Michael McKean

Waiting for Guffman (1996, Christopher Guest)

Waiting for Guffman is a story of dreams and dreamers. Director (co-writer and star) Guest opens the film with shots of a small American town, Blaine, Missouri. It’s a town with a lot of history and a lot of heart. Sure, it’s all absurd history, but those absurdities just make the heart beat stronger. Guffman is a mockumentary, starting with the town council going on and on about their sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) celebration. It takes Guffman a while before it gets to the actual storyline.

Because there’s all that absurd history and absurd councilpeople to get through.

There’s going to be a play at for the celebration, directed by a flamboyant, artistically inept New York emigrant (Guest), starring a bunch of local dreamers. Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara are the town travel agents, who also regularly star in Guest’s productions. Willard’s a jerk and O’Hara drinks too much. Neither are talented. Parker Posey is another member of the regular troupe. She’s not talented. Eugene Levy (who also co-wrote the film) is a dentist who wants to be an entertainer. He’s not talented. Matt Keeslar works at the family scrapyard–he’s a hunk who Guest enlists to star then fawns over. He’s not talented. Then there’s Bob Balaban as the high school music teacher who thinks he should be in charge of the production and resents Guest.

Everyone is hilarious. Keeslar least, but he’s still really funny. He’s got a reaction part and he never gets to be in on the joke (of Guest fawning over him). Willard, O’Hara, Guest, Levy, Posey, Balaban–they’re all phenomenal. Much of Guffman is adlibbed and you can just see the actors spark these great ideas and run with them as the scenes unfold. It’s awesome.

Guest is probably the best during these scenes; he’s got the most to do–he’s directing the production, after all–though everyone with a lot of material gives him a run for the money. Meaning everyone but Balaban. He’s sort of an extended cameo, which Guest (as director–of the film, not the stage production in the film) uses to great effect.

But then it’s showtime and Guffman switches gears. Now it’s this absurd stage production and the actors are playing their absurd characters playing these absurdly (and now–intentionally–poorly) written parts. The councilpeople return to do the mockumentary interview spots because, presumably, the leads’ characters are too busy performing. The film mostly gets away with the change in tone, with Guest throwing in some backstage character moments for the actors but never quite enough.

The shift changes the film’s energy and knocks the narrative distance out of whack. Even though Guest establishes the mockumentary device and occasionally the actors even acknowledge it in their performances, it’s gone from how the stage production occurs. Without constant hilarity to distract, the mockumentary device’s problems become a lot more apparent.

When the film wraps up in an epilogue, Guest and company go back to trying to make it funny. They mostly succeed, but the pacing of the jokes is different. Guest and editor Andy Blumenthal cut the epilogue with a different pace–they’re trying to get done, trying to get to the right jokes to close out Guffman.

It works, it just doesn’t match the first act. Guffman suffers from being too funny without strict narrative pacing–even absurd pacing–and not funny enough when Guest has to implement it.

Uneven or not, Guffman’s hilarious, well-directed, and phenomenally acted.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Christopher Guest; written by Guest and Eugene Levy; director of photography, Roberto Schaefer; edited by Andy Blumenthal; music by Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer; production designer, Joseph T. Garrity; produced by Karen Murphy; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Christopher Guest (Corky St. Clair), Fred Willard (Ron Albertson), Catherine O’Hara (Sheila Albertson), Parker Posey (Libby Mae Brown), Eugene Levy (Dr. Allan Pearl), Matt Keeslar (Johnny Savage), Lewis Arquette (Clifford Wooley), and Bob Balaban (Lloyd Miller).


Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992, John Carpenter)

Memoirs of an Invisible Man is pointless. Most of its problems stem from the film’s lack of focus–in some ways, given Chevy Chase is a stockbroker and leads a life of extreme comfort, it ought to be an examination of eighties yuppies. Only a few years late. Except it’s obvious director Carpenter doesn’t want to do that story; he’s less engaged in those scenes than any of the others.

Carpenter does surprisingly well with the romantic comedy angle. The sequence where Chase meets Daryl Hannah is beautifully shot.

The film’s also not about Chase being disconnected from the world before he becomes invisible–that aspect comes up in some terrible dialogue, very poorly presented by Sam Neill. Neill plays the film’s villain, a ruthless CIA operative who has a gang of poorly defined sidekicks and an asinine boss (Stephen Tobolowsky). If it weren’t for Tobolowsky’s terrible performance, Neill would give the worst one in the film.

A lot of Memoirs relies on Chase’s charm and, in some ways, he does deliver. Not often enough and not with enough quantity, however. The script’s really bad when it comes to defining his character; the first act is a particularly mess, then though Rosalind Chao is excellent as his secretary for two minutes.

Michael McKean plays his friend. He’s ineffectual, but not bad.

Another big problem is the narration. Memoirs is desperate for Fletch appeal; it doesn’t have it.

It moves quickly, the special effects are great, but it’s a stinker otherwise.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Carpenter; screenplay by Robert Collector, Dana Olsen and William Goldman, based on the novel by H.F. Saint; director of photography, William A. Fraker; edited by Marion Rothman; music by Shirley Walker; production designer, Laurence G. Paull; produced by Bruce Bodner and Dan Kolsrud; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Chevy Chase (Nick Halloway), Daryl Hannah (Alice Monroe), Sam Neill (David Jenkins), Stephen Tobolowsky (Warren Singleton), Michael McKean (George Talbot), Gregory Paul Martin (Richard), Patricia Heaton (Ellen), Rosalind Chao (Cathy DiTolla), Jay Gerber (Roger Whitman) and Jim Norton (Dr. Bernard Wachs).


Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987, John Hughes)

Planes, Trains & Automobiles is probably most impressive technically. The narrative is problematic but not a bad narrative, it’s just a problematic one. Director Hughes can’t decide if he wants Planes to be a comedy with John Candy or a comedy about Candy. Candy’s able to be sympathetic while still being unbelievably annoying–his performance is the film’s finest–but Hughes doesn’t know how to use him. Planes is Steve Martin’s picture or it’s Martin and Candy’s, but it’s never just Candy’s. Though Hughes pretends otherwise.

As for the technical qualities. Donald Peterman’s photography and Paul Hirsch’s editing are sublime. Peterman and Hirsch turn Hughes’s often mediocre composition into beautiful visuals. Ira Newborn’s score, which has some ill-advised eighties remix, also creates these amazing moments more appropriate for a film in the Cinéma du look movement. They’re some of the most memorable scenes in Planes and are startling to see in an American buddy comedy.

The narrative’s also peculiar because Hughes puts the big blow-out between Martin and Candy early in the picture. The later minor ones are still funny, they just don’t resonate. The choice probably hampered Hughes’s narrative pacing, but it deepens Planes.

In the supporting cast, Edie McClurg is obviously the standout. Dylan Baker’s real funny too. As Martin’s wife (Hughes plays with juxtaposing the stories, then drops it), Laila Robins is perfect–though the filmmaking might have more to do with it than her acting.

Planes is a fine time; its singular scenes near transcendence.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written, directed and produced by John Hughes; director of photography, Donald Peterman; edited by Paul Hirsch; music by Ira Newborn; production designer, John W. Corso; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Steve Martin (Neal Page), John Candy (Del Griffith), Laila Robins (Susan Page), Michael McKean (State Trooper), Dylan Baker (Owen), Carol Bruce (Joy), Olivia Burnette (Marti), Diana Douglas (Peg), Martin Ferrero (Second Motel Clerk), Larry Hankin (Doobie), Richard Herd (Walt), Susan Kellermann (Waitress), Matthew Lawrence (Little Neal), Edie McClurg (Car Rental Agent), George Petrie (Martin), Gary Riley (Motel Thief), Charles Tyner (Gus) and Kevin Bacon (Taxi Racer).


Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 (2012, Jay Oliva)

It’s interesting to hear Peter Weller voice Batman in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 (is that title long enough?) since Dark Knight Returns, the comic, always felt like Batman meets Robocop. Not so much because of the tone, but because Frank Miller uses media intercuts to flesh out the setting just like Robocop does. In the film, director Oliva does the same thing. He and screenwriter Bob Goodman keep it all… even when the story turns into Miller’s fascist daydreams.

The film’s best at the beginning, with Weller and David Selby (as Commissioner Gordon) deal with aging. And then the return of Batman is well-done; the real stars of Returns, besides Weller, are director Oliva, composer Christopher Drake and editor Christopher D. Lozinski. They imagine Batman as an unstoppable slasher movie villain–Drake’s score even has the seventies synthesizers going–and the film transcends its low budget animation.

The problems arise once the story of Part 1 begin, which involve Batman fighting a big gang. Gary Anthony Williams voices the gang’s leader, so you have an obviously black guy voicing a big white skinhead. There’s a real disconnect.

Goodman’s script faithfully–at least as I recall–the comic, meaning the character development makes all sorts of silly jumps and the pacing is weak. The script gleefully wallows in Miller’s anti-progressiveness, like it alone will make Returns daring.

Weller and Oliva nearly make the entire thing worthwhile, but even they can’t combat the script’s insipid plot developments.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Jay Oliva; screenplay by Bob Goodman, based on the comic book by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson and the character created by Bob Kane; edited by Christopher D. Lozinski; music by Christopher Drake; released by Warner Premiere.

Starring Peter Weller (Bruce Wayne / Batman), David Selby (Commissioner Gordon), Ariel Winter (Carrie Kelley / Robin), Wade Williams (Harvey Dent / Two-Face), Michael Jackson (Alfred), Gary Anthony Williams (Mutant Leader), Michael McKean (Dr. Bartholomew Wolper), Paget Brewster (Lana Lang) and Richard Doyle as the Mayor.


Man Trouble (1992, Bob Rafelson)

Man Trouble is a strange film, right from the start. It opens with then thirty-year-old Lauren Tom in old age makeup (well, her hair tinted grey). That casting choice–following the animated opening titles–establishes it as an oddity. It’s not a bad film, just a strangely detached one. The protagonist is Ellen Barkin, but since she’s opposite Jack Nicholson, he’s the de facto protagonist.

Nicholson does a good job playing a sleazy, but lovable ne’er-do-well–he’s so lovable, even the people he owes money can’t stay angry at him–and there are occasional moments of Nicholson brilliance. Unfortunately, they’re during the human parts, which he doesn’t get many.

Barkin’s excellent. The film makes a mistake at one point comparing her to trampy sister Beverly D’Angelo. It’s clear Barkin’s character–intelligent, socially awkward and shyly sexy–would never bother making such an obvious comparison. Especially given D’Angelo’s sister is introduced as an unsympathetic cancer on her life.

Some of the supporting cast–Veronica Cartwright, Saul Rubinek–is good. Others–D’Angelo, Michael McKean, David Clennon–are on autopilot. I don’t think Harry Dean Stanton was even awake, they just taped his eyes open.

But the cast isn’t the problem, it’s the script. Eastman’s script is technically good, but it clearly should have been a novel. It’s a reality-based absurdist conspiracy situation comedy. The movie can’t get enough information across to really tell the story.

Still, it’s charming to some degree and much better than I expected.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bob Rafelson; written by Carole Eastman; director of photography, Stephen H. Burum; edited by William Steinkamp; music by Georges Delerue; production designer, Mel Bourne; produced by Eastman and Bruce Gilbert; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Jack Nicholson (Harry Bliss), Ellen Barkin (Joan Spruance), Harry Dean Stanton (Redmond Layls), Beverly D’Angelo (Andy Ellerman), Michael McKean (Eddy Revere), Saul Rubinek (Laurence Moncrief), Viveka Davis (June Huff), Veronica Cartwright (Helen Dextra), David Clennon (Lewie Duart), John Kapelos (Detective Melvenos), Paul Mazursky (Lee MacGreevy), Gary Graham (Butch Gable) and Lauren Tom (Adele Bliss).


Clue (1985, Jonathan Lynn)

I didn’t see Clue in the theater, so I haven’t got a… I have no idea how it played without the multiple endings. While it’s a cute idea–a different ending depending on where you see the film, all of them together on home video release–it gets tedious, especially through the second solution (though I think the second is the shortest).

Still, even tedious, Clue‘s a rather significant success. It’s based on a board game without a backstory, meaning Lynn has to come up with a way to get the people together and tie in the board game.

While Tim Curry is the closest thing the film has to a lead (he’s got solo scenes), his character’s a little loose and Curry can’t even remotely essay the dramatic moments. Christopher Lloyd, Madeline Kahn and Lesley Ann Warren give the best performances. The only bad performance is Lee Ving, who–according to the IMDb trivia page may have been cast based on his name–quite simply, cannot act. He brings down the scenes he’s in, even when tasked with sitting in a chair.

Lynn’s direction of the actors is quite good–though he could open up his establishing shots a little–and he juggles emphasizing them while not ignoring the exquisite set design. Lovely mattes too.

In some ways, Clue‘s less about the board game than the mansion murder mystery genre, using the game’s trappings as a launching point.

Confine well-acted eccentric characters and it’s hard not to succeed.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jonathan Lynn; screenplay by Lynn, based on a story by John Landis and Lynn and a board game created by Anthony E. Pratt; director of photography, Victor J. Kemper; edited by David Bretherton and Richard Haines; music by John Morris; production designer, John J. Lloyd; produced by Debra Hill; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Eileen Brennan (Mrs. Peacock), Tim Curry (Wadsworth), Madeline Kahn (Mrs. White), Christopher Lloyd (Professor Plum), Michael McKean (Mr. Green), Martin Mull (Colonel Mustard), Lesley Ann Warren (Miss Scarlet), Colleen Camp (Yvette), Lee Ving (Mr. Boddy), Bill Henderson (The Cop), Jane Wiedlin (The Singing Telegram Girl), Jeffrey Kramer (The Motorist) and Kellye Nakahara (The Cook).


Joshua (2007, George Ratliff)

Joshua is a particularly disquieting experience. I’m trying to think of a comparable experience and the closest I’m coming to is Antarctic Journal, I think. That film may or may not have had a similar counting up toward some unknown resolution (Joshua does it with the newborn sister’s age in days). The premise of the film, first-born goes evil when a new sibling arrives, isn’t particularly inventive. Even the script’s plotting is fairly standard. The film pulls itself around at the end, but more through the excellent production elements than any scripted factor. Joshua is a 1970s New York–these films are the great marginal Hollywood New York films, a genre long gone–starring Sam Rockwell.

Rockwell’s performance makes the film. Not to discredit the terrifying kid (Jacob Kogan in this film could put Trojan out of business) or Vera Farmiga as the slipping mother or Celia Weston as the nut-job fundamentalist mother-in-law who can’t stand her Jewish daughter-in-law. But Rockwell. So much of this film is Rockwell the husband, the father, struggling to maintain. Ratliff’s wasted making thrillers. Sitting here, thinking about the film and how well Ratliff shot it, had it edited, had it scored, how well Rockwell worked in the field Ratliff provided… It’s a thing of wonder. Watching Sam Rockwell run down the streets of New York, with Ratliff’s composition and Nico Muhly’s music–it gave me pause. I hadn’t realized I needed to see moments like those on film and now I have and I can’t believe I went without.

The other nice thing about Joshua is the script’s willingness to let the viewer horrify him or herself. It’s an old trick–James Whale and The Old Dark House in 1932; it works just as well seventy-six years later. There’s also an incredibly nice save at the end–did I already mention it?–but I can’t spoil it.

Like I said, Kogan’s really good. He really seemed to understand what his performance needed to do, which is rare with kid in a thriller, especially a bad seed. Weston gets to go nuts because her character’s awful. This film’s the first I’ve seen Farmiga in and it’s a thriller, so it’s probably not a good measuring device, but she does very well in a lot of it. One of Joshua‘s major problems is it’s too thought-out. A little too intelligent in the writing of the characters and their problems. It’s incredibly boring too, but in that good way. So, at one point or another, everyone eventually gets cheated by the genre.

But it’s so well-made, it doesn’t really matter. I mean, as I write this post, my fantasy film for 2010–is that year going to be Odyssey Two or The Year We Make Contact… I guess I have a bit to decide–anyway… I want Ratliff and Rockwell to adapt Ordinary People. That fervent desire has nothing to do with Joshua, I suppose, but it’d be amazing.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Ratliff; written by David Gilbert and Ratliff; director of photography, Benoît Debie; edited by Jacob Craycroft; music by Nico Muhly; production designer, Roshelle Berliner; produced by Johnathan Dorfman; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Sam Rockwell (Brad Cairn), Vera Farmiga (Abby Cairn), Celia Weston (Hazel Cairn), Dallas Roberts (Ned Davidoff), Michael McKean (Chester Jerkins), Alex Draper (Stewart Slocum), Nancy Giles (Betsy Polsheck), Linda Larkin (Ms. Danforth), Stephanie Roth Haberle (Pediatrician) and Jacob Kogan (Joshua Cairn).


This is Spinal Tap (1984, Rob Reiner)

To be fair, I haven’t seen Spinal Tap in fifteen years, so when I say I remember it being funnier… well, I’m sure I used to think Caddyshack was funnier too. Funny even.

Spinal Tap achieved, in the late 1990s, a mythic reputation among film and DVD geeks for a couple reasons. First, I suppose, was Waiting for Guffman. Second, and more specific, was the Criterion Collection DVD release, which became rare as many of those early Criterion DVDs became rare. I didn’t have the Criterion–though, at one point, I think I might have had a copy of the in-character audio commentary–and I never watched it during this period. Getting around to it now was because the fiancée had never seen it and, like I said, I remembered it being funnier.

The film’s greatest deficit, both acting-wise and creatively, is obviously Rob Reiner. His direction is insipid, which–from the technical angle–could be explained by his character’s lack of talent, but the direction of actors isn’t any good either, so that excuse is out. His acting is something even worse and he weighs down every scene he’s in. Unfortunately, Reiner’s not the only problem. While Spinal Tap is really funny during the first half hour or so, once the film gets itself a narrative, it crumbles. Long, unfunny scenes, meant to tell a story, make the film feel like it’s three hours instead of eighty-two minutes.

Some of the cameos are incredibly successful–Bruno Kirby’s for instance–but others are just too short. Fred Willard needed a few more seconds. Spinal Tap is almost a success, stressing the ‘almost.’ The rest of the fault has to fall on the band focus. Christopher Guest is the best, but doesn’t get as much screen-time as Michael McKean, who is the worst. June Chadwick, as McKean’s girlfriend, is boring and predictable (both her performance and the character). Harry Shearer isn’t in the film anywhere near enough and it never feels like he has a relationship with the other band members.

In short, it works as a joke, not a movie.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Rob Reiner; written by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Reiner; director of photography, Peter Smokler; edited by Robert Leighton, Kent Beyda and Kim Secrist; music and lyrics by Guest, McKean, Shearer and Reiner; produced by Karen Murphy; released by Embassy Pictures.

Starring Rob Reiner (Marty DiBerti), Michael McKean (David St. Hubbins), Christopher Guest (Nigel Tufnel), Harry Shearer (Derek Smalls), R.J. Parnell (Mick Shrimpton), David Kaff (Viv Savage), Tony Hendra (Ian Faith), Bruno Kirby (Tommy Pischedda) and June Chadwick (Jeanine Pettibone).


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