Jon Polito

Miller’s Crossing (1990, Joel Coen)

A lot of Miller’s Crossing is left unsaid. Between the hard boiled dialogue disguising character motivations and the lengthy shots of Gabriel Byrne silently reflecting, the Coen Brothers invite examination and rumination. They invite it a little too much.

The film’s a perfect object, whether it’s how the opening titles figure into revealing conversation and to the finish or how the frequent fades to black control the viewer’s consumption of the film. All of the performances are outstanding. Every single moment is supports the whole.

So what’s wrong with it? Too much control. Even the craziness–the film examines violence and the men who perform it–is choreographed. It’s an amazing example of filmmaking, but it’s all surface. All of the layers in Miller’s are baked in, not organic. The story’s too tight. A couple cameos in the second half, along with nods to other Coen pictures, offer some calculated relief.

It’s actually kind of stagy.

There’s also a vague homophobic quality… the closeted (it’s the thirties) gay guys are all misogynist psychopaths to one degree or another.

But it’s a beautifully made, beautifully acted film. Byrne’s great in the lead, Marcia Gay Harden is excellent as the girl who comes between him and friend Albert Finney. Finney gives the film’s boldest performance, having to play a dim tough guy.

Jon Polito’s awesome, J.E. Freeman, John Turturro–like I said before, it’s perfect. It’s confident, it’s thorough.

It just doesn’t add up to as much as if it were messy.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Coen; written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; director of photography, Barry Sonnenfeld; edited by Michael R. Miller; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Dennis Gassner; produced by Ethan Coen; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Gabriel Byrne (Tom Reagan), Marcia Gay Harden (Verna), John Turturro (Bernie Bernbaum), Jon Polito (Johnny Caspar), J.E. Freeman (Eddie Dane), Albert Finney (Leo), Mike Starr (Frankie), Al Mancini (Tic-Tac), Richard Woods (Mayor Dale Levander), Thomas Toner (O’Doole) and Steve Buscemi (Mink).


Highlander (1986, Russell Mulcahy)

Almost nothing in Highlander works. There’s the maniac driving scene at the end, that one works pretty well–with the exception of the unrelated car crashes cut in. In that scene, Clancy Brown really embraces the absurdity of his role and Russell Mulcahy shoots Roxanne Hart so well, she can’t help but be good (to be fair, all she has to do is scream). There are also some good transitions (the fish tank and the Mona Lisa fade). Michael Kamen’s score has its high points (though he recycled a lot of it in Die Hard), the Queen music’s good.

But otherwise?

It’s an incompetent mess. The script’s a joke–the kind of thing a bunch of twelve year-old boys would come up with. Even if there were good moments in the script, someone would ruin them. Mulcahy cannot convey a narrative. He’s a beautiful director, but his use of wide angle, perception-distorting lenses is silly. Lots of Highlander looks like great montage shots, except they’re used in continuous action instead. Hart’s bad. Christopher Lambert’s performance is astounding. His subsequent career–not to mention his fan base–is inexplicable. And the way Mulcahy directs him? Highlander could play as a comedy, if it weren’t so well-lighted by cinematographer Gerry Fisher. Peter Honess’s editing is also sublime.

Some credit has to be given to the production for its ability to overlook its own stupidity. Nothing in the film–down to the impromptu homophobia, the chatty skid row motel clerk or the survivalist (who cruises Manhattan looking for trouble)–is ever insincere. The filmmakers really think they’re producing quality product here. It’s just too humorless for them to think otherwise.

Highlander suffers from being a dumb idea, poorly written, then poorly produced. I first saw Highlander, like most other people, on video (or maybe it was HBO… I think Highlander was an HBO hit). Maybe the movie’s just more suited for a nine year-old’s intellect (which does not explain why it gained a following of adults, of course), but it seems to just get more unimpressive with each viewing. I last saw it maybe eight years ago and was still a lot more impressed with the final sword fight. I don’t know what I was thinking, since there’s no suspense to it (Lambert never gets hit) and it’s really rather short.

With the possible exception of the Scottish clan battle at the beginning, the movie’s lack of epic scope is sort of surprising. The urban setting doesn’t lend itself, I suppose. This time, I made sure to watch the theatrical version, which is much less stupid than the director’s cut. Now, that thought’s scary… that Highlander could be even stupider.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Russell Mulcahy; screenplay by Gregory Widen, Peter Bellwood and Larry Ferguson, based on a story by Widen; director of photography, Gerry Fisher; edited by Peter Honess; music by Michael Kamen; production designer, Allan Cameron; produced by Peter S. Davis and William N. Panzer; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Christopher Lambert (Connor MacLeod), Roxanne Hart (Brenda J. Wyatt), Clancy Brown (Victor Kruger), Sean Connery (Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez), Beatie Edney (Heather MacLeod), Alan North (Lieutenant Frank Moran), Jon Polito (Det. Walter Bedsoe), Sheila Gish (Rachel Ellenstein) and Hugh Quarshie (Sunda Kastagir).


The Rocketeer (1991, Joe Johnston)

Joe Johnston never getting recognition for The Rocketeer astounds me. Johnston creates a perfect adventure film, a now neglected and abused genre. Additionally, Johnston never fetishizes the historical setting. The late 1930s, Nazis as villains setting is practically its own genre at this point (strange how after a half decade, there are so few choices of undeniable evil for storytellers to use–well, at least ones white Americans would care about), but The Rocketeer never lets it get goofy. Johnston lets other, familiar trappings of the era (at least as it’s celebrated in film)–the radio, the friends at the cafe–take precedent. The Rocketeer puts more stock in California oranges than the more sensational possibilities.

And this emphasis is in a film featuring the FBI teaming up with the mob to shoot it out with Nazis in the middle of Los Angeles.

Past Johnston, the beauty of The Rocketeer is in the script, which is odd, given the screenwriters’ other work. The film starts gradually, with a beautiful flight sequence (James Horner’s score, again highly derivative of his other scores, is essential and wonderful). Having Alan Arkin helps, the script’s still responsible for immediately establishing the characters. Only during the first forty-five minutes of the film is it unsure… it’s good, but it isn’t fantastic. The big problem is the attention given to Jennifer Connelly. She’s the girlfriend and she’s kind of there. The Rocketeer makes an odd choice of introducing she and Bill Campbell’s relationship to the viewer when it’s on shaky ground. And the viewer doesn’t know it’s on shaky ground.

And here again is where The Rocketeer is strange. That instability agitates the plot until all the elements meet–not a revolutionary process, but in The Rocketeer it isn’t about set pieces, it isn’t about melodrama, it’s about actual human concern. The film’s enthralled by the idea people care about each other and it’s infectious.

Eventually, Connelly becomes a leading lady. I was entirely unimpressed with her as the film started and the exact opposite when it ended. It’s kind of a cheat, since the viewer gets to see her become that lead. Connelly’s transition kicks off the film’s third act, which is the finest adventure film act I can think of. It’s absolutely perfect, doesn’t make a single wrong move.

Campbell’s good in the lead–making the goofball dreamer real while still endearing him. He and Connelly are great together (better as the narrative progresses and a sequel with them as leads would have been lovely). Arkin’s fantastic, he and Campbell have some great scenes. Terry O’Quinn’s also good as Howard Hughes. Where Campbell really succeeds, coming in a practical nobody with some (supporting) TV experience, is maintaining himself as the lead when he’s got to contend with Timothy Dalton. As the villain, Dalton’s incredible. In anything else, he would walk away with the picture.

Dalton gets a lot of help from the script–there’s stuff in here I couldn’t believe I was hearing under a Disney Pictures banner. The script’s got some great dialogue and a lot of Disney-unfriendly one-liners. Dalton gets almost all of them. But the script’s also got a lot of discrete sensitivity and some wonderful little details.

I was concerned with The Rocketeer, not having seen it in ten years and the film’s online supporters waning in recent years. Even with the strong filmmaking, the narrative seemed troubled. It never occurred to me it might just be a real script.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Johnston; screenplay by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, story by Bilson, De Meo and William Dear, based on the comic book by Dave Stevens; director of photography, Hiro Narita; edited by Arthur Schmidt; music by James Horner; production designer, Jim Bissell; produced by Lawrence Gordon, Charles Gordon and Lloyd Levin; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Bill Campbell (Cliff), Jennifer Connelly (Jenny), Alan Arkin (Peevy), Timothy Dalton (Neville Sinclair), Paul Sorvino (Eddie Valentine), Terry O’Quinn (Howard Hughes), Ed Lauter (Fitch), James Handy (Wolinski), Tiny Ron (Lothar), Jon Polito (Otis Bigelow), Eddie Jones (Malcolm the Mechanic), William Sanderson (Skeets), Don Pugsley (Goose), Nada Despotovich (Irma) and Margo Martindale (Millie).


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