Margo Martindale

Nobody’s Fool (1994, Robert Benton)

Nobody’s Fool takes place during a particularly busy December for protagonist Paul Newman. He’s got a lot going on all at once, but mostly the reappearance of son Dylan Walsh and family. They’re in town at the beginning for Thanksgiving, but Walsh’s marriage is in a troubled state—we’re never privy to the exact details, as Walsh remains something of a mystery throughout—and eventually wife Catherine Dent leaves (taking the astoundingly annoying younger son Carl J. Matusovich, leaving older, shy son Alexander Goodwin with Walsh). So Newman, who walked out on Walsh before he turned one, all of a sudden finds himself playing grandfather. Even more surprising… he likes it.

The film also never gets into the specifics of Newman’s failed coupling with (uncredited) Elizabeth Wilson, but Wilson doesn’t fit into Newman’s lifestyle. Even though her husband, Richard Mawe, thinks Newman’s a riot. We get to see more of Mawe and Newman than Wilson and Newman, which seems a little strange until you realize how little that history means to Newman. He’s a child growing older at sixty, still treading water on life, daydreaming about escaping to paradises with boss’s wife, Melanie Griffith. Griffith’s married to jackass Bruce Willis, who spends his night out with other women and his days running his inherited construction company if not into the ground then a lot closer to it than it ought to be. The film opens with Newman trying to sue Willis on a worker’s comp claim and Willis wiggling his way out. Though it doesn’t help Newman’s lawyer, Gene Saks, seems to view the case as a way to keep busy more than a potential success. While the inciting incident of the film is Walsh and family showing up, Newman’s in a new place now thanks to his bum knee. His steady, sturdy life has a major kink in it now—especially since with the lawsuit he can’t really be working for Willis any more and Willis is the only game in town.

Willis and Newman’s relationship in the film is probably its most interesting, because Newman can’t stand Willis but he’s also constantly disappointed in him. He’s never hopeful for him, because—even though Newman’s genial—he doesn’t seem to accept optimism as a rational life outlook. Even small things. Newman’s a medieval serf whose life is mostly unchanging, through entropy is breaking down some of the things around him. Particularly his truck. Whereas Willis is secure enough not to worry about change or the lack of it. Willis takes everything for granted in a detached, positive way, Newman takes everything for granted in a negative way. Yet Newman’s protective of Willis, even as Willis holds power over Newman. Not to mention Newman can’t stand Willis for cheating on Griffith.

Nobody’s Fool isn’t trying to be subtle. It’s a very deliberate character study of Newman, watching him interact with the various folks in his life, like landlady Jessica Tandy or now jealous of Walsh sidekick Pruitt Taylor Vince. Oh, and of course zealous idiot cop Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman and Newman are hilarious in the film. Director Benton goes for laughs all the time. He goes for smiles a lot of the time and laughs all of the time. Newman’s always got something to say, usually the wrong thing, which is a tried and true comedy formula. Nobody’s Fool packages it a little differently—Newman doesn’t just give a strong lead performance, he makes Nobody’s Fool feel very serious, even as it stays genial, even as it goes for laughs. Newman anchors it.

Good performances from everyone. Newman in particular, Vince—Josef Sommer’s awesome as Tandy’s creep bank guy who Newman wants to punch out but can never find the right opportunity. Great supporting cast too—Jay Patterson, Alice Drummond, Margo Martindale. Ellen Chenoweth’s casting is excellent. Walsh is fine but could be better. He needs to be at least as good as Willis and he’s not. Grandson Goodwin is fine, even if he does disappear for a long stretch from second act to third. Nobody’s Fool has that limited present action—Thanksgiving to Christmas—but Benton never relies on it, instead establishing an easy going pace, never rushing things even though logically these events are occurring in what must be rapid succession. Especially with Griffith’s martial troubles; she’s going through a whole lot but we only see her during her respites where she gets to pal around with Newman.

What ends up happening is the supporting cast can’t compete with the film’s momentum—if they’re hands off, like Willis (who’s in the film a lot but treated like a cameo) or Tandy, it works. In fact Tandy’s subplot with son Sommer gets some scenes without Newman; no one else does. But if they’re more directly involved with Newman—so Vince, Walsh, Griffith—it feels like there’s something missing. Not so much with Vince, who’s a combination of comic relief and gentle heart, but definitely with Walsh and Griffith. Especially Walsh. Griffith’s got a more functional part in the story, whereas Walsh is basically the inciting incident personified. His presence kicks off Newman’s self-discovery. Or is at least the final straw to kick it off.

Excellent production—great photography from John Bailey and production design from David Gropman—and sure-footed direction from Benton. Lovely, omnipresent score from Howard Shore does a lot of the heavy lifting. If Newman’s not doing it, the music’s doing it. But it’s all very safe, like Benton’s goal really is to show how deadbeat dads would maybe be a lot worse if they’d stuck around and they’re worth a second chance once they hit sixty. Newman’s able to get a lot of mileage out of the part, but he’s staying on the track, just racking up laps.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Benton; screenplay by Benton, based on the novel by Richard Russo; director of photography, John Bailey; edited by John Bloom; music by Howard Shore; production designer, David Gropman; produced by Scott Rudin and Arlene Donovan; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Sully), Jessica Tandy (Miss Beryl), Bruce Willis (Carl), Melanie Griffith (Toby), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Rub), Dylan Walsh (Peter), Alexander Goodwin (Will), Gene Saks (Wirf), Josef Sommer (Clive Jr.), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Officer Raymer), Philip Bosco (Judge Flatt), Catherine Dent (Charlotte), Carl J. Matusovich (Wacker), Jay Patterson (Jocko), Jerry Mayer (Ollie), Margo Martindale (Birdy), Angelica Page (Ruby), Elizabeth Wilson (Vera), Richard Mawe (Ralph), and Alice Drummond (Hattie).


Million Dollar Baby (2004, Clint Eastwood)

Million Dollar Baby has a somewhat significant plot twist. Well, it actually has a couple of them. And neither comes with much foreshadowing. A little in Paul Haggis’s script, which director Eastwood visualizes appropriately, but they’re in the background. The film has its larger than life story to worry about–Clint Eastwood as a stogy old boxing trainer taking on a female boxer, played by Hilary Swank. Except she’s not a kid. She’s a grown woman.

The film opens without cast title cards. Immediately, it’s very smooth. Eastwood has a gym, Morgan Freeman runs it for him. There are assorted goings-on at the gym involving the guys training there. It’s a great supporting cast at the gym–Jay Baruchel, Mike Colter, Anthony Mackie–but the gym is initially just where Eastwood hangs out, not where he interacts. So instead Freeman is telling him the goings-on, which does fantastic setup for their relationship throughout the film. Only when Swank arrives does Eastwood get forced to participate and only after prodding from Freeman.

It’s great character development, funny, sweet, sincere. Eastwood’s very careful not to push too hard on any emotional buttons. He makes sure the actors’ emotions are authentic and doesn’t lay it on with the filmmaking. Tom Stern shoots Million Dollar Baby with crispness for the daytime scenes and sharpness with the nighttime. It works as to how the performances come across, how Joel Cox edits them. If it weren’t for how well Haggis’s script works, especially how it integrates Freeman’s narration, Million Dollar Baby might just be one of film’s finest melodramas. Well, if Eastwood–who does a lot in Million Dollar Baby as an actor and a director–wanted to make a melodrama.

He doesn’t though. Instead, he makes this strangely small, while still big, character study of three people and a location and shared experiences. Most of the film takes place in the gym. It’s the touchstone for the characters and the audience. Eastwood and Haggis never wax on about the hopes and dreams of the boxers at the gym–or even Swank’s. It’s not a meditation on the sport of boxing. It’s this devastating human condition piece, with characters revealing depths the entire length of the film, both through scripted dialogue and the actors’ performances. All of the acting is great; Swank is the best, but Eastwood’s the most surprising. You never once get the feeling Eastwood ever has an idea of what he’s going to say to Swank.

Freeman is great too, in the film’s most “of course” sort of way. He gets to be a bit of a mystery and has some fun with it. He narrates and he’s never untrustworthy or anything, he just isn’t telling his own story and it turns out–thanks to Freeman and Haggis–it adds to the film.

Eastwood also did the music, which is sort of unsurprising and also fantastic. The music is perfect. It’s such a strange film, this gentle American Dream rumination, celebration, and condemnation. It’s always sincere, never cynical, never defeatist, but never hopeful either. Eastwood’s filmmaking is focused character study. The music is restrained and minimal.

So many different things are going on in the film at any moment–whether it’s Swank’s Rocky story, Eastwood’s aging one, Freeman’s supporting mostly wry one, Eastwood and Haggis rely heavily on that Freeman narration. He never disappoints. Million Dollar Baby is kind of a love letter; all of a sudden I’m wondering how the script was written with the narration or if it was cut together later.

Eastwood, Swank, and Freeman don’t reinvent the melodrama; they just perfect the melodramatic character study. Ably assisted by Haggis, Stern, and Cox. Million Dollar Baby is phenomenal.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Clint Eastwood; screenplay by Paul Haggis, based on stories by F.X. Toole; director of photography, Tom Stern; edited by Joel Cox; music by Eastwood; production designer, Henry Bumstead; produced by Eastwood, Haggis, Tom Rosenberg, and Albert S. Ruddy; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Clint Eastwood (Frankie Dunn), Hilary Swank (Maggie Fitzgerald), Morgan Freeman (Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris), Brían F. O’Byrne (Father Horvak), Jay Baruchel (Danger Barch), Anthony Mackie (Shawrelle Berry), Mike Colter (Big Willie Little), Lucia Rijker (Billie “The Blue Bear” Osterman), and Margo Martindale (Earline Fitzgerald).

Orphan (2009, Jaume Collet-Serra)

Orphan‘s a peculiar failure. The script isn’t particularly good; it’s layered with foreshadowing upon foreshadowing and some very predictable turns. But it has these occasionally strong dialogue scenes between Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard. It runs out of them after a while, but they leave a positive memory.

Then there’s director Collet-Serra. He really likes crane shots in what should be enclosed spaces and he likes to use handheld when he should have a track. Orphan feels like an inexperienced director who got the opportunity to do a lot of things just because he could. Collet-Serra can’t do the two simple things Orphan needs him to do.

First, it needs him to tie a children’s story–Aryana Engineer and Jimmy Bennett get an adopted sister–to an adult’s story–Farmiga and Sarsgaard are new adoptive parents. Both of these stories (more Farmiga and Sarsgaard because of their fine acting, Farmiga in particular) have some strong moments. Scared kids is a classic, cheap movie standard and Collet-Serra can’t pull it off. It’s sort of embarrassing, because he doesn’t even seem to get it.

Second, he needs to give the family’s house a personality. He can’t. Some of it is lousy production design courtesy Tom Meyer, some of it is Collet-Serra’s incompetence.

As the film’s bad seed, Isabelle Fuhrman is mediocre. She can’t hold her accent and she’s never believable in hindsight after the big reveal.

Orphan‘s a boring thriller with bad direction and an excellent Farmiga performance.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra; screenplay by David Johnson, based on a story by Alex Mace; director of photography, Jeff Cutter; edited by Timothy Alverson; music by John Ottman; production designer, Tom Meyer; produced by Joel Silver, Jennifer Davisson Killoran, Susan Downey and Leonardo DiCaprio; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Vera Farmiga (Kate), Peter Sarsgaard (John), Isabelle Fuhrman (Esther), CCH Pounder (Sister Abigail), Jimmy Bennett (Daniel), Margo Martindale (Dr. Browning), Karel Roden (Dr. Varava), Rosemary Dunsmore (Grandma Barbara) and Aryana Engineer (Max).


The Winning Season (2009, James C. Strouse)

The Winning Season mentions Hoosiers at one point, which is good. It’s set in Indiana, it’s a basketball movie about an underdog team… there needs to be a Hoosiers reference. But it’s not Hoosiers with a girls basketball team, because it’s not really about the games.

Strouse’s approach is traditional. Take a lovable alcoholic misanthropic schmuck–Sam Rockwell–and let him redeem himself throughout the running time of the film as he discovers he’s capable of being a positive in someone else’s life. In this case, a girls basketball team.

What The Winning Season has going for it is a director who knows how to direct conversation scenes (the games are never vibrant–but it’d be out of place here), a really good script (the girls are a little tame off court, except Rooney Mara, who’s shacking up with a forty-something shoe salesman) and Rockwell. It’s maybe not Rockwell’s most dynamic, searching performance, but it’s Rockwell with a good script. It’s amazing acting.

He gets a lot of support from the supporting cast. None of the basketball team girls are bad. Meaghan Witri and Emily Rios are probably the best besides Mara, who gets lucky have the most drama. Emma Roberts is okay, nothing more. She’s affable.

Rob Corddry is really good here. I usually find him annoying, not here. It’s just a solid performance. Really nice work here from Margo Martindale too.

It’s a surprisingly good film. Having Rockwell helps a lot, but Strouse does an excellent job.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by James C. Strouse; director of photography, Frank G. DeMarco; edited by Joe Klotz; music by Ed Shearmur; production designer, Stephen Beatrice; produced by Kara Baker, Galt Niederhoffer, Celine Rattray, Daniela Taplin Lundberg and Gia Walsh; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Sam Rockwell (Bill), Emma Roberts (Abby), Rob Corddry (Terry), Emily Rios (Kathy), Rooney Mara (Wendy), Jessica Hecht (Stacey), Connor Paolo (Damon), Meaghan Witri (Tamra), Melanie Hinkle (Mindy), Shana Dowdeswell (Molly), Vanessa Gordillo (Flor), Shareeka Epps (Lisa) and Margo Martindale (Donna).


Critical Care (1997, Sidney Lumet)

Critical Care opens on its main set–sets are important in Critical Care–with Helen Mirren (as a nurse) checking up on ICU patients. The ICU is a circle, Mirren rounding it by the end of the titles, returning to the station at the center, where James Spader (as a resident) naps during a thirty-six hour shift. The two have a conversation about medical school, Spader’s dating habits and mundanities. It’s a strange opening–technically superior thanks to Lumet–with the ICU an all white environment (it’s like 2001, actually). When the film moves into a world of color, Critical Care maintains the same tone–which is incredibly difficult, or should be, given Albert Brooks is in old age make-up (with Spader as his disinclined protégé). It’s slightly off. Lumet’s got a specific visual style for the film, but even taking it into account, it’s still slightly off.

And then–just before the Blow Up homage–I realized what makes Critical Care so particular. It’s the finest adaptation of a stage play where the source material is not a stage play. Lumet’s approach to the film is to present the action–in the ICU, the material outside that setting is a lot more filmic–like it’s playing out on stage. This approach doesn’t affect Lumet’s composition, which is excellent and cinematic, and I can’t even tell if it’s in Steven Schwartz’s script. But the time Lumet gives to his actors–Spader and Mirren–is stunning. They have scenes together throughout the film, but they both have their own story arcs (Spader’s being the major one) and when they reunite at the end… it’s almost like the film’s been holding its breath and no one noticed. It’s fantastic.

Lumet also makes a lot of time for Brooks, but it’d be criminal if he hadn’t. Not only is Brooks constantly hilarious–and frightening, given he’s talking about healthcare–but it’s the one time (in recent cinema) where someone playing aged works perfectly. The logic mazes–Brooks’s character suffers from short term memory losses–in the scenes are hysterical.

Spader’s got a very leading man role here and he plays it well. It’s probably the finest film performance I’ve seen him give. Mirren’s excellent as well–her scenes with Jeffrey Wright, where he doesn’t talk, are great. Wright’s scenes with Wallace Shawn, where he does talk, are also great. One of the greatest things about Critical Care is its fearlessness. The film doesn’t have a big hook at the beginning, it doesn’t have any reason to expect a lot of involvement from its viewers; it just goes ahead without concerning itself with them.

The supporting cast–Kyra Sedgwick, Anne Bancroft, Philip Bosco, especially Colm Feore–is superior.

I’ve known about this film for eleven years–I remember seeing a picture of Brooks in make-up–but I never got around to seeing it until now. Through its running time, it just gets better and better. Near the end, as the film shifted into its final stage, I worried about it forgetting itself. It doesn’t. The end has all the right ingredients, mixed wonderfully.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sidney Lumet; screenplay by Steven Schwartz, based on the novel by Richard Dooling; director of photography, David Watkin; edited by Tom Swartwout; production designer, Philip Rosenberg; produced by Schwartz and Lumet; released by Live Entertainment.

Starring James Spader (Dr. Werner Ernst), Kyra Sedgwick (Felicia Potter), Helen Mirren (Stella), Anne Bancroft (Nun), Albert Brooks (Dr. Butz), Jeffrey Wright (Bed Two), Margo Martindale (Connie Potter), Wallace Shawn (Furnaceman), Philip Bosco (Dr. Hofstader), Colm Feore (Richard Wilson), Edward Herrmann (Robert Payne), James Lally (Poindexter) and Harvey Atkin (Judge Fatale).


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).


Lorenzo’s Oil (1992, George Miller)

I’m not sure when Lorenzo’s Oil lost me. The opening credits are set in East Africa, the focus is on Lorenzo–for those who don’t know, who don’t remember the previews if not the film, Lorenzo is a kid who gets a rare disease–and the film takes a lyric quality. George Miller was a good, straightforward workman on the Mad Max films, but on Lorenzo’s Oil, he adopts camera angles and lighting techniques out of an early Hitchcock film and applies them–in color–to his film. At times, these methods are successful, but that opening scene promises something more than Lorenzo delivers. That opening scene suggests the film will have some enthusiasm for film and for the beauty it can display… and Lorenzo’s Oil (and Miller) never deliver it.

The problem, of course, is the reality. In reality, Lorenzo’s parents had passion for their son and they fought and these (somewhat) average people developed a treatment for the disease. The film latches on to those people’s struggles and triumphs and doesn’t create anything for itself. It manipulates the audience. The scenes with the kid in pain are excruciating to watch, so excruciating I wonder if Miller used them to compensate for the flatness coming from Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon for the first quarter of the film. As Lorenzo’s parents, Nolte and Sarandon spend the first quarter as the film’s peripheral subjects. They guide the audience through Lorenzo’s diagnose–since the kid’s pain is so intensely displayed, it’s for the audience, not for the audience to see the parents react to… Only in the second and third acts does Nolte get any personality. He’s playing an Italian and for that first flat quarter, it’s Nolte fighting against having to do an accent. Eventually, he gets it and just in time, since Sarandon finally gets a personality too–she goes somewhat nuts.

Since Lorenzo’s Oil is based on a true story and it’s based on an inspiring true story and it’s informing people about a disease affecting kids, there’s no chance it can really examine what’s going on. Sarandon’s mother abandons everyone in her life (except the husband), throwing out her sister (an excellent Kathleen Wilhoite), and instead of looking at the real human conflicts going on, Lorenzo’s Oil does a lot of fades to black. Because those have a lot of emphasis. Sarandon isn’t any good, but I’m not sure how much of the performance is her fault. It’s impossible to imagine her and Nolte–as a married couple–doing anything but what they’re doing at each and every moment in the film. They’re automatons, moving in the film to make it go where it needs to go. Nolte’s best scenes are the ones with Wilhoite or some of the other supporting cast members, whenever he gets away from Sarandon and Lorenzo’s Oil begins to feel like a narrative again.

It’s a piece of propaganda and it’s propaganda for a good cause, it’s just not a particularly good film. At times, with some of Miller’s camera angles, I kept thinking of Scorsese’s Cape Fear, especially since Nolte was occupying the same space… until the end, when Miller ripped of The Elephant Man, which I found unbelievably bold.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Miller; written by Nick Enright and Miller; director of photography, John Seale; edited by Richard Francis-Bruce, Marcus D’Arcy and Lee Smith; production designer, Kristi Zea; produced by Doug Mitchell and Miller; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Nick Nolte (Augusto Odone), Susan Sarandon (Michaela Odone), Peter Ustinov (Professor Nikolais), Kathleen Wilhoite (Deirdre Murphy), Gerry Bamman (Doctor Judalon), Margo Martindale (Wendy Gimble), James Rebhorn (Ellard Muscatine), Ann Hearn (Loretta Muscatine) and Maduka Steady (Omuori).


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