Matt Dillon

To Die For (1995, Gus Van Sant)

To Die For’s got one of those effortlessly smooth but obviously intricate narrative structures. Screenwriter Buck Henry is adapting a novel, which author Joyce Maynard structured with many different first person accounts. Van Sant and Henry and editor Curtiss Clayton keep the sense of different perspectives—including some interview sessions where someone is obviously making a documentary, maybe not even necessarily the same documentary between interviewees—but the film’s never actually first person. There’s always a narrative distance. Because To Die For only shows so much of its characters. They’re all still mysteries at the end. The film’s got a very definite, very dark sense of humor and it’s never clear just how much Van Sant and Henry are bending reality.

For example, Tim Hopper and Michael Rispoli’s almost entirely dialogue-free police detectives. They’re absurdly intense, emphasis on the absurd. Only Van Sant never plays them for laughs. They cut through the film, their absurd unreality somehow realer than what’s been going on in the film.

To Die For is about cable access weatherperson Nicole Kidman seducing a teenage boy (Joaquin Phoenix) to kill her husband (Matt Dillon). The first act of the movie covers the basic setup and then how Kidman and Dillon got together and how their families clash. Dillon’s Italian, Kidman’s a WASP. It’s quite wonderfully never clear what attracted Kidman to Dillon. Apparently she really did “go wild” for him, but then he got in the way of her career. In addition to her nightly weather duties, Kidman’s making a documentary about local teenagers, including Phoenix. Once Dillon decides it’s time for Kidman to start popping out babies—he gave her a year—well, Kidman starts having sex (apparently a lot of sex, which isn’t initially clear and adds a bunch of layers to things in hindsight) with Phoenix, the end plan being getting Phoenix to kill Dillon.

The film almost entirely shows Kidman’s planning the murder from Phoenix and Alison Folland’s perspectives. Folland is one of the other teenagers in the documentary. Kidman’s documentary, not the pseudo-documentary narrative device. Casey Affleck is the third kid. Folland just wants a friend, Phoenix is in love, Affleck is an ass. They’re all poor, all neglected or abused, all dumb. Affleck gets assigned the project (by Henry, who cameos as their school teacher), but Folland and Phoenix sign up. They’re the only two in the class who don’t see Kidman is a little too much. There’s something clearly off about her.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, that off is she’s an undiagnosed sociopath, something no one suspects—including her—because her parents have spoiled her for so long. Their pampering of Kidman hid it, which the film momentarily and brilliantly addresses when Kidman freaks out dad Kurtwood Smith, who until then seems like it’s completely aware of her peculiar personality. Kidman’s obsessed with wanting to be a newscaster, which motivates every action until she realizes she doesn’t have to be a newscaster to be famous. It’s another of the film’s awesome little character development moments, when Van Sant and Henry reveal they’ve been discreetly layering in an arc, using the pseudo-documentary structure to give it some extra kick. Sometimes for humor (not laughs, humor), sometimes just because.

There are seven concurrent narrative layers. They all take place sometime after the events. There’s Illeana Douglas (as Dillon’s sister who always knew Kidman was bad news); she’s being interview for a documentary. There’s Phoenix in prison. There’s Folland not in prison. Then there’s the parents on a daytime talk show—just the straight talk show footage—Smith and Holland Taylor as Kidman’s parents, Dan Hedaya and Maria Tucci as Dillon’s. Susan Traylor plays Kidman’s sister, who never has anything to say but always has this knowing look. There’s Wayne Knight as Kidman’s boss at the TV station. Then there are the flashbacks. And, finally, there’s Kidman narrating to the camera.

Only she’s not confessing so her material is very different. The reality she presents is very different from what we see transpire. Maybe it’s never clear with Taylor, but Smith seems to know Kidman’s guilty.

Listing the best performances in the film is basically just like listing the cast. Kidman and Phoenix are both phenomenal. And even though they have a bunch of scenes together and Kidman’s manipulating him and Phoenix is bewitched, their character arcs are entirely separate and so are their performances. They don’t have “chemistry” because it’s not possible for them to have it in those conditions. Folland’s great. Douglas is great. Knight’s great. Smith’s great. Affleck, Dillon, Hedaya, Taylor, Tucci; they’re all good. They just can’t compare. They don’t get the material, though there’s always this implicit material. Like Traylor’s looks, whatever they mean.

Good photography from Eric Alan Edwards, good production design from Missy Stewart, perfectly matched Danny Elfman score (it’s a constant, emotive, supportive but never ambitious score). To Die For’s technicals excel. Everything about it excels, especially Kidman, especially Phoenix, especially Van Sant, and especially Henry.

It’s gang busters.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Gus Van Sant; screenplay by Buck Henry, based on the novel by Joyce Maynard; director of photography, Eric Alan Edwards; edited by Curtiss Clayton; production designer, Missy Stewart; music by Danny Elfman; produced by Laura Ziskin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Nicole Kidman (Suzanne Stone), Joaquin Phoenix (Jimmy Emmett), Alison Folland (Lydia Mertz), Casey Affleck (Russel Hines), Illeana Douglas (Janice Maretto), Wayne Knight (Ed Grant), Kurtwood Smith (Earl Stone), Holland Taylor (Carol Stone), Dan Hedaya (Joe Maretto), Maria Tucci (Angela Maretto), Susan Traylor (Faye Stone), Tim Hopper (Mike Warden), Michael Rispoli (Ben DeLuca), Gerry Quigley (George), Buck Henry (Mr. H. Finlaysson), and Matt Dillon (Larry Maretto).


My Bodyguard (1980, Tony Bill)

My Bodyguard is more than a little frustrating. Alan Ormsby’s script either completely changes in the second half–just in terms of how he constructs scenes, how much willful suspension of disbelief you need, whether or not lead Chris Makepeace is ever going to have a story of his own–or director Bill chucked a lot of material in editing. And given Stu Linder’s editing is phenomenal–the slow motion isn’t his fault–and I kind of doubt it. When he can, Linder finds just the right cuts. Bill’s got coverage issues, especially on action sequences–Michael D. Margulies’s photography is always just right though–and Linder still saves them. The second half of the picture’s mess seems to be Ormsby’s fault, with Bill’s approval, of course.

Here’s the thing–My Bodyguard, which is supposed to be this sensitive movie about a sensitive teenager (Makepeace) going to a tough inner-city school and having to convince loner giant Adam Baldwin to protective him from bully Matt Dillon. Makepeace’s home life is different–his dad (Martin Mull) runs a classy hotel. They’re not rich but they pretend to be rich. There’s a lot of class politics in play somewhere in My Bodyguard, but not thoughtfully. They’re just on display as narrative tropes and shortcuts. Kind of like Makepeace. He’s not the protagonist. There’s one scene with him having personality before he’s just Dillon’s target. All of his scenes with Baldwin are a completely different character. My Bodyguard feels like three different scripts forced into this idea of high school protection rackets.

But in the first act, Bill covers it all. Thanks to Linder and Margulies and a very cheerful but introspective Dave Grusin score, the first half of My Bodyguard feels like it’s going to go somewhere. There’s a narrative progress to the school year unfolding, kids doing activities, time moving. It’s not because of Makepeace and his home life subplot (Ruth Gordon’s his sassy, drunk grandmother). It’s because there are supporting cast members with lives going on. Attention to Paul Quandt, Joan Cusack, and Kathryn Grody creates the film’s verisimilitude as it were. It needs to wander aimlessly at times.

Once Baldwin goes from being Makepeace’s mystery thug classmate to his surrogate big brother, which Bill and Ormsby don’t address because My Bodyguard is kind of cheap and it does want to present a working class to yuppie life goal (Mull has to fend off a yuppie underling). It’s got its problems, but it’s also a missed opportunity. The film’s technically marvelous. The photography of the Chicago locations are so good, you don’t forgive Grusin’s soulful saccharine, you allow for it. And Linder’s editing, especially in the first half and during Baldwin’s fight scene in the finale, is marvelous.

Sadly, following Baldwin’s fight scene is Bill’s worst direction in the film. Coming in its last few minutes–Bodyguard cheats out on a real ending, as the second half tries hard to infantilize its teenage characters. Kids movie is only a pejorative if its characters are static. And My Bodyguard does go in that direction in its second half.

Great performance from Dillon. Baldwin’s good with tough material and not the best direction for it. Makepeace has a two-dimensional (at best) character. He’s not unlikable, but he also doesn’t commandeer the role. Gordon’s awesome. Mull’s fun. John Houseman has a nice cameo.

My Bodyguard acknowledges what it could do, what it could be, then it goes the easy route. It’s disappointing, though probably not surprising.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Tony Bill; written by Alan Ormsby; director of photography, Michael D. Margulies; edited by Stu Linder; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, Jackson De Govia; produced by Don Devlin; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Chris Makepeace (Clifford), Adam Baldwin (Linderman), Ruth Gordon (Gramma), Matt Dillon (Moody), Martin Mull (Mr. Peache), Paul Quandt (Carson), Craig Richard Nelson (Griffith), Joan Cusack (Shelley), Kathryn Grody (Ms. Jump), and John Houseman (Dobbs).


Over the Edge (1979, Jonathan Kaplan)

Over the Edge is explosive. Sorry, maybe that statement is a little glib–but it is literally explosive. More cars blow up in Over the Edge than a season of “The A-Team.” I think Kaplan was going for dramatic effect, but it’s hard to say. Kaplan’s actually the least interesting technical component of the film. Whenever he does make a bold choice, it’s a bad one (he pauses on lead Michael Eric Kramer as he passes from second act to third… as a 400 Blows homage, it fails).

But he’s mostly competent and helped a great deal by the rest of the crew. Andrew Davis’s photography is fantastic, very verité, which fits the film, and Sol Kaplan’s score is haunting. It’s like he’s scoring a forties film noir, not a seventies drama.

The script, from Charles S. Haas and Tim Hunter, has its strengths and weaknesses too. The stuff with the kids is better than the stuff with the parents. It’s clear they’re trying to balance, but it doesn’t come off.

Kramer’s good, usually having to share the screen with more dynamic actors. Matt Dillon’s one of them, but he’s more a dynamic character (Dillon has one of the few weak readings from the teenagers). Vincent Spano’s excellent. Pamela Ludwig and Tom Fergus are both good.

Andy Romano’s okay, but unbelievable (partially due to script), as Kramer’s father. Harry Northup’s great as the dumb cop in charge.

It’s good, but it should be better. The explosions make it absurd.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jonathan Kaplan; written by Charles S. Haas and Tim Hunter; director of photography, Andrew Davis; edited by Robert Barrere; music by Sol Kaplan; production designer, James William Newport; produced by George Litto; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Michael Eric Kramer (Carl), Pamela Ludwig (Cory), Matt Dillon (Richie), Vincent Spano (Mark), Tom Fergus (Claude), Harry Northup (Doberman), Andy Romano (Fred Willat), Ellen Geer (Sandra Willat), Richard Jamison (Cole), Julia Pomeroy (Julia), Tiger Thompson (Johnny), Eric Lalich (Tip) and Kim Kliner (Abby).


Armored (2009, Nimród Antal)

Antal’s composition is so strong, I would have thought Armored could get away with almost anything and still be a solid diversion. The action direction is good but not anything special–the chase sequences are boring, for example. But Antal’s composition for conversations? It’s amazing; sort of a cross between Michael Mann and seventies Steven Spielberg. It’s just stunning.

Armored‘s ending is rather weak. They close fast instead of spending forty seconds to make the resolution make sense. This incomplete ending comes after a particularly perfunctory action sequence. It’s a gimmick picture–Die Hard in an armored truck–and writer Simpson maybe has enough script for seventy-five percent of the film’s ninety minute running time. They can pad, but not enough to cover.

The acting is good–the cast is better than one would think, especially Columbus Short. Simpson’s script is just good enough Short can deliver a phenomenal performance. It’s too bad it wasn’t better though, since the role should have gotten Short some recognition. It’s not a dumb action movie, it’s a flawed heist movie with a lot of potential.

Matt Dillon and Larry Fishburne are both solid in supporting roles. These days, both are playing world weary heavies. Armored is not different. It’s interesting to see former teen heartthrobs Dillon and Skeet Ulrich in this one, playing unglamorous “regular” guys. Ulrich is fine. He’s finally learned to act.

Milo Ventimiglia is unexpectedly good. Fred Ward and Jean Reno are wasted. Amaury Nolasco barely makes an impression.

So, Armored is nearly mediocre.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Nimród Antal; written by James V. Simpson; director of photography, Andrzej Sekula; edited by Armen Minasian; music by John Murphy; production designer, Jon Gary Steele; produced by Joshua Donen, Dan Farah and Sam Raimi; released by Screen Gems.

Starring Matt Dillon (Mike Cochrane), Jean Reno (Quinn), Laurence Fishburne (Baines), Amaury Nolasco (Palmer), Fred Ward (Duncan Ashcroft), Milo Ventimiglia (Eckehart), Skeet Ulrich (Dobbs), Columbus Short (Ty Hackett) and Andre Kinney (Jimmy Hackett).


Beautiful Girls (1996, Ted Demme)

Of the principals, only Michael Rapaport is under thirty (Beautiful Girls hinges on a ten-year high school reunion) and much of the running time can be spent wondering how the viewer is supposed to believe Timothy Hutton isn’t thirty-five years old (he’s actually thirty-six). Hutton gives one of the film’s best performances, frequently transcending the script and its severe deficiencies (almost every event is a sitcom trope). His best scenes are with Noah Emmerich (whose performance is shockingly broad, even in this cast) and Natalie Portman. In their scenes together, both Hutton and Portman stumble through the awkward dialogue and create the film’s only (comparatively) honest relationship.

That relationship doesn’t have to be too real, since every other one in the picture is a hackneyed mess. Screen-“writer” Scott Rosenberg seems to fancy himself a more WASPy Kevin Smith with all the pop culture references. Only Ted Demme’s incredible direction–and it really is fantastic in every area except the film’s writing–saves the film. Besides Demme’s fantastic choice of look and sound for the picture (Adam Kimmel’s photography and David A. Stewart’s score), he also gets a lot of solid little moments in. Max Perlich has almost no function in the script, but under Demme’s direction, his occasional asides are some of the best moments in the film. Rosie O’Donnell basically gets a couple big monologues (I believe these were ghost-written for her; Rosenberg’s unabashedly sexist script doesn’t indicate he’s a feminist), but has some good little moments as well.

Beautiful Girls‘s greatest failings are all script-related, but having some terrible performances doesn’t hurt much either. The three worst performances are from Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman and Lauren Holly. Holly’s got what’s probably the film’s most difficult role and instead she plays it like a poorly articulated mannequin. I know I just got done complementing Demme with actors… but Holly doesn’t have any room for asides. Her character’s all epical, as is Dillon’s. Dillon’s so goofy in the film, it’s like he’s lampooning a former teen actor who can’t catch a break. His character is terribly written (none of the main characters make any sense being in their late twenties… it’s clear they’ve only existed since the end of the opening logo), but even so… Dillon still does a real bad job. Both he and Hutton lower their voices to make them gruff for whatever reason. Hutton it doesn’t work with, but there’s a still a performance backing it up. Dillon doesn’t have that luxury.

Thurman actually should be all fluff material, but the script places so much weight on her character, it’s hilarious to watch her. She’s absolutely incapable of creating even the semblance of a human being. Every one of her scenes is painful to watch.

The best performance is probably Mira Sorvino. She doesn’t have much of a character, but Sorvino essays the role brilliantly.

Otherwise… I guess Martha Plimpton and Pruitt Taylor Vince are both okay. They aren’t bad and they don’t embarrass themselves (why Miramax put Rapaport in this one, I can’t even imagine–he doesn’t have an honest second here).

The only real draw is Demme and his superior talent.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Ted Demme; written by Scott Rosenberg; director of photography, Adam Kimmel; edited by Jeffrey Wolf; music by David A. Stewart; production designer, Dan Davis; produced by Cary Woods; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Matt Dillon (Tommy), Michael Rapaport (Paul), Martha Plimpton (Jan), Mira Sorvino (Sharon), Lauren Holly (Darian), Timothy Hutton (Willie), Annabeth Gish (Tracy), Natalie Portman (Marty), Uma Thurman (Andera), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Stanley), Anne Bobby (Sarah), Rosie O’Donnell (Gina), Noah Emmerich (Mo) and Max Perlich (Kev).


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