Jon Voight

Midnight Cowboy (1969, John Schlesinger)

Midnight Cowboy gets to be a character study, but doesn’t start as one, which is an interesting situation. About forty-five minutes into the film, which runs just shy of two hours, Midnight Cowboy chucks the narrative urgency. Maybe not chucks, maybe just shuts down, because it does take the film a while to lose that pressure. Until eventually leads Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman are sitting around starving to death and the film’s not treating it as problem to be solved; it’s a feature of the characters’ lives. Midnight Cowboy is never a wish fulfillment picture–even when it’s not absent hope, it’s not hopeful–but it goes from being a bad dream to a nightmare without reflecting on the change. And the nightmare runs a lot differently.

The nightmare also starts when Dustin Hoffman becomes the costar who’s taking top billing. When the film initially introduces Hoffman, it doesn’t hint at where the narrative’s going; it also doesn’t forecast what to expect from the actors. Voight and Hoffman have got a lot of character development with almost no expository assistance. Midnight Cowboy is a film with two exceptional performances, both independently ambitious and both agreeably codependent. Director Schlesinger keeps it together–Hoffman and Voight squat in a hovel, their domestic normality utterly shocking and utterly not because the actors and Schlesinger have done such a good job conveying the physicality’s of their performances. It’s like a stage play, those scenes in the apartment, perfectly choreographed, even more perfectly edited by Hugh A. Robertson. It’s an acting ballet, with these two actors playing their previously established caricatures with immediate depth.

The bad dream part of the film, which has Voight arriving in New York City to hustle his cowboy-attired bod out to the wealthy ladies of the Big Apple. Voight has a troubled past, which Schlesinger and screenwriter Waldo Salt introduce through flashbacks, usually as dream sequences. Both sleeping and napping dream sequences. Basically, Voight’s always flashing back to something to explain why he’s reacting the way he’s reacting. There’s some narrative efficiency to it, I suppose, but they’re not incorporated well. Voight actually does the best with them, intentionally or not.

It all changes, soon after the nightmare begins, when Hoffman gets his own daydream. It’s a gently done sequence, both actors silent to the audience; excellent editing from Robertson on it. Midnight Cowboy never glamorizes–until this daydream sequence–and it’s mind-blowingly effective in establishing the new angle on the characters. Oddly, Hoffman entirely downplays having the daydream–which is the opposite of Voight–and hits some of the same effectiveness notes for that inverse approach.

In the second half of the film, once Hoffman shares the narrative focus, Midnight Cowboy works more as truncated vignettes. The main plot line is still Voight trying to make it as a hustler, but it’s narratively reduced. Instead, it’s Voight and Hoffman’s bonding over this idea, usually unspoken in every way. It’s a lot of amazing acting from both of them. Hoffman’s loud, Voight’s quiet.

There are some excellent supporting performances–Brenda Vaccaro in particular, John McGiver, Sylvia Miles.

Fine photography from Adam Holender. Midnight Cowboy’s about the editing and Holender keeps up with where Schlesinger needs the camera to be for the cut. Schlesinger just seems impatient until Hoffman gets into the picture full-time. He rushes the first part of the film, then drags it down with the acceptable and pragmatic but way too obvious flashback sequences.

And it all kind of falls apart when Vaccaro’s vignette is over. It’s like the film’s running late, so Schlesinger is rushing again only now he’s got two actors instead of one to hurry along. But the film’s still quite good and the lead performances are phenomenal.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Schlesinger; screenplay by Waldo Salt, based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy; director of photography, Adam Holender; edited by Hugh A. Robertson; music by John Barry; production designer, John Robert Lloyd; produced by Jerome Hellman; released by United Artists.

Starring Jon Voight (Joe Buck), Dustin Hoffman (Enrico Salvatore Rizzo), Sylvia Miles (Cass), John McGiver (Mr. O’Daniel), Brenda Vaccaro (Shirley) and Barnard Hughes (Towny).


Heat (1995, Michael Mann)

Until the final scene, director Mann is still carefully plotting out Heat. The film’s narrative construction–when he introduces a character, when he returns to a character, how he transitions from one character to another–is magnificent. Heat is a delicate film, with Mann never letting a single element carry a scene. He’s always working in combination–sound and actor, photography and sound, editing and actors. All of these elements should cause distance between the viewer and the film; instead they bring the viewer in closer.

Much of the film deals with the relationship between the various men and their suffering women. Even if one of the male characters’ women doesn’t know she’s suffering, she’s going be soon. Mann posits his driven male characters are unable to function in relationships, then he explores the relationship between the driven male characters.

With crooks Val Kilmer and Robert De Niro, Mann sets up something near a protege and mentor relationship. With De Niro and cop Al Pacino, Mann goes with an alter ego. The scene between Pacino and De Niro, where Pacino finally gets to let down his guard–up almost entirely in the rest of the film–is startling. It’s an island in the chaos.

Great supporting performances from Amy Brenneman, Diane Venora, Dennis Haysbert, Mykelti Williamson and Kevin Gage. Brenneman’s the closest thing Heat has to a sympathetic character. Everyone else is just extant.

Nearly three hours, Heat never gets unwieldy. Mann’s deliberateness keeps it painfully, depressingly, beautifully, devastatingly subdued.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Michael Mann; director of photography, Dante Spinotti; edited by Dov Hoenig, Pasquale Buba, William Goldenberg and Tom Rolf; music by Elliot Goldenthal; production designer, Neil Spisak; produced by Art Linson and Mann; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Al Pacino (Lt. Vincent Hanna), Robert De Niro (Neil McCauley), Val Kilmer (Chris Shiherlis), Tom Sizemore (Michael Cheritto), Diane Venora (Justine Hanna), Amy Brenneman (Eady), Dennis Haysbert (Donald Breedan), Ashley Judd (Charlene Shiherlis), Mykelti Williamson (Sergeant Drucker), Wes Studi (Detective Casals), Ted Levine (Bosko), William Fichtner (Roger Van Zant), Natalie Portman (Lauren Gustafson), Tom Noonan (Kelso), Kevin Gage (Waingro), Hank Azaria (Alan Marciano), Susan Traylor (Elaine Cheritto), Kim Staunton (Lillian) and Jon Voight (Nate).


Transformers (2007, Michael Bay)

Transformers features giant robots fighting each other. Such scenes look excellent, from a special effects standpoint. Depending on the specifics of the scene–how the giant robots are fighting, fists or guns, and whether or not there are humans involved–sometimes the scenes are very well directed. While Transformers does have a lot of action, the robot fight scenes are mostly reserved for the end… and then Bay either does well or poorly. He can’t compose a real–punching, kicking, scratching, biting–fight scene. If there aren’t guns and cars involved, while it looks cool with the CG, it’s a flacid.

Complaining about that particular defect of Bay’s direction of the movie is a little cheap, because there’s so many bigger complaints to make. To get them over with… Bay doesn’t really get interested in the Transformers themselves. They only have a handful of scenes with any attempt at characterization and only one of them goes well and it’s because it’s a comedy scene and Bay used to direct comedic commercials, so he does it well. He’s also more in love with his military story than Shia LaBeouf’s, taking to so far as to give Megan Fox’s stupidly written character a lot more emphasis. LaBeouf’s character is poorly written too, but Fox’s is worse. What else. Oh. It doesn’t look like Michael Bay. There’s no sensuality–did I really just say Bay has a sensuality to his style? He does: the overcooked thing. Transformers has maybe five or six of those Bay shots. The rest is style-less. The action scenes are great, the chase scenes are good, but there’s no personality. It’s like Bay didn’t want to get bad reviews for his fast cuts or something (Spielberg’s a hands-on executive producer when it comes to blockbusters… anyone else remember the rumor he added the T-Rex-sized ghost to The Haunting himself?).

Even Bay’s creative casting is gone. In his Bruckheimer days, Bay movies would be filled with recognizable faces. Not so with Transformers. I kept hoping for someone interesting, but no one popped up. Not well known actors in supporting roles (like Bernie Mac or Kevin Dunn), but recognizable character actors in small roles. Nothing along those lines here….

I thought it might be because the Transformers were going to be significant, but they aren’t (as characters, anyway… as giant robots fighting, they’re fine). The present action of the film takes place over three or four days, with the Transformers coming in the night before the last day. They’re hardly there, which is one of the script’s major problems. Though maybe not. It’s a problem, but the script is so bad, it’s difficult to make qualitative judgments. Even if the movie makes no sense, the Transformers don’t have to have terrible dialogue. But they do. The script hurries things along so much, flipping between LaBeouf and Josh Duhamel’s army story. LaBeouf is far from an acting giant, but the script really does him a disservice… it sets him up as a shallow jerk-wad. I heard one of the screenwriters compare it to E.T., but it’s like E.T. if the audience was supposed to hate Elliot (I’m sure it’s just Bay who dislikes LaBeouf’s character, since he doesn’t fit the Bay macho man mold).

I was hoping it’d be something like Jurassic Park or Twister, an effective summer blockbuster with some degree of wonderment at its content. It has none. Bay’s just not the right director for it, even though some of it looks really cool (but I think that credit belongs to ILM).

But, who knows? Maybe if Bay were working from a vaguely competent screenplay… But the Transformer based on Stripe (from Gremlins) was really funny.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Bay; written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, based on a story by John Rogers, Orci and Kurtzman; director of photography, Mitchell Amundsen; edited by Paul Rubell, Glen Scantlebury and Thomas A. Muldoon; music by Steve Jablonsky; production designer, Jeff Mann; produced by Don Murphy, Tom DeSanto, Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Ian Bryce; released by DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures.

Starring Shia LaBeouf (Sam Witwicky), Tyrese Gibson (Technical Sergeant Epps), Josh Duhamel (Captain Lennox), Anthony Anderson (Glen Whitmann), Megan Fox (Mikaela Banes), Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime), Hugo Weaving (Megatron), Rachael Taylor (Maggie Madsen), John Turturro (Agent Simmons) and Jon Voight (Defense Secretary John Keller).


The Rainmaker (1997, Francis Ford Coppola)

The Rainmaker‘s got some beautiful stuff in it. My history with it is somewhat sorted… I discovered it on DVD, then abandoned it–and have now rediscovered it. I can’t remember what my last problem with it was–probably the same as my current one–but I was selling DVDs and needed cash.

It’s not perfect and has some noticeable flaws–the ever-present narration, for example. Just because Michael Herr and Coppola’s last collaboration was Apocalypse Now… well, the narration is Apocalypse Now was not its driving force. Coppola lets the narration run The Rainmaker, not trusting his material. The material is strong too. The only weak point is the love story, which is rather tame–I don’t think there’s even a real kiss–and Claire Danes does not ruin it. Coppola doesn’t let her do anything, hardly lets her talk, so she’s just scenery. So, instead of being some dark driving force–the son finally saving the abused mother–it’s just something to pass the time.

Otherwise, the film is perfectly cast (except Andrew Shue). Of particular note are Johnny Whitworth, Mickey Rourke, and Dannys Glover and DeVito. Matt Damon’s great. I forgot he was great (pre-Bourne), back when he was going to be a superstar. The film’s main failing is probably that it doesn’t have a solid foundation. It’d be indescribably beautiful if the film juxtaposed the young attorney with the various results of the legal profession. It doesn’t. It doesn’t even focus too much on the case. There’s that silly love story, instead of the solid story about the friendship between Damon and Whitworth, that only gets a montage.

Unfortunately, The Rainmaker is going to lead to me watching a bunch of other abandoned films. But it’s certainly a good indication I might have foolishly left some other good ones behind.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola; screenplay by Coppola and Michael Herr, based on the novel by John Grisham; director of photography, John Toll; edited by Barry Malkin; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, Howard Cummings; produced by Michael Douglas, Steven Reuther and Fred Fuchs; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Matt Damon (Rudy Baylor), Danny DeVito (Deck Schifflet), Claire Danes (Kelly Riker), Jon Voight (Leo F. Drummond), Mary Kay Place (Dot Black), Teresa Wright (Miss Birdie), Virginia Madsen (Jackie Lemancyzk), Mickey Rourke (Bruiser Stone), Roy Scheider (Wilfred Keeley), Randy Travis (Billy Porter), Johnny Whitworth (Donny Ray Black), Danny Glover (Judge Tyrone Kipler) and Andrew Shue (Cliff Riker).


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