John Cusack

The Thin Red Line (1998, Terrence Malick)

The Thin Red Line is about fear, beauty, solitude, loneliness. Director Malick’s approach is, frankly, staggering. Thin Red Line is an odd film to talk about because in most ways, it’s my favorite film. One of the great things about a good movie–not even an excellent or an amazing movie, but a good movie (and quite a few bad ones)–is being able to return to it as one matures, learns, comprehends and to appreciate it on additional levels. Returning to Thin Red Line for the first time in many years, I discovered it works in all those ways. Knowing more about film informs it, knowing more about history informs it, knowing more about narrative informs it, knowing more about owls informs it. Film is not static. Film ages with everything else. It grows, it contracts, it makes people laugh at the wrong moment. Malick acknowledges the film’s majesty. He does not give Nick Nolte a big part as a blowhard because he isn’t acknowledging the perfection in that casting choice. He does it because Nolte can do this part and he can make it phenomenal.

So much of the film is about the acting but not the actors. Malick doesn’t let the viewer identify with the characters by actor, rather by emotional impact. The film has frequent–often constant–narration from a variety of characters. I don’t even think the main narrator is ever identified, not for sure, because the viewer is the main narrator. He or she goes through the film as presented, through the fear, through the beauty, the solitude, the loneliness, and comes to this conclusion. To the film’s conclusion.

Or the narrator is just John Dee Smith. Though, if Smith is the narrator, Malick manages to turn the viewer into a Southern boy with an abusive stepfather and bad teeth, because there’s no difference. Malick doesn’t use characters in that manner. Even with Ben Chaplin’s officer turned private, whose entire internal life is about his wife back home, his details aren’t as important as how he reacts with them in frame. Because Thin Red Line isn’t some grand, sweeping melodrama, it’s an intensely focused, intensely personal film, emphasis on the film. Malick’s far more in the Eisenstein school of collision–basically how the presentation of shots and their editing, not necessarily their content, can be used to create emotion in the viewer–than something like David Lean or anyone else. It’s a lyrical assault.

Only Malick is using the content. He’s using the visual content of these beautiful, tropical Eden. He’s using the narrative content of a war movie. He’s using the audial content of the narrators. And he collides them, he separates them, he compares them. Thin Red Line is like going to an island of World War II reenactors and taking acid. And you’re invisible. And everyone looks like a famous person. Malick is speaking directly to the viewer and creating this setting for the viewer’s personal edification.

Malick strips the community out of The Thin Red Line. The way he structures the first act, the way he structures the first half–he’s removing the viewer’s sense of community, sense of stability. It’s far more personal. The poetic narration, separated so much from the characters or the setting, engages with the viewer. Malick is using the narrative content to echo the emotions created by the film’s visuals. Pardon my passive voice.

This sort of tempo isn’t unique to the film or to Malick. It’s the rhythm of good filmmaking. But Malick is playing different music and getting the same emotional beats. He’s got two movies playing side by side, one top of one another, completely transparent. And they’re jointly the film.

Like I said.

Staggering.

Malick gets some phenomenal performances out of his cast. Nolte, Chaplin, top-billed Sean Penn, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok, John Cusack’s great in his small role. Woody Harrelson too. Though differently.

And then there’s Jim Caviezel. He doesn’t exactly play the film’s lead, but he does play the character who the audience spends the film trying to understand. It’s not clear if Malick thinks Caviezel’s the most interesting guy around; the film’s pretty even between Caviezel, Chaplin and then Nolte and Koteas in the stuff of epical importance. Oh, and then Mihok. He’s got a fairly large part.

But Malick posits he is showing the viewer the world through Caviezel’s character’s perspective. Not his eyes. His perspective (which allows for subplots). And Malick uses that particular perspective with the visual aspects of the film. The narrative level is far looser; Malick’s ability to naturally follow Caviezel around, especially as he inserts himself into the story, is skillful filmmaking. Malick, Caviezel, the other actors, the editors, they do a great job.

The editors are real important for Thin Red Line. Leslie Jones, Saar Klein, Billy Weber. The cuts in the film are sublime. The editors understand Malick’s narrative needs–for example, introducing the characters to the viewer–but also the need to actively force the viewer to make his or her own connections. Thin Red Line has a steep learning curve and unforgiving blind corners.

(Sorry, I needed a good mixed metaphor).

The first time I saw The Thin Red Line, I saw it again immediately following. Opening night. Returning to it over fifteen years later, I’m terrified at the prospective of an immediate rewatch. It’s too much. I like it too much. The Thin Red Line is my Nietzschean abyss. I just can’t too much.

This time watching it–I’d forgotten a lot–I really noticed the change in the weather. The clouds moving across the soldiers. That detail pulled me in. And I can see the film doing it, beckoning me, but it doesn’t matter. Creating something so focused, so controlled, yet so open, so welcoming… it’s just another amazing part of the film and Malick’s filmmaking here.

I also noticed, this time, Caviezel’s character has a Japanese alter ego.

Wonder what I’ll notice next time.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Terrence Malick; screenplay by Malick, based on the novel by James Jones; director of photography, John Toll; edited by Billy Weber, Saar Klein and Leslie Jones; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Jack Fisk; produced by Robert Michael Geisler, John Roberdeau and Grant Hill; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Sean Penn (First Sgt. Edward Welsh), John Travolta (Barr), James Caviezel (Private Witt), Adrien Brody (Corporal Fife), Elias Koteas (Capt. James Staros), Nick Nolte (Lieut. Col. Gordon Tall), Ben Chaplin (Private Bell), Dash Mihok (Private First Class Doll), Arie Verveen (Private Dale), David Harrod (Corporal Queen), John C. Reilly (Mess Sergeant Storm), John Cusack (Capt. John Gaff), Larry Romano (Private Mazzi), Tim Blake Nelson (Private Tills), Woody Harrelson (Staff Sergeant Keck), George Clooney (Capt. Charles Bosche) and John Savage (McCron).


Bullets Over Broadway (1994, Woody Allen)

Bullets Over Broadway has a lot going for it. Between Chazz Palminteri, Jennifer Tilly and Dianne Wiest, there’s a lot of great acting and great moments. There are a decided lack of great scenes, however, thanks to director Allen’s choice of John Cusack as leading man. Cusack doesn’t so much give a performance as imitate Woody Allen, though not all of the time. Occasionally he gives an overly affected performance and comes off as mocking the material. As opposed to Wiest, who gives an overly affected performance and embraces the material.

There are also some big writing problems, like the narration. For whatever reason, Allen and co-writer Douglas McGrath go with some useless narration from Cusack to show time progressing. There are a half dozen better devices they could have used, but if Cusack’s performance of the narration weren’t terrible, it might work a little better. But a lot of it is on Allen, especially the moronic ending, which relies entirely on the nonexistent chemistry between Cusack and girlfriend Mary-Louise Parker.

There’s some really nice supporting work from Jim Broadbent. Some okay support from Joe Viterelli and Tracey Ullman. Not so good supporting work from Jack Warden. He and Cusack’s scenes together are particularly bad.

The best thing about Bullets is Allen’s matter-of-fact presentation of violence. It’s simultaneously shocking and mundane, as opposed to the film itself, which oscillates between mundane and annoying. It does move pretty well though. The good acting moves it right along.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Woody Allen; written by Allen and Douglas McGrath; director of photography, Carlo Di Palma; edited by Susan E. Morse; production designer, Santo Loquasto; produced by Robert Greenhut; released by Miramax Films.

Starring John Cusack (David Shayne), Chazz Palminteri (Cheech), Dianne Wiest (Helen Sinclair), Jennifer Tilly (Olive Neal), Tracey Ullman (Eden Brent), Jim Broadbent (Warner Purcell), Jack Warden (Julian Marx), Joe Viterelli (Nick Valenti), Mary-Louise Parker (Ellen), Harvey Fierstein (Sid Loomis) and Rob Reiner (Sheldon Flender).


One Crazy Summer (1986, Savage Steve Holland)

When Demi Moore gives a film’s best performance, it’s obviously not a good film.

One Crazy Summer is apparently Holland’s attempt at doing a zany teen vacation picture. It’s the kind of movie “USA Up All Night” wouldn’t have bothered playing because it’s too boring. But the real problem isn’t the lack of cheap explotation, it’s Holland’s inability to direct actors.

Or maybe to cast them. It’s hard to say.

Holland opens the film with pseudo-protagonist John Cusack. He’s apparently floundering post-high school because he isn’t a basketball superstar. But Holland never sets up why anyone would think Cusack would be good at basketball. It’s like a repeated punchline without a joke.

But Summer quickly becomes about everyone but Cusack (who romances Moore, eventually, because she’s the only principal female character and all the other guys are meant to be losers). Holland fills it with absurd characters and gives them absurd dialogue, but then either casts bad actors or doesn’t direct them.

Holland is really inept. Bobcat Goldthwait, doing his schtick, isn’t as bad as Joel Murray as Cusack’s sidekick. Murray’s presence makes it somewhat unbelievable One Crazy Summer got a theatrical release, much less Cusack and Moore to sign on. Murray can’t even raise an eyebrow believably.

Also terrible are Bruce Wagner, Matt Mulhern, Joe Flaherty and Mark Metcalf. Some of the problem is probably Holland’s bad script and direction, but still….

Curtis Armstrong is actually pretty good.

The film’s complete indifference to sincerity hurts it immeasurably.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Savage Steve Holland; director of photography, Isidore Mankofsky; edited by Alan Balsam; music by Cory Lerios; production designer, Herman F. Zimmerman; produced by Michael Jaffe; released by Warner Bros.

Starring John Cusack (Hoops McCann), Demi Moore (Cassandra Eldridge), Curtis Armstrong (Ack Ack Raymond), Bobcat Goldthwait (Egg Stork), Joel Murray (George Calamari), William Hickey (Old Man Beckerstead), Joe Flaherty (General Raymond), Mark Metcalf (Aquilla Beckerstead), John Matuszak (Stan), Kimberly Foster (Cookie Campbell), Matt Mulhern (Teddy Beckerstead), Rich Little (Radio contest DJ), Tom Villard (Clay Stork), Jeremy Piven (Ty), Rich Hall (Wilbur, Gas station attendant), Taylor Negron (Taylor, Gas station attendant), Billie Bird (Grandma Calamari) and Bruce Wagner (Uncle Frank).


Con Air (1997, Simon West), the extended edition

I loathed Con Air back when I first saw it. I’ve only seen it that one time, opening night thirteen years ago. And many of my complaints at the time still hold true–Nicolas Cage is awful, John Cusack is awful (worse, his jokes fall flat), Simon West is a terrible director (but thirteen years later he’s not as bad as the mainstream directors who’ve followed) and the music is bad. All those complaints do hold true. The writing’s really bad in parts too, mostly as how it relates to Cage and his wife. Monica Potter plays the wife.

But it’s a whole lot of fun to watch John Malkovich go crazy as a poorly written bad guy. Malkovich is so good chewing up the scenery here, I realized him never getting to play Lex Luthor is one of the great Hollywood tragedies. I don’t know if he had fun here, but it sure seems like it.

The supporting cast is mostly impeccable–I haven’t seen one of these Bruckheimer super-cast movies in a while–except Colm Meaney. Meaney is awful.

But Ving Rhames, Mykelti Williamson, Rachel Ticotin and M.C. Gainey? They’re all amazing. Or Steve Buscemi, charged with making a Dahmer-like serial killer likable? Buscemi practically makes the movie on his own.

One of the other big failures is the CG and the composite shots. And the hair. Cage’s extensions look ridiculous and Cusack looks like he refused to cut his hair so they greased it back.

It’s diverting Hollywood junk food.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Simon West; written by Scott Rosenberg; director of photography, David Tattersall; edited by Chris Lebenzon, Steve Mirkovich and Glen Scantlebury; music by Mark Mancina and Trevor Rabin; produced by Jerry Bruckheimer; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Nicolas Cage (Cameron Poe), John Cusack (U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin), John Malkovich (Cyrus ‘The Virus’ Grissom), Ving Rhames (Nathan ‘Diamond Dog’ Jones), Nick Chinlund (William ‘Billy Bedlam’ Bedford), Steve Buscemi (Garland ‘The Marietta Mangler’ Greene), Colm Meaney (DEA Agent Duncan Malloy), Rachel Ticotin (Guard Sally Bishop), Dave Chappelle (Joe ‘Pinball’ Parker), Mykelti Williamson (Mike ‘Baby-O’ O’Dell), Danny Trejo (Johnny ‘Johnny-23’ Baca), M.C. Gainey (Swamp Thing), Steve Eastin (Guard Falzon), Renoly Santiago (Ramon ‘Sally-Can’t Dance’ Martinez) and Monica Potter (Tricia Poe).


Runaway Jury (2003, Gary Fleder)

I thought there were no anti-conservative Hollywood films for a long while after 9/11, so I guess Runaway Jury went under the radar. It appears to have been a significant bomb and, watching it, it seemed strange to see John Grisham’s name on screen. It’s been a long time since adaptations of his novels have been blockbusters… about as long as it’s been since Michael Crichton’s name was on blockbusters.

Runaway Jury went under my radar because I figured it wasn’t going to be very good and it isn’t. The plot’s unbelievable and annoying in its false complexity. Director Fleder and his four credited screenwriters play it like Coppola never succeeded in making Grisham good with The Rainmaker and… eh. Fleder is a mediocre director. His composition isn’t bad, he likes dumb editing and he shoots New Orleans poorly. Someone had a New Orleans guide book for the shoot and Fleder barely let the city, it being one of significant character, do anything. There’s more personality from the city in the background dialogue than in Fleder’s shots. But he’s not as bad as I assumed.

The acting is questionable. Dustin Hoffman can’t keep his New Orleans accent, Gene Hackman is playing a goofy bad guy from one of his 1990s movies–though the scene with Hoffman is nice, since Hackman lets loose with some Lex Luthor style fun lunacy (even though Hoffman just stands there). John Cusack is fine, playing John Cusack once again. Rachel Weisz is okay, if occasionally dubious in her emoting.

The best thing about Runaway Jury is the supporting cast–Guy Torry, Luis Guzmán, Nick Searcy, Cliff Curtis, Bill Nunn, Leland Orser and Bruce McGill. Joanna Going suffers from a bad accent as well. The supporting cast almost makes Jury feel like it’s a big event movie (like The Rainmaker). Almost.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Gary Fleder; written by Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Rick Cleveland and Matthew Chapman, based on the novel by John Grisham; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by William Steinkamp; music by Christopher Young; production designer, Nelson Coates; produced by Arnon Milchan, Fleder and Christopher Mankiewicz; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring John Cusack (Nicholas Easter), Gene Hackman (Rankin Fitch), Dustin Hoffman (Wendell Rohr), Rachel Weisz (Marlee), Bruce Davison (Durwood Cable), Bruce McGill (Judge Harkin), Jeremy Piven (Lawrence Green), Nick Searcy (Doyle), Stanley Anderson (Henry Jankle), Cliff Curtis (Frank Herrera), Nestor Serrano (Janovich), Leland Orser (Lamb), Luiz Guzmán (Jerry Hernandez), Jennifer Beals (Vanessa Lembeck), Gerry Bamman (Herman Grimes), Joanna Going (Celeste Wood), Bill Nunn (Lonnie Shaver), Juanita Jennings (Loreen Duke), Marguerite Moreau (Amanda Monroe), Nora Dunn (Stella Hulic), Guy Torry (Eddie Weese) and Rusty Schwimmer (Millie Dupree).


The Ice Harvest (2005, Harold Ramis)

In the few reviews of The Ice Harvest I looked at before renting the DVD, the reviewers all called John Cusack’s lawyer character dumb. Watching the film, however, I noticed John Cusack was doing what he always does… playing John Cusack. So, I didn’t really see his character as stupid (I was trying to read so much into those reviews, I was actually questioning what the reviewers must have thought he should do scene to scene–but only for a little while, it got distracting). I queued The Ice Harvest this week because I’d forgotten about it. A film written by Robert Benton and Richard Russo, it’s of a particular pedigree. Harold Ramis seems an odd choice for a director, given I expected the Benton and Russo script to be incredibly quiet… and The Ice Harvest is incredibly quiet. More happens in the first fifteen minutes or so than in the rest of the movie, just because Cusack drives to more places in that time. But Ramis handles it quite beautifully. I was halfway through the film before I noticed just how good of a job he does.

Instead of being a heist at Christmas gone wrong (which is actually The Ref, isn’t it?), The Ice Harvest defines itself in the scenes between Cusack and Oliver Platt as a (quiet) rumination on the state of the American male. It’s almost a modern Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Platt’s excellent, of course, so’s Cusack (playing himself) and the rest of the cast is good. Billy Bob Thorton’s good, with the most laughs in the film. Randy Quaid, Ned Bellamy, Mike Starr, all good. The only problem with The Ice Harvest–besides its lack of focus, which is probably more serious than the following–is Connie Nielsen. Nielsen’s awful. She couldn’t sell shampoo, much less play a femme fatale. Her scenes drag The Ice Harvest to a halt–and at a fast-paced ninety minutes, it’s a hard thing to do. When it started and she showed up and was terrible, I really hoped it wasn’t Connie Nielsen. Maybe the character was just a throwaway, certainly not the third-billed. But the third-billed it was… She practically haunts the whole movie.

Overall, I’m really sorry I waited so long to see The Ice Harvest. I intended to see it in the theater, but never made it. Its quietness amid some really smarmy, loud settings makes it peculiar but still a very worthwhile film. It also has a nice lack of predictability thing going.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Harold Ramis; written by Richard Russo and Robert Benton, based on the novel by Scott Phillips; director of photography, Alar Kivilo; edited by Lee Percy; music by David Kitay; production designer, Patrizia von Brandenstein; produced by Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa; released by Focus Features.

Starring John Cusack (Charlie), Billy Bob Thornton (Vic), Connie Nielsen (Renata), Randy Quaid (Bill Guerrard), Oliver Platt (Pete) and Mike Starr (Roy).


Sixteen Candles (1984, John Hughes)

I enjoy throwing odd ones up occasionally, whether they’re inexplicable (Transporter 2) or heavily based in nostalgia (any Godzilla film). Sixteen Candles is somewhat both, though renting it was the fiancée’s idea. My freshman year of college, I did one of my presentation on racism in John Hughes’ films. Sixteen Candles has some great examples–not just the Chinese exchange student frequently referred to as “the Chinaman,” and played by the obviously ethnically Japanese Gedde Watanabe–it also makes fun of the physically handicapped. Great stuff there. I also remember it being one of my favorite Hughes films. It’s hard to have a favorite Hughes film because none of them are any good, but after this viewing, I think I can safely say Sixteen Candles is my favorite. In fact, it’s the only one I’d watch again.

Immediately after this film, Hughes started infusing his films with social commentary (usually about the poor boy and the rich girl or the poor girl and the rich boy) and it was pretty bad. For the first half of Sixteen Candles, I was going to decry Hughes as the forebear of shitty Hollywood story structure. Molly Ringwald–the lead of the film–disappears for about twenty minutes, maybe more, and the film’s only ninety minutes long. In her absence, there are these great scenes with Michael Schoeffling and Anthony Michael Hall–and I realized why I liked Sixteen Candles so much. The film makes no claims at reality–it speaks directly to the viewer on a few occasions, something Hughes later milked in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off–and there’s no real dramatic tension. It’s an incredibly light comedy and taken as such, it’s a pleasant diversion.

Oddly (given National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation), Sixteen Candles fails the most in the simple family situation. Hughes doesn’t know what to do–he gives Ringwald an asshole little brother and a doped-up sister. He can’t even give Paul Dooley anything to do. Ringwald holds a lot of the film together, but it’s Schoeffling and Hall who really have the most to do. I’d never been particularly impressed by Hall–never had any idea why, for instance, Kubrick wanted him for Full Metal Jacket–but he does a good job in an impossible role. His character completely changes–in the viewer’s perception–in a six or seven minute scene. It’s good work. Schoeffling never really went anywhere. However, according to one website, endless numbers of baby boys born in the mid-1980s were named Jake after his character. He has even more impossible role of being the perfect guy and turns it into a deep performance. There’s none of that serious Hughes teen angst in this one, so the actors aren’t given anything impossible to pull off. Their only job is to make the viewer enjoy the film.

As for Hughes the director… well, Sixteen Candles has got to be his best looking film. The cinematography is incredibly lush in this one. It’s not as far removed as Technicolor, instead a welcoming, idealized reality (there’s also little damaging violence inflicted on the film’s many “geeks,” another bit of that idealization).

Sixteen Candles is not a great film. Even without the bigotry, there’s the incredible shallowness. However, it’s acceptance of that shallowness is exactly what makes it an enjoyable experience.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by John Hughes; director of photography, Bobby Byrne; edited by Edward Warschilka; music by Ira Newborn; produced by Hilton A. Green; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Molly Ringwald (Samantha Baker), Justin Henry (Mike Baker), Michael Schoeffling (Jake Ryan), Haviland Morris (Caroline Mulford), Gedde Watanabe (Long Duk Dong), Anthony Michael Hall (The Geek), Paul Dooley (Jim Baker), Carlin Glynn (Brenda Baker), Blanche Baker (Ginny Baker), Edward Andrews (Howard Baker), Billie Bird (Dorothy Baker), Carole Cook (Grandma Helen), Max Showalter (Grandpa Fred), Liane Alexandra Curtis (Randy), John Cusack (Bryce) and Darren Harris (Cliff).


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