Marisa Tomei

The Watcher (2000, Joe Charbanic)

I do not regret watching The Watcher, which features Keanu Reeves as a serial killer who sees the world like a shitty late nineties video camera. It might not even be a video camera. The shots might just be through a shitty video viewfinder. There’s a lot of… competency on display in the film, but it’s never from director Charbanic. Charbanic’s hilariously incompetent. Well, sort of hilariously. Sometimes the bad goes on too long and gets tiring. The therapy sessions haunted ex-FBI agent James Spader has with Marisa Tomei are always tedious; the writing (from David Elliot and Clay Ayers) is godawful, but Tomei also looks like someone’s pointing a pistol at her dog offscreen to keep her on set. Given how Charbanic doesn’t do establishing shots, there’s sometimes no evidence Spader and Tomei are on set together. Spader can handle it. Tomei cannot.

Because until the last act, when Reeves kidnaps Tomei and Spader, it’s Spader’s movie. It’s about this guy who has moved to Chicago from L.A., on full disability after he ran into a burning house to save his lover (Yvonne Niami). Only then we find out through flashbacks Spader left Miami tied up to go chase Reeves. His lasting damage from the rescue attempt doesn’t always allow him to remember the fire. Tragic.

For more reasons than one. Niami seems awkwardly filmed. Maybe it’s because she’s one of the producers’ wives. The shlock producer. The film has three. Two seem legit, the third—Nile Niami—did a bunch of low budget action crap. The Watcher feels like low budget action crap, but filmed on location. Because even though there’s the interesting behind the scenes story about how Reeves was buds with director Charbanic from when Reeves toured with his crappy band instead of doing Speed 2 and verbally agreed to do this shitty script and then some assistant forged Reeves’s name on an actual contract and Reeves was trapped—even though there’s that story, whatever the deal with the Chicago location shooting is far more compelling. Because they go all out shooting in Chicago. It looks terrible, because Charbanic sucks and Matthew Chapman’s cinematography looks like a syndicated TV cop show and Richard Nord’s editing is atrocious, but whoever coordinated and managed all that location stuff—great job. The CG explosions look like crap, but the real ones look awesome… well, look awesomely executed. They don’t look awesome because the direction’s bad. Though the big explosion shot is one of the better, more approaching competence moments.

They’ve got a gazillion cop cars, they’ve got helicopters flying into the city from over Lake Michigan–the movie goes all out as a Chicago travelogue. At first it seems like it’s some kind of promotional video to shoot in Chicago, then it seems like it’s some crappy action movie just shot in Chicago—like a Chicago investor or something—but apparently it’s something else entirely. Kind of interesting. Far more interesting than the movie. And the Reeves casting intrigue. Because Reeves is just bad. He’s really bad at playing the serial killer. The script’s dumb, Charbanic’s a suck director, but Reeves is still just bad.

Spader… works it. Sometimes you can just pass the time watching Spader figure out how he’s going to essay this crap role. It’s like watching the performance occur to him. It’s not a great performance by any means—the script’s crap, characterization’s crap, part’s crap—but it’s interesting to watch Spader. Less Tomei. Chris Ellis is really good as Spader’s Chicago PD sidekick. Ellis doesn’t have a single acceptably written line but somehow he makes it work. He’s very enthusiastic. Like somehow he’d convinced himself The Watcher was going to be the next Matrix. It has Keanu Reeves in a leather jacket all the time after all.

Marco Beltrami’s score isn’t good—Nord’s cutting for music, Beltrami or the light metal soundtrack selections is terrible—but Beltrami works it too. He’s got some good technique, but there’s no way the final product is going to come across.

The Watcher’s atrocious. You shouldn’t watch it.

Though, if you’re interested in the Chicago area and seeing an expansively but poorly shot film showcasing it… you probably can’t do better than The Watcher? But also don’t watch it. It’s terrible.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Charbanic; screenplay by David Elliot and Clay Ayers, based on a story by Darcy Meyers and Elliot; director of photography, Michael Chapman; edited by Richard Nord; music by Marco Beltrami; production designers, Maria Caso and Brian Eatwell; produced by Christopher Eberts, Elliott Lewitt, Nile Niami, and Jeff Rice; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring James Spader (Joel), Keanu Reeves (David), Marisa Tomei (Polly), Chris Ellis (Hollis), and Ernie Hudson (Mike).


Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019, Jon Watts)

Spider-Man: Far From Home spends so much of its runtime being a constant delight, the first sign of trouble passes. Something where director Watts needs to connect doesn’t connect, only it doesn’t really matter because it doesn’t seem like it needs to connect too hard. Then the third act is this massive, impersonal action sequence where the sidekicks get a better action finale than the hero and the mid-credits sequence entirely changes the stakes of the film. And then the post-credits sequence entirely changes how the film plays. It’s like there’s a surprise ending then there’s a twist ending but the twist should’ve come in the regular ending… It’s also too bad because neither of the additional endings let lead Tom Holland act.

And Far From Home is usually really good about letting Holland act. He’s great, even when he’s going through the same hero arc he went through in his last solo outing. Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers’s script has a lot of good jokes and nice moments for Holland (his romance arc is at least different this time) and his costars—as well as an almost great scenery chewing part for Jake Gyllenhaal—but it’s fairly thin. The film’s able to deliver some real emotion, not just from the film’s events but also from all the weight hanging over the world post Avengers 4, which seems kind of light actually but it’s set at least nine months after that film so maybe people are just emotionally fast healers and whatnot. Plus Holland and romantic interest Zendaya have oodles of chemistry so their high school romance but with overachievers on a school trip to Europe arc is wonderful. Lovely even, which is why its treatment in the additional endings is such a boondoggle.

Enough about the endings. I think.

The film has Holland and his high school classmates touring Europe while Samuel L. Jackson (in a shockingly humorless turn; not bad, just shockingly humorless) tries to get him to help save the world. Jackson’s got a new hero—Gyllenhaal, who’s from an alternate Earth and has ill-defined magical powers—but he wants Holland along for some reason. It makes even less sense once the film gets through the main plot twists, not to mention the additional end ones. See, I’m still on the endings. Sorry.

The reasons don’t matter because Gyllenhaal is really good. He’s earnest but mysterious. He and Holland have a good rapport, though it might be nice to see Holland not desperately needing a mentor. Or at least getting a funny one; Martin Starr and J.B. Smoove are comic relief as the high school teachers. Might not have hurt to give them something more to do. Far From Home has an excess of talent and doesn’t utilize enough of it. But, again, it doesn’t matter during the smooth sailing period of the film because just so long as nothing goes too wrong, nothing can screw it up. Cue ginormous third act action finale. The bad guys in the movie are these giant weather monsters (sans Flint Marko) so all the action is big. Great combination of action and landmark destruction (the monsters go after all the big European cities). There’s no way the film can top it for the finale and instead just puts more people in imminent danger. The film closes on iffy ground and then the additional endings—even if the post-credits sequence is inessential (it isn’t), the mid-credits one is the whole show—just cement the problems.

It’s a bummer because Holland, Gyllenhaal, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, and Jon Favreau are all great. Watts does a fine job directing. Europe looks great. Fun soundtrack. Competent if impersonal score from Michael Giacchino. Matthew J. Lloyd’s photography seems a little rushed on composite shots but whatever. Dan Lebental and Leigh Folsom Boyd’s is a little rushed though, especially during the exterior night sequences, which are already problem spots for Lloyd and Watts.

Speaking of Watts, despite that fine directing he does, he’s got no interest in the special effects visuals. He’s got no time for them. It’s okay for the giant weather monster fights because it keeps the focus on Holland. But when the film’s got this lengthy hallucination sequence? It’s okay. It gets the character from point A to point B, but the character doesn’t have any reaction to what they’ve seen. It’s a terribly missed opportunity. In so many ways. Including a great Empire Strikes Back reference.

Oh. Marisa Tomei.

The movie completely wastes her, while still managing to celebrate her awesomeness in the role and her chemistry with Holland.

For a while, Far From Home is such a grand European (superhero action) adventure with a wonderful—and likable—cast and fun attitude, it seems like there’s nothing it can’t get away with. The movie’s self-assured and justifiably so for most of the runtime, but those two additional endings just make it seem like… it was all bravado and not actual confidence. Hence a bummer. A weird one, wonderfully acted one.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jon Watts; screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; director of photography, Matthew J. Lloyd; edited by Dan Lebental and Leigh Folsom Boyd; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Claude Paré; produced by Amy Pascal and Kevin Feige; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Zendaya (MJ), Jacob Batalon (Ned), Jake Gyllenhaal (Beck), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan), Tony Revolori (Flash), Angourie Rice (Betty), Remy Hii (Brad Davis), Martin Starr (Mr. Harrington), J.B. Smoove (Mr. Dell), Marisa Tomei (May), Cobie Smulders (Hill), and Samuel L. Jackson (Fury).


Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017, Jon Watts)

If Spider-Man: Homecoming isn’t the best film with six credited screenwriters, it’s got to be near the top. Additionally, the film’s got director (and one the Sinister Six–wokka wokka–screenwriters) Watts, who kind of manually binds the film together scene by scene. There’s so much different stuff going on–darker than expected villain Michael Keaton’s subplot, which is a “what happens when a psychopath loses his day job” origin, Spider-Man Begins, and a high school movie. The first two interconnect, the second two interconnect, but it’s a lot going on at once. Not to mention Robert Downey Jr. being shoehorned in for franchise purposes.

Watts, through his direction of the actors and the pacing of the scenes, keeps it enthusiastic but never too enthusiastic. The studio credits having the old “Spider-Man” cartoon theme is actually as far as it gets towards too self-aware. Keeping it grounded makes the “Spider-Man excitedly climbing buildings” sequences entertaining. It’s Spider-Man’s enthusiasm, not the film’s. It’s Tom Holland’s enthusiasm.

And Spider-Man: Homecoming is all about Tom Holland. Keaton gets to do his villain arc on his own for most of the movie and it’s flashy, but it’s a small part. Holland’s in every other scene (except when he’s Spider-Manning to save people or to stop criminals). He’s got Avengers training with Downey and Jon Favreau (who looks miserable), he’s got high school with Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, and Zendaya, he’s got friendly neighborhood crimefighting, he’s got home with Marisa Tomei. The script balances all of it pragmatically and impersonally.

Homecoming always errs on the side of narrative payoff. Even though everyone implies the potential of letting loose, only Batalon gets anything near the chance and it’s incredibly muted. The film’s focused on Holland’s story and goals, so much the things going on alongside him–Tomei, Harrier–are left out. Except when the script picks back up with them, there’s no gap. Quick, effective expositions, good acting, and Watts’s meticulous narrative distance to Tom Holland, it all comes together. And Homecoming, which has Chris Evans cameos, laser guns, suburban superhero action, Downey, stunt cameo casting, a terribly bland but competent Michael Giacchino score, and everything else–oh, the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off homage–it has so much.

Yet Watts keeps it together. Because he keeps it on Holland and it never seems like a pressure. Holland’s character development arc is a subtle one too. He usually just has to bake it into other scenes, with the script never getting too far into it. Homecoming doesn’t imply things often and it’s very careful when it does; it knows it’s a franchise picture with a familiar IP and it only wants to do what it wants to do.

But since it is a franchise picture, there’s also a lack of urgency. Everything feels very safe. Keaton feels restrained. Not sure letting him loose on a villain kick would result in a better performance, but he’s still holding back. The bad guys in Homecoming are never bad enough to hurt regular people, which sometimes too contributes to the “safe” feeling.

Though it allows a pointless but amusing Donald Glover cameo.

Excellent special effects. Salvatore Totino’s photography is simultaneously warm and crisp, letting the film toggle between thrills and light superhero angst, but it also provides a great backdrop for the CGI. You have to stop and reminds yourself the leaping figure isn’t Holland.

Homecoming finally figures out how to let the actor “playing” Spider-Man give a full performance as Spider-Man. Because Watts and Holland.

All the acting is good. Downey’s doing a schtick at this point, but likably. It’s a PG Downey in a PG–13 movie. Batalon and Harrier are great. Bookem Woodbine’s good as one of Keaton’s goons. Tomei’s good. Zendaya is likable. She’s got nothing to do but she’s likable. Besides appearing miserable to have agreed to appear, Favreau’s fine. Enough. He underplays an underwritten part.

Keaton’s fine. Kind of good. Never bad, but never anything too special. The script gives him a “little guy trying to survive” thing to do and Keaton can do it. It’s just not a great part. It’s effective and it’s only supposed to be effective.

And Holland’s amazing.

Given its production history (involving Marvel, i.e. Disney, producing a film at Columbia, i.e. Sony, to work it into the Marvel movie continuity), not to mention six credited screenwriters, and being such a familiar film property at this point, Spider-Man: Homecoming starts out with a lot it seems to need to do and a lot it shouldn’t do.

The film does everything it should and nothing it shouldn’t and never in a rush. Nothing’s perfunctory. Homecoming sets up Keaton, then it moves on to Holland, and it just does the movie.

Excellent result from Watts, Holland, and everyone else’s efforts. Except Giacchino. One of Homecoming’s early hurdles is succeeding in spite of Giacchino’s boring score.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jon Watts; screenplay by Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, and Erik Sommers, based on a story by Goldstein and Daley and the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; director of photography, Salvatore Totino; edited by Debbie Berman and Dan Lebental; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Oliver Scholl; produced by Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Michael Keaton (Adrian Toomes), Marisa Tomei (Aunt May), Jacob Batalon (Ned), Laura Harrier (Liz), Zendaya (Michelle), Tony Revolori (Flash), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan), Martin Starr (Mr. Harrington), Bokeem Woodbine (Herman Schultz), Logan Marshall-Green (Jackson Brice), and Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark).


Oscar (1991, John Landis)

Excluding prologue and epilogue, Oscar has a present action of roughly four hours. The movie runs just shy of two hours. A lot happens with a lot of characters. And, while the film’s based on a play–which explains the limited setting–and even though it’s not like director Landis does anything spectacular except keep the trains running, it never feels stagy. Sometimes Landis’s composition is a little strange, but it’s never stagy. Oscar is always in motion. It never gets to take a break.

The story is extremely, intentionally convoluted. Sylvester Stallone is a mobster who’s going straight at noon; it’s a big day and he’s going to get a suit. We know he’s going to get a suit because the movie opens with flunky Peter Riegert reading off the morning schedule. It’s quickly executed, but it’s a good forecast. Even though Oscar never really looks good, Landis packages it fairly well. Bill Kenney’s production design is one of the big stars. Stallone’s got a mansion, people coming and going, the cops watching from across the street.

Oscar’s also a period piece, set in the early thirties, which presents some performance problems. Can’t forget to talk about those.

So Stallone’s got a big day and his accountant, a likable but somewhat thin Vincent Spano, shows up and throws a wrench in it. Turns out Spano is carrying on with Stallone’s daughter–Marisa Tomei in a great role. Except maybe it ends up Tomei likes Stallone’s elocution coach, Tim Curry. Curry and Tomei flirting ought to be weird, but it actually works out gloriously. There’s an adorable quality to Oscar, maybe because it’s a thirties gangster picture without any violence. Just positive vibes. Stallone is trying to go straight, after all.

There’s a whole lot more. The film isn’t real time but is consecutive enough characters’ presences define sections–like when Harry Shearer and Martin Ferrero show up as Stallone’s goofy Italian tailors. And Curry isn’t in the picture near the start, more like halfway, yet Landis and screenwriters Michael Barrie and Jim Mulholland make it feel like Oscar can’t get on without him. Same with how Chazz Palminteri’s part grows. Initially, Riegert has a lot more to do, but eventually Palminteri ends up as the audience’s stand-in. He’s been watching the events unfold and the convolutions are driving him nuts.

It’s a great performance from Palminteri. There are a lot of great performances. Riegert, Tomei, Curry, Ferrero. And a lot of solid ones–Ornella Muti (who has way too little to do), Shearer, Joycelyn O’Brien, Elizabeth Barondes. Oscar is cast pretty well and Landis seems to know what do with the actors. At least those in orbit around Stallone.

The ones not in orbit? Like Kurtwood Smith’s doofus police lieutenant, the bankers hesitant to partner with Stallone–including William Atherton and Mark Metcalf, or rival gangster Richard Romanus–well, Landis has no idea. He goes for broad “hokey” comedy and it doesn’t work. Especially not with Eddie Bracken’s stuttering informant. What should be a nice cameo from Bracken is instead cringeworthy.

And how does Stallone do playing the relative straight man to all the lunacy? He does all right. He lets the better performances overshadow his own, which is great. He gets some funny stuff, but he never gets to goof. The goofing in Oscar is great; Ferrero and Shearer, Reigert and Palminteri–some finely executed comedy. Stallone’s good with Muti, good with Tomei, good with Barondes. And he’s good in the scenes with Spano.

Except Spano’s pretty thin. Landis shoots these over-the-shoulder shots down onto Stallone (Spano’s about four inches taller) and it seems like there should be something to it and there’s not. Here’s Spano trying to intellectually strong-arm Stallone for almost two hours, while never getting too unlikable, and Landis hasn’t got any ideas on how to visually jazz it up. It doesn’t do Spano any favors.

Nice score from Elmer Bernstein; there’s not a lot of it, but it’s nice. Mac Ahlberg’s photography is a yawn, though it’s not like Landis tasked him with anything ambitious or difficult. That mansion set is phenomenal. Great costumes too.

Oscar is a little quirky and the third act stumbles in large part thanks to Smith’s performance and Landis’s handling of the finale, but it’s a fine comedy with some excellent performances and sequences throughout.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by John Landis; screenplay by Michael Barrie and Jim Mulholland, based on the play by Claude Magnier; director of photography, Mac Ahlberg; edited by Dale Beldin; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, Bill Kenney; produced by Leslie Belzberg; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (Snaps Provolone), Ornella Muti (Sofia Provolone), Marisa Tomei (Lisa Provolone), Vincent Spano (Anthony Rossano, C.P.A.), Tim Curry (Dr. Poole), Peter Riegert (Aldo), Chazz Palminteri (Connie), Elizabeth Barondes (Theresa), Joycelyn O’Brien (Nora), Martin Ferrero (Luigi Finucci), Harry Shearer (Guido Finucci), William Atherton (Overton), Mark Metcalf (Milhous), Ken Howard (Kirkwood), Sam Chew Jr. (Van Leland), Don Ameche (Father Clemente), Kurtwood Smith (Lieutenant Toomey), Richard Romanus (Vendetti), Robert Lesser (Officer Keough), Art LaFleur (Officer Quinn), Linda Gray (Roxanne), Yvonne De Carlo (Aunt Rosa), and Eddie Bracken (Five Spot Charlie).


My Cousin Vinny (1992, Jonathan Lynn)

My Cousin Vinny succeeds due to a strange combination of Dale Launer’s script and the charm of the cast. It’s a strange combination because director Lynn seems entirely inept at facilitating it–all of Lynn’s directorial flourishes flop (for a while, he tilts the camera for emphasis and then forgets about it) and the rest of the time he’s very pedestrian. Peter Deming’s photography is rather bland too. And the editing from Tony Lombardo and Stephen E. Rivkin is downright inept.

But Vinny works. Launer’s script has a great structure–even if Ralph Macchio and Mitchell Whitfield, as two wrongly accused college students, are more annoying than sympathetic (Whitfield’s more grating, but his performance is better than Macchio’s). Launer positions all the subplots and characters; the film takes place in the South and the caricatures are distinct enough to be memorable, so when he calls them back later, there’s enough foundation.

Later is when the film gets to the trial section, but before then there’s the introduction of Joe Pesci (as the students’ lawyer) and Marisa Tomei as his fiancée. They’re mostly caricature too, just nice ones. Pesci and Tomei get by on a lot of charm and a lot of chemistry. She’s so impressive, his best scene is reacting to one of her better deliveries (not even her best).

Along with great support from Fred Gwynne, Lane Smith and Bruce McGill, the film ends up a decent success. It’s unfortunate the direction’s not stronger, but the acting’s what matters.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jonathan Lynn; written by Dale Launer; director of photography, Peter Deming; edited by Tony Lombardo and Stephen E. Rivkin; music by Randy Edelman; production designer, Victoria Paul; produced by Launer and Paul Schiff; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Joe Pesci (Vinny Gambini), Marisa Tomei (Mona Lisa Vito), Fred Gwynne (Judge Chamberlain Haller), Ralph Macchio (Bill Gambini), Mitchell Whitfield (Stan Rothenstein), Lane Smith (Jim Trotter III), Bruce McGill (Sheriff Farley) and Austin Pendleton (John Gibbons).


The Lincoln Lawyer (2011, Brad Furman)

The Lincoln Lawyer is—in addition to being, besides the cast, a great pilot for a cable series—a standard legal thriller. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a new one of these, probably because there are so many decent old ones to go through. Nothing in the film is a particular revelation, which might explain my lack of enthusiasm.

Star Matthew McConaughey is a basically good defense attorney who believes in justice. No surprises in his character. McConaughey essays the role fine.

Marisa Tomei’s his ex-wife (they’re still seeing each other) and an assistant district attorney. Tomei’s fine too.

Actually, wait. Josh Lucas stands out. As McConaughey’s opposing counsel, with more ambition than brains (and aware of it), he does a great job. Oh, and Michael Paré. He’s great.

The supporting cast is decent. No one excels—it’s a legal thriller, why bother? Ryan Phillippe, William H. Macy, John Leguizamo, Michael Peña, Laurence Mason, Frances Fisher—They’re excellent actors; they all give fine performances. But they’re just pieces in the wheel, not particularly important. The twists and turns are what’s important in Lincoln Lawyer and, like I said, it’s strictly television material.

One problem is John Romano’s script. I imagine he faithfully adapts the bestseller source material, but he doesn’t bring anything special or filmic to it. It’s a legal thriller. Why bother?

Director Furman has some decent composition, but he can’t bring personality to the L.A. setting.

It should probably be watched—and appreciated—on TV.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Brad Furman; screenplay by John Romano, based on the novel by Michael Connelly; director of photography, Lukas Ettlin; edited by Jeff McEvoy; music by Cliff Martinez; production designer, Charisse Cardenas; produced by Sidney Kimmel, Gary Lucchesi, Tom Rosenberg, Scott Steindorff and Richard S. Wright; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Matthew McConaughey (Mick Haller), Marisa Tomei (Maggie McPherson), Ryan Phillippe (Louis Roulet), William H. Macy (Frank Levin), Laurence Mason (Earl), Josh Lucas (Ted Minton), John Leguizamo (Val Valenzuela), Michael Peña (Jesus Martinez), Bob Gunton (Cecil Dobbs), Frances Fisher (Mary Windsor), Bryan Cranston (Detective Lankford), Michaela Conlin (Detective Sobel) and Michael Paré (Detective Kurlen).


The Wrestler (2008, Darren Aronofsky)

Maybe Darren Aronofsky actually gets it. As The Wrestler started, I marveled at what must have been Aronofsky’s longest shots to date until they kept getting longer and longer. His direction of the film is incredibly simple–put the camera on the actors, occasionally do an establishing shot. No medium shots. Long shot to close-up. The handheld camerawork is excellent. He frequently follows Mickey Rourke around, a move–similar to one Bryan Singer just used in Valkryie–seemingly with roots in modern video games. It’s strange seeing it here, in this iconic, timeless motion picture. It feels just right, something Aronofsky never gets wrong–The Wrestler always feels right.

The film escalates to such a peak throughout the running time, when it reaches the third act, it’s precariously perched. For the second time this year (August was the other), a film got its ending perfect. No false stops, no trickery. Just the ideal choice in under the circumstances. I can’t believe The Wrestler pulled it off, since my faith in Aronofsky as a filmmaker basically started a scene or two into this film. But Aronofsky isn’t working without a script here–Robert D. Siegel’s work here is outstanding. The script’s tiered. Since The Wrestler is such an all-time Hollywood upper, Siegel works in quite a bit of humor–the staging of the wrestling matches provides a lot of laughs (Aronofsky’s pseudo-documentary approach really works well in the wrestling scenes). The film never gets expositional when it comes to how the wrestling matches function (how do they decide who wins?), always giving enough information for the scenes to pass clearly.

The script also has a–somewhat–subtle juxtaposing of Rourke’s wrestling and Marisa Tomei’s stripping. Neither are spring chickens, both operate in a land of make believe where the audience is a willing participant. It’s sort of obvious if one were to think about the comparisons, but the film doesn’t exactly make a lot of time for such reflection. The film’s packed, with no digressions. Everything revolves around Rourke. Well, except maybe a scene. And I think it’s the scene where the juxtaposition occurred to me–there’s a scene with Rourke shaving his pits, then Tomei’s on stage with her pits obviously shaven–it all falls into line. It’s discrete, not at all overblown, and it’s never played like an eventuality. The reason washed-up wrestler Rourke’s love interest is a single mom who strips isn’t because there’s a good analog going, it’s because Rourke’s the kind of guy who hangs around strip clubs.

As for Rourke, in his much lauded comeback… he’s great. But it’s the kind of thing Rourke has been able to do his whole career. He’s always been an excellent actor. If anything, The Wrestler is a bit depressing in that respect–there are so many great roles he could have done, but never had the opportunity. Aronofsky’s camera follows him around, listens to him, takes a step back and watches him. It’s a transfixing performance.

I think there are only three actors listed in the opening titles–Rourke, Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood. I’ve heard great things about Wood, but I’ve never seen her before (“Once and Again” doesn’t count, does it?). She’s great. Every delivery, every gesture, every expression, all are amazing. Seeing her and Rourke together, it’s one of those acting team-ups one doesn’t get to see very often.

The surprise, then, is Tomei. For all the hubbub surrounding the film’s acting, it ought to go to her. Tomei’s got a decent-sized role–Rourke’s in every scene except two–but she creates this character with a life going on off-screen. I kept wondering why Aronofsky ended each scene with her in the club on stage–it seems (I mean, I am giving him a lot of credit already) like the scenes are meant to get the viewer to think, to imagine that off stage (and off screen) life where the film hasn’t taken him or her. The film relies on the viewer to fill in the blanks, without ever identifying the blanks.

The Wrestler‘s a significant film–it’s Rourke (finally) in a role an actor of his stature deserves and it’s the first time Aronofsky’s come near deserving his critical rep (maybe he should just direct other people’s scripts). The end, following that moment of indecision–where the film could veer far off course–is glorious.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Darren Aronofsky; written by Robert D. Siegel; director of photography, Maryse Alberti; edited by Andrew Weisblum; music by Clint Mansell; production designer, Tim Grimes; produced by Aronofsky and Scott Franklin; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Mickey Rourke (Randy), Marisa Tomei (Pam) and Evan Rachel Wood (Stephanie).


The Paper (1994, Ron Howard)

For a painfully brief period in the 1990s, Ron Howard was one of the best filmmakers working. It didn’t last. The Paper kicked off his run. Howard and the Koepp brothers (I can’t remember for sure, but I think Stephen worked at a newspaper) imbue the film with the traditional Hollywood newspaper movie idealism, but also enough modern cynicism to make the film fit for human consumption. Actually, the traditional Hollywood newspaper has always had the commercialism conflict, in The Paper personified by Michael Keaton and Glenn Close’s printing press fistfight, but along with the rest, it all somehow seems fresh. The rest is Robert Duvall’s aged newspaperman paying the various prices for his life, Marisa Tomei worrying about having her imminent baby with workaholic Keaton, Randy Quaid as a griping, indifferent columnist, and, of course, Jack Kehoe’s search for a comfortable chair. Howard’s special touch was bringing a heartening sense to his films without ever pandering. He could make a movie where a doorman could worry about a tenant in a medical crisis without it coming across as mawkish.

But there’s the technical aspect one shouldn’t ignore. The Paper takes place over a day, twenty-four hours, and while there are occasional visual errors, Howard and cinematographer John Seale do a beautiful job creating that day with wonderful skies. When Tomei is on the street, talking to Keaton on her cellphone, you can feel the warm New York evening. The editing is also very nice–and the Randy Newman score (there is, of course, a Randy Newman song over the end credits too), but the score sets the perfect tone for the film. It’s that extinct drama… the adult comedy.

All of the Koepp brothers’ dialogue is great, so much so, it’s strange David never came back to dialogue-heavy movies. Their characters–and here’s an odd compliment–are just sparse enough the actors can bring defining features to them, since the story doesn’t have any room for them (as written) except as figures moving throughout the story. The newspaper story, the one Keaton can’t get wrong, unfolds wonderfully. The plotting being good, I can figure that one from Koepp, but the dialogue just seems odd coming from him.

The acting is all fantastic. It’s one of Keaton’s best performances, it’s probably Tomei’s best. Randy Quaid’s good in the smallest of the principal roles, but he does get a great payoff at the end. Duvall’s great. Glenn Close probably has the most complicated role and she’s the only one with a eureka moment and she pulls it off. The supporting cast, with Kehoe maybe being the most memorable, is also fantastic. Roma Maffia and Lynne Thigpen being the other two standouts, but they’re all great.

The Paper is largely, I’m guessing because of the cast, forgotten. There’s a lousy pan and scan DVD in the United States and Howard’s shown no interest in the last ten years in forcing an acceptable release. It’s got a place in film history–one of the forgotten films of the 1990s (it won no major Oscars and did not make over a $150 million), an ever growing category and maybe the most depressing–but it really ought to be known for its excellence, not as an entry on a list or as a footnote. It’s a wonderful film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Howard; written by David Koepp and Stephen Koepp; director of photography, John Seale; edited by Daniel Hanley and Michael Hill; music by Randy Newman; production designer, Todd Hallowell; produced by Brian Grazer and Frederick Zollo; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael Keaton (Henry Hackett), Robert Duvall (Bernie White), Glenn Close (Alicia Clark), Marisa Tomei (Martha Hackett), Randy Quaid (Michael McDougal), Jason Robards (Graham Keighley), Jason Alexander (Marion Sandusky), Spalding Gray (Paul Bladden), Catherine O’Hara (Susan), Lynne Thigpen (Janet), Jack Kehoe (Phil), Roma Maffia (Carmen), Clint Howard (Ray Blaisch), Geoffrey Owens (Lou) and Amelia Campbell (Robin).


Chaplin (1992, Richard Attenborough)

Just today, I met someone who recently watched The Postman and thought it was a good film. She’s probably the third or fourth person (I think the third) who I’ve met–since 1997–who agreed it was a good film. Though Chaplin has five years on that one, I’ve never met anyone else who thinks it’s good. Or great, I suppose. Chaplin is great.

I absolutely dreaded watching this film. As I recall, I had the VHS–I bought it used from a video store and it was one of the early single tape releases for 130+ minute features–and then I got the laserdisc on remainder in the early days of the Internet shopping boom, back when there were laserdisc stores online and laserdiscs being pressed. So, I haven’t seen it in eight years (I was a slow converter to DVD and, even after I did, I still never tried upgrade my entire laserdisc collection–still haven’t). I rented it a long time ago when I was trying to keep my Blockbuster Online queue going and just never got around to it. I’ve been actively avoiding it for about two weeks now, when I cracked down and said I had to get it watched. My fear being–well, like I said, I’ve never heard a good word said about the film.

Immediately–within seconds–that fear, that apprehension, disappeared. The John Barry music comes up and I remembered the emotional sensation the film produces in me. These sensations being the goal of art–back when I last saw this film, I worried about my “taste.” It never occurred to me someone else’s wiring was wrong. Back to the film. The music comes up and there’s Robert Downey Jr., back when he was the finest working actor. It’s impossible to think of Chaplin as a Downey film because he’s not Robert Downey Jr. He creates this character named Charlie Chaplin. While the make-up work is good, it wouldn’t do its job with Downey. The viewer expects this character to age over time and so he has to–because there are title cards telling the viewer time is passing. Aging and time passing, they go together. Downey being an actor in latex make-up is beside the point. Downey never exists as an actor in the film and neither does anyone else. The only person who stretches that boundary is Dan Aykroyd–as I’d forgotten he was good.

The success isn’t all Downey or John Barry’s score–Chaplin has the most indispensable score since 2001–it’s Attenbourgh’s whole conception of the film. It’s a biopic, but it’s independent of the actual reality of Charlie Chaplin. Attenborough creates a character and creates a sense of nostalgia–for future events, this achievement is particularly visible in the creation of the Tramp scene–without requiring the audience to know anything real. Having experienced any Chaplin films is not a requirement for Chaplin. I, for example, didn’t see a Chaplin film until 1999 or 2000. It’s a brilliant approach to the “non-fiction” film, one not often done anymore. Today, authentic and historical accuracy are watchwords; they have nothing to do with good storytelling, fictional or non-fictional.

As a quiet aside–for any Keaton fans out there (I prefer Keaton)–there’s a great homage to Our Hospitality in Chaplin, when we see Hollywood before it was Hollywood, right under the titles identifying it. Our Hospitality, for those who don’t know, did with New York City, giving an intersection and a date in the middle of nineteenth century. It’s a cute touch.

The Chaplin supporting cast is superior. Primarily, the film shows how excellent Moira Kelly is–Chaplin’s her first and only great film and it’s a shame. I mean, she was already done by 1998. Also fantastic and less known is Paul Rhys as Chaplin’s brother. He didn’t disappear, he just didn’t stay in Hollywood. The relationship between Chaplin and his brother is one of the film’s strongest elements. I’m going to go through the rest faster–Marisa Tomei’s good, Kevin Kline as Douglas Fairbanks (he and Chaplin’s relationship being another cornerstone), Penelope Ann Miller’s decent–if only in a scene really–Kevin Dunn is a frightening J. Edgar Hoover. Geraldine Chaplin playing Chaplin’s insane mother, she’s really good. Also, one of my favorite forgotten actors, Maria Pitillo (Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla ended her career) is in the film as Mary Pickford. She’s great in the film, credited far too late. She’s wonderful–Chaplin’s calling her a bitch while she and Downey have the second-best onscreen chemistry between he and female actor in the film. I suppose I need to mention it–though it doesn’t come up often at The Stop Button, I do despise Anthony Hopkins–Hopkins is great as the made-up book editor whose editing session with Chaplin frames the film.

I honestly don’t remember the last time I recommended something here. It looks like it would have been Black Narcissus. And now it’s Chaplin.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Attenborough; screenplay by William Boyd, Bryan Forbes and William Goldman, from a story by Diana Hawkins, based on books by Charles Chaplin and David Robinson; director of photography, Sven Nykvist; edited by Anne V. Coates; music by John Barry; production designer, Stuart Craig; produced by Attenborough, Mario Kassar and Terence Clegg; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring Robert Downey Jr. (Charlie Chaplin), Geraldine Chaplin (Hannah Chaplin), Paul Rhys (Sydney Chaplin), John Thaw (Fred Karno), Moira Kelly (Hetty Kelly/Oona O’Neill), Anthony Hopkins (George Hayden), Matthew Cottle (Stan Laurel), Dan Aykroyd (Mack Sennett), Marisa Tomei (Mabel Normand), Penelope Ann Miller (Edna Purviance), Kevin Kline (Douglas Fairbanks), Kevin Dunn (J. Edgar Hoover), Diane Lane (Paulette Goddard), Deborah Moore (Lita Grey), Nancy Travis (Joan Barry), James Woods (Lawyer Scott), Milla Jovovich (Mildred Harris), Maria Pitillo (Mary Pickford) and David Duchovny (Rollie Totheroh).


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