Weinstein; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Adrien Brody (Van Kurtzman), Ben Foster (Ben Kurtzman), Rebekah Johnson (Sylvia), David Krumholtz (Yussel), Bebe Neuwirth (Ada Kurtzman), Orlando Jones (Little Melvin), Richard Kline (Charlie), Vincent Guastaferro (Pete), Justin Chambers (Trey Tobelseted), Carolyn Murphy (Dubbie), James Pickens Jr. (Sylvia’s Father), Frania Rubinek (Grandma Rose), Anthony Anderson (Scribbles), Kiersten Warren (Annie the Stripper), Evan Neumann (Sheldon), Kevin Sussman (Alan Joseph Zuckerman), Gerry Rosenthal (Murray), Shane West (Ted) and Joe Mantegna (Nate Kurtzman).


The Money Pit (1986, Richard Benjamin)

Without any subplots–and a running time, sans end credits, less than ninety minutes–it seems likely The Money Pit had some post-production issues. There are a bunch of recognizable character actors–Josh Mostel, Yakov Smirnoff, Joe Mantegna–who show up for a scene or two then disappear. Still, Money Pit is a great example of a (possibly) problematic production working out rather well.

Most of the film belongs to Tom Hanks. While Shelley Long’s along (sorry) for the ride, she doesn’t have much to do until the halfway point. She’s the straight woman to Hanks, who gets to do a lot of physical comedy as they watch their house fall down around them. Often in hilarious scenes.

Long does get the film’s single subplot, involving her ex-husband Alexander Godunov. Besides Hanks giving a great comedic performance, Money Pit is singular because of Godunov. He’s perfect as a self-aware egomaniac. Even when he’s loathsome, he’s likable, a feature the film references a little too much.

There are some great lines in David Giler’s script, though they eventually give way to all physical comedy. Director Benjamin handles both perfectly fine, but he and cinematographer Gordon Willis really excel at the latter. Sadly, editor Jacqueline Cambas besmirches the otherwise fine work of the crew. From the first few scenes, it’s clear Cambas can’t cut a scene well.

The Money Pit sometimes stumbles, but when it’s funny, it’s exceedingly funny. And it’s got an excellent resolution sequence at the finish.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Benjamin; written by David Giler; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by Jacqueline Cambas; music by Michel Colombier; production designer, Patrizia von Brandenstein; produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall and Art Levinson; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Tom Hanks (Walter Fielding Jr.), Shelley Long (Anna Crowley), Alexander Godunov (Max Beissart, the Maestro), Maureen Stapleton (Estelle), Joe Mantegna (Art Shirk), Philip Bosco (Curly), Josh Mostel (Jack Schnittman), Yakov Smirnoff (Shatov), Carmine Caridi (Brad Shirk), Tetchie Agbayani (Florinda Fielding) and Douglass Watson (Walter Fielding Sr.).


Three Amigos (1986, John Landis)

Three Amigos is beautifully made. Whether it’s the silent era Hollywood scenes at the opening, the silent movie in the movie, or the Western the film quickly becomes… it all looks fantastic. Landis even brings in the singing cowboy genre–the scene with the animals accompanying the song is wonderful. The locations desire some credit, but it’s primarily Landis and cinematographer Ronald W. Browne. Amigos‘s style goes a long way towards its success.

The film frequently has stretches without a laugh, at times even deviating to ominous and disturbing. The excellent performances make up for the lazy pace.

Oddly, co-writer, executive producer and top-billed actor Steve Martin is not one of them. Martin is good, but he’s in the middle of a trio of numbskulls. Chevy Chase has more to do as the idiot of the bunch and Martin Short gives the best performance of the three as the secretly intelligent one.

But the best performances in the film are from Alfonso Arau and Tony Plana. Arau is the bad guy and Plana’s his head stooge. From his first frame, Arau is likable. He and Plana get better writing than the three leads, if only because they’re morons. The most successful moments for Martin, Chase and Short tend to be gags.

Joe Mantegna shows up for a hilarious small part, as does Fred Asparagus. Kai Wulff is good as the scary German aviator.

Amigos isn’t great, but it’s pretty darn good. Though Elmer Bernstein’s score is tiresome.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Landis; written by Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels and Randy Newman; director of photography, Ronald W. Browne; edited by Malcolm Campbell; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, Richard Tom Sawyer; produced by George Folsey Jr. and Michaels; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Steve Martin (Lucky Day), Chevy Chase (Dusty Bottoms), Martin Short (Ned Nederlander), Alfonso Arau (El Guapo), Tony Plana (Jefe), Patrice Martinez (Carmen), Philip Gordon (Rodrigo), Kai Wulff (German), Fred Asparagus (Bartender), Jon Lovitz (Morty), Phil Hartman (Sam) and Joe Mantegna (Harry Flugleman).


House of Games (1987, David Mamet)

House of Games is a very small film, but Mamet and cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía manage to make it appear a lot bigger. When there’s no one in a shot, in a public place, except a principal, Mamet makes it seem stylistic instead of budgetary. It’s only during the final fifteen minutes, when there’s a near empty airport—sure, it’s the middle of the night, but it’s still too empty—does it become clear the film’s just economical and it’s not style.

The film, about a psychiatrist who finds herself drawn to some lowlifes, is also about deception. It all works out in that sense. Still, once Mamet fully unveils House of Games, the whole thing collapses. He writes himself into a hole and can’t get out—possibly because it’s such a predictable plot. There are no surprises.

There’s a lot of excellent acting. Lindsay Crouse, as the psychiatrist, is great for most of the film (she’s the one who the ending fails). Joe Mantegna is the main lowlife she’s interested in and he’s excellent. Mike Nussbaum and Ricky Jay are also excellent. J.T. Walsh isn’t bad, he’s just doing a schtick and the others aren’t.

Mamet’s insistence the plot be the most compelling aspect constrains House of Games. He’s trying to be clever and cute but there’s no emotional connection. Even when she’s good, Crouse cannot connect on that level.

Even the dynamic dialogue fades away. Eventually it becomes so predictable it’s boring. While technically excellent, Games’s rather pointless.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by David Mamet; screenplay by Mamet, based on a story by Jonathan Katz and Mamet; director of photography, Juan Ruiz Anchía; edited by Trudy Ship; music by Alaric Jans; production designer, Michael Merritt; produced by Michael Hausman; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Lindsay Crouse (Margaret Ford), Joe Mantegna (Mike), Ricky Jay (George), Mike Nussbaum (Joey), Lilia Skala (Dr. Maria Littauer), William H. Macy (Sgt. Moran) and J.T. Walsh (The Businessman).


Redbelt (2008, David Mamet)

I was apprehensive about Redbelt–mostly due to the awkward trailers–but it was totally unfounded. The film’s story, Mamet’s narrative, resists being abbreviated or advertised. It’s all very gradual, very quiet, which each scene building on the one previous. It’s probably Mamet’s finest film as a director, his widescreen composition is wonderful–there’s this one shot where Emily Mortimer’s head, in profile, sits in the center of the screen while she talks and it’s exceptional. Also because he forces himself to shut up. Instead of letting characters talk, he brings up Stephen Endelman’s essential score and lets the body language do the work. It’s a David Mamet film where silence is key.

Instead of being a thoughtful, intellectual approach to the karate movie (that long moth-balled genre), Mamet tells a story where the cost of the philosophy–paid so much lip-service in the genre–often outweighs its rewards. Actually, for much of Redbelt, it’s hard to see where there’s any reward, but Mamet manages to show it and does it in an amazing, big, booming Hollywood way and turns in it in perfectly. Redbelt, at times, reminded me of Ghost Dog, but told straight.

Mamet does get to do the rousing fight scene here and it might be, given the importance in the story and for the protagonist, the best fight scene ever in a film. It’s not the most visually dynamic, but the gravity of it… the following will sound a little glib, but Mamet also might have made the best superhero movie ever here too.

The cast hurts nothing. Obviously, Chiwetel Ejiofor turns in an outstanding, amazing performance, but he always seems to turn in those performances so it’s no surprise. There’s a great scene, Mortimer’s first class at the jujitsu academy, where Ejiofor just sits there for a moment. It’s a quiet scene, played from Mortimer’s confused perspective, but Ejiofor’s expression alone tells the viewer the answer to her question, before she even asks it. Mortimer’s good too, with Mamet giving her three great big scenes. Alice Braga is also good, even though Mamet intentionally doesn’t give her big scenes. The Mamet Repertory Actors–Ricky Jay, Joe Mantegna and Rebecca Pidgeon–are all good in smaller roles. Tim Allen’s turn as a burning-out Hollywood star is excellent, but it’s some of the unknowns who turn in the most affecting supporting performances. Max Martini has a vocal role and he’s great, but Jose Pablo Cantillo–in a nearly silent role–is almost as good.

Mamet, at his best, can make anything excellent (I always forget he’s a far from prolific director), can turn a genre film into an essential. Redbelt is Mamet at his best.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by David Mamet; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by Barbara Tulliver; music by Stephen Endelman; production designer, David Wasco; produced by Chrisann Verges; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (Mike Terry), Emily Mortimer (Laura Black), Alice Braga (Sondra Terry), Tim Allen (Chet Frank), Jose Pablo Cantillo (Snowflake), Rodrigo Santoro (Bruno Silva), Ricky Jay (Marty Brown), Joe Mantegna (Jerry Weiss), Rebecca Pidgeon (Zena Frank), David Paymer (Richard), Max Martini (Joe Collins) and John Machado (Augusto Silva).


Bugsy (1991, Barry Levinson), the extended cut

It’s amazing what can be done with cinematography and makeup. In Bugsy, specially lighted and caked with makeup, fifty-something Warren Beatty can play late thirties something Ben Siegel, albeit specially lighted and caked in makeup. The lighting is incredibly distracting, particularly in the scenes where Beatty is the only one getting the attempt at age-defying light. It gives the film a bright orange hue and it really doesn’t need any further attention drawn to Levinson’s almost indifference to its place as a period piece. There’s no texture to Bugsy‘s early 1940s Hollywood. It seems like there should be–had the film been shot on sound stages, it would have added a lot.

The problems are pretty simple. It’s boring and unrewarding. Not in the conclusion, but minute-to-minute. Bugsy is about someone who’s a little nuts and his romance with someone who’s either a little nuts, a lot stupid or deceptive and manipulative. The pair–Beatty and Annette Bening–do not make for a charismatic pair. Bening is mediocre at best. Beatty’s best scenes are with Harvey Keitel (who probably gives the film’s best performance as Mickey Cohen), Ben Kingsley (also mediocre, but his writing is better than Bening’s), Joe Mantegna and, in particular, Elliott Gould. I’ll partially retract my Keitel statement–Gould gives the film’s best performance. As Siegel, Beatty really doesn’t have much to do. When the film tries to give some weight to his suffering, it’s desperate.

The real problem, then, is the script. James Toback, little shock, doesn’t write interesting people and he doesn’t write interesting historical fiction. With such unappealing character arcs, all Bugsy has going for it is the chance at being really good historical fiction. It isn’t. The whole film is based on the premise the movie stars are going to make the uninteresting story–I mean, really, a paragraph could summarize the pertinent action in the film–interesting. It’s also based on the premise, but only at the end and somewhat ludicrously, the audience is supposed to be upset mobster Siegel got a raw deal from the mob. Whoop de doo.

If Levinson had pushed and given the film some visual flare… it wouldn’t have done much good. The Ennio Morricone score, which sounds a lot like all of his other scores from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, is a poor fit to the material. It’s distracting and goofy.

Still, it’s a competently made Hollywood vanity project (I don’t know who’s vanity, Beatty’s I guess). But it’s an excruciating two and a half hours.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Barry Levinson; screenplay by James Toback, based on a book by Dean Jennings; director of photography, Allen Daviau; edited by Stu Linder; music by Ennio Morricone; production designer, Dennis Gassner; produced by Levinson, Beatty and Mark Johnson; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring Warren Beatty (Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel), Annette Bening (Virginia Hill), Harvey Keitel (Mickey Cohen), Ben Kingsley (Meyer Lansky), Elliott Gould (Harry Greenberg), Joe Mantegna (George Raft), Richard C. Sarafian (Jack Dragna), Bebe Neuwirth (Countess di Frasso), Gian-Carlo Scandiuzzi (Count di Frasso), Wendy Phillips (Esta Siegel), Stefanie Mason (Millicent Siegel), Kimberly McCullough (Barbara Siegel), Andy Romano (Del Webb), Robert Beltran (Alejandro), Bill Graham (Charlie Luciano) and Lewis Van Bergen (Joey Adonis).


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