Miramax Films

The Station Agent (2003, Tom McCarthy)

The Station Agent is not a character study. It does try, at almost exactly the one hour mark (it runs a breezy, but deliberate eighty-nine minutes), to become a character study, but it is not a character study. It is actually a perfect example of how to not make a character study.

Writer-director McCarthy spends the first hour avoiding showing the audience enough about protagonist Peter Dinklage to even hazard an understanding, then gives Dinklage a series of challenges to overcome in the third act. The challenges are mostly hackneyed; if they aren’t hackneyed, McCarthy doesn’t want to stick with them because there’s no character development for Dinklage (onscreen). So instead of achieving something sublime, Station Agent rushes a finish. It’s a long rush–the last third–and an obvious, predictable one.

It’s all thanks to the actors it works out. Dinklage is awesome. If McCarthy weren’t terrified of making the film about him, Dinklage would be even better. There’s the potential for a great role, but McCarthy doesn’t write for it. He wants to keep things genial. Station Agent is a comedy with some melodrama. Most of the comedy comes from Dinklage’s sidekick, Bobby Cannavale.

Dinklage inherits a train station depot. He’s a train enthusiast. He moves across New Jersey to live in the depot. Cannavale runs his recovering father’s food truck–inexplicably stationed in the same remote lot as the depot. It’s got nice scenery, I suppose. Station Agent is a visually precious film. Oliver Bokelberg’s photography–except at night, really–John Paino’s production design, the locations. McCarthy succeeds with a visual result better than his composition.

Anyway, Cannavale wants to be friends because there’s “no one cool in town.” Dinklage doesn’t want to be friends because he doesn’t want to make friends; he lives a solitary life, avoiding social interactions because he has dwarfism. McCarthy’s inability to convey that aspect of Dinklage’s character in the script (and plot) is Station Agent’s big problem. He can’t figure out a way to talk about it.

Dinklage even tells Cannavale–who is so charming and lovable and downright good, they have to become friends–Dinklage even tells him he doesn’t want to talk about it. Because Station Agent doesn’t want to think about it, even though it informs all of Dinklage’s actions.

Again, movie can get away with it because it’s got a good sentiment, great performances, and solid dialogue. It’s fun to watch.

Dinklage and Cannavale find a third Musketeer in Patricia Clarkson. Clarkson’s good, but she gets the shaft as far as a character. She’s separated from husband, painting (weird faces), her toddler son has died. If it weren’t for Clarkson’s nervous distraction, the character would be as caricature on screen as in script. But Clarkson does a lot with the part.

Until McCarthy kicks her out of the movie. Then he kicks Cannavale out of the movie. In their place, he brings in Michelle Williams as a possible love interest for Dinklage. Williams’s good, she and Dinklage have chemistry, but McCarthy chickens out of it.

The Station Agent is a charming, beautifully acted, solidly constructed film. But seeing as how everyone showed up to do some work–even Stephen Trask’s slightly overbearing, omnipresent score excels–it would have been nice if McCarthy had something for them to do after the movie hits the one hour mark.

I mean, it’s not even clear Dinklage gets water and power at the train depot. The one plot thread McCarthy follows up on is to make a plotting thing work. The subplots are all fake; Cannavale’s father is a contrivance, ditto Williams’s home situation, ditto Clarkson’s mourning. Dinklage gets a charming but empty subplot with a fellow train enthusiast, middle schooler Raven Goodwin. Because McCarthy’s scared to do an actual subplot. And, no surprise, Goodwin even gets a fake subplot in an otherwise disposable, yet charming scene.

The Station Agent is good. But it’s frustratingly close to being great; it just needed some development for its characters. Onscreen character development for its cast. Dinklage, Cannavale, and Clarkson are all good. And they all showed up ready to be exceptional. And McCarthy chickens out every single time they can be.

But always in a charming way.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Tom McCarthy; director of photography, Oliver Bokelberg; edited by Tom McArdle; music by Stephen Trask; production designer, John Paino; produced by Robert May, Mary Jane Skalski, and Kathryn Tucker; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Peter Dinklage (Finbar McBride), Bobby Cannavale (Joe Oramas), Patricia Clarkson (Olivia Harris), Michelle Williams (Emily), Raven Goodwin (Cleo), and Paul Benjamin (Henry Styles).


Cop Land (1997, James Mangold)

Cop Land either has a lot of story going on and not enough content or a lot of content going on and not enough story. Also you could do variations of those statements with “plot.” Writer and director Mangold toggles Cop Land between two plot lines. First is lead Sylvester Stallone. Second is this big police corruption and cover-up story with Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Robert Patrick, and Michael Rapaport. And some other guys. It’s the bigger story. Ray Liotta floats between, on his own thing. Almost everyone in Cop Land has their own story going and Mangold’s just checking in on it as background every once in a while. It creates this feeling of depth, even though there hasn’t actually been any plot development. The actors help.

But Mangold doesn’t have the same approach to narrative between the plot lines. Stallone’s in this character study, De Niro and Keitel are in this detached procedural. Stallone’s story could be a procedural, it would make sense for it to be a procedural–even De Niro tells him it ought to be a procedural–but Mangold keeps it a character study. All the way to the problematic ending.

Because as impressive as Mangold gets in Cop Land–and the film’s superbly acted, directed, written, photographed–but Mangold can’t bring it all together. He starts showing his inability to commingle his plot lines with Annabella Sciorra’s increased presence in the film. She’s good and she should have a good part. As teenagers, Stallone saved her, going partially deaf in the process. He could never become a cop (his dream) and Sciorra ends up marrying a shitbag cop (Peter Berg–who’s so good playing a shitbag) who’s terrible to her. Mangold’s plot presents him with some opportunity for Sciorra’s character to have a good arc, but he skips it. It’s a distraction and he wants to stay focused on something else.

That problematic finish? Lead Stallone becomes a distraction and Mangold wants to focus on something else. It’s a painful misstep too, with Mangold just coming off the third act action sequence–the only real action sequence in the film–and it’s awesome. So Mangold’s done drama, procedural, character study, action, and he’s perfectly segued between the different tones while simultaneously cohering them. Cop Land is building. Then all of a sudden Mangold loses the ability to segue. And to cohere. Maybe because Mangold reveal Liotta as his own major subplot somewhere near the end of second act (after doing everything he could to reduce Liotta from his first act presence). It’s a narrative pothole.

Though, given the film opens with De Niro narrating the ground situation, it’s impressive Mangold’s able to get the film through ninety plus minutes without the seams showing. The opening narration is compelling and the Howard Shore music for it is great, but it’s completely different from everything else in the picture.

Even when De Niro returns to the narration.

Maybe Mangold’s just bad at the summary storytelling though audio device. He also botches using newsradio commentary to move things along or set them up.

Cop Land is a little story in a big world. Mangold has got a great handle on the little story but not the big world. Though the Stallone arrives in New York City scene is kind of great. Stallone, Mangold, cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards, Shore. It just works. Because Stallone lumbers.

The film’s full of flashy performances. De Niro, Liotta, Berg, Patrick, Rapaport, they all get to be flashy. Dynamic. Mangold gives them great scenes and the actors deliver. All of them consistently except Berg. Berg’s too absent in the first act for all the subplots he gets to affect in the second.

But Keitel and Stallone are never flashy. Stallone because it’s his character. His character is anti-flash. His character is a drunken sheriff who goes around town in his flipflops opening parking meters for quarters to play pinball. Keitel it’s a combination of performance and part. Keitel only gets a couple moments to himself in the film and they’re real short. Mangold juxtaposes Stallone and Keitel in the story but not how he tells that story. It’s a weird thing to avoid, but Mangold avoids a lot.

For example, Mangold strongly implies no one in this town of cops (and cops’ wives, and cops’ children) respects the local law enforcement. It gives Stallone this Will Kane moment, but Mangold’s never established how it’s possible. How the town could truly function. And then Cop Land has all this toxic masculinity, racism, and complicity swirling around the plot and Mangold keeps eyes fixed forward. When a subplot or character starts going too much in those directions… bye bye subplot, bye bye character. Even though Mangold makes sure to write a good scene or get a great performance out of it.

Mangold fumbles Cop Land’s finish. He doesn’t know how to scale the narrative distance. Even if he did, there are some other significant pitfalls. But it’s almost great. Cop Land is almost great.

The acting is all good. De Niro is able to handle the Pacino-esque ranges in volume. Stallone self-effaces well. Maybe too much since Keitel’s a tad detached. Liotta takes an overly complicated role with too little development and gets some great material.

Much of Howard Shore’s score is excellent. When it’s not excellent, even when it’s predictable, it’s competent. Excellent photography from Edwards. Lester Cohen’s production design is good, even better than Mangold’s shots of it.

Cop Land comes real close; real, real close.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by James Mangold; director of photography, Eric Alan Edwards; edited by Craig McKay; music by Howard Shore; production designer, Lester Cohen; produced by Cary Woods, Cathy Konrad and Ezra Swerdlow; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (Freddy Heflin), Ray Liotta (Gary Figgis), Harvey Keitel (Ray Donlan), Robert De Niro (Moe Tilden), Michael Rapaport (Murray Babitch), Annabella Sciorra (Liz Randone), Robert Patrick (Jack Rucker), Arthur J. Nascarella (Frank Lagonda), Peter Berg (Joey Randone), Janeane Garofalo (Deputy Cindy Betts), Noah Emmerich (Deputy Bill Geisler), Malik Yoba (Detective Carson), Cathy Moriarty (Rose Donlan), John Spencer (Leo Crasky), and Frank Vincent (PDA President Lassaro).


Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino)

There’s a lot of great moments in Pulp Fiction. There’s not a lot of great filmmaking–the taxi ride conversation between Bruce Willis and Angela Jones is about as close as director Tarantino gets to it–but there are definitely a lot of great moments. There’s the chemistry between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson. There’s the Christopher Walken monologue, which is hilarious.

It’s also beyond problematic in terms of Tarantino’s force-feeding of racism to the audience; at a certain point, very, very early on, the viewer either has to accept Tarantino’s conceit racist language doesn’t make one a racist or just stop watching the film. Because the real racists are actually literal monsters, something the criminals of Pulp Fiction usually aren’t (at least on screen). Oh, and Tarantino’s wife in the film is black. So his slur-laden monologue–terribly delivered, of course, as Tarantino’s a horrific actor–means he really isn’t racist. It’s just supposed to be funny. You know, agree with him about it.

There’s probably lots written about Tarantino and racism. Lots excusing him, I’m sure. But Pulp Fiction doesn’t want to talk about racism or much else. It’s another stool Tarantino steps on to deliver the film. It’s not about the real world or real people, it’s about Tarantino’s version of “pulp fiction,” which involves magic and so on. Anyway, I’m off topic. A look at the film’s place in mainstreaming “post-racial” racist humor deserves a serious discussion, which I’m going to do here.

Wow, after that lede, how do I get back on track with saying a lot of nice things about the film and Tarantino’s writing….

He gets phenomenal performances from Travolta and Willis. Travolta somewhat more than Willis, even though Willis gets better material to himself. Travolta’s good solo, but nothing compared to when he’s with Jackson and Jackson gets the only real character role in the film. Everyone else plays a caricature or worse, but Jackson gets to stop and look around at the world and figure out how to live in it. He’s amazing, whether he’s delivering Tarantino’s comical expository dialogue, the tough guy threatening, the soul searching; Jackson does it all.

There’s some solid support from Maria de Medeiros as Willis’s girlfriend. The film’s in three sections–Travolta goes on a date with crime boss Ving Rhames’s wife, Uma Thurman in the first, Willis rips off Rhames and is on the run in the second, then the third part is just an amusement chapter for Jackson and Travolta. de Medeiros is barely in the film, doesn’t get to leave a crappy motel room set, yet she still makes more of the character than Thurman makes of hers.

You can say Thurman’s got a well-written role, but you’re wrong. Sorry. Tarantino doesn’t want to ruminate on masculinity, but he gets in the ballpark (Willis as the classic Hollywood hero). The female characters, Thurman in particular, get thin material. You need to think about it. Pulp Fiction is, like I said, rather problematic. It doesn’t help Thurman her wig has to do most of the acting with the way Tarantino directs her. His direction of her talking heads scenes with Travolta is his worst work as a director in the entire film. Like I said, problematic. It’s a good, very problematic motion picture.

Would it be better if cinematographer Andrzej Sekula weren’t really boring? Maybe. Sekula lights the picture to emphasize the performances, which is fine, only it’s not all close-ups or medium shots where it’d be appropriate. The solid, but not startling, editing from Sally Menke helps things a little though. There’s an energy to the film and when it goes slack, Fiction gets a little too long in the tooth. Since it’s three separate chapters, it’s particularly annoying when it goes slack right off with Thurman and Travolta’s date. Willis and Rhames’s story immediately saves the picture. Jackson and Travolta basically coast through on the last one.

Oh, and Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer aren’t good enough. Some of it’s the writing, some of it’s the directing, but quite a bit of it is their performances. It’s a strange misstep too, since Tarantino’s attention to narrative tone is one of the best things about the film.

Pulp Fiction is a solid, often troubling film. Tarantino doesn’t bite off more than he can chew, however–it’s assured, but not ambitious in anything but its length and bravado–because he doesn’t chew off much of anything with it.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Quentin Tarantino; screenplay by Tarantino, based on a story by Tarantino and Roger Avary; director of photography, Andrzej Sekula; edited by Sally Menke; production designer, David Wasco; produced by Lawrence Bender; released by Miramax Films.

Starring John Travolta (Vincent Vega), Samuel L. Jackson (Jules Winnfield), Uma Thurman (Mia Wallace), Bruce Willis (Butch Coolidge), Harvey Keitel (The Wolf), Tim Roth (Pumpkin), Amanda Plummer (Honey Bunny), Maria de Medeiros (Fabienne), Ving Rhames (Marsellus Wallace), Eric Stoltz (Lance), Rosanna Arquette (Jody) and Christopher Walken (Captain Koons).


Clerks (1994, Kevin Smith)

Clerks operates on intensity. But it’s mostly dialogue and there’s not a lot of action. So director Smith relies on surprises, whether visual, in dialogue, in plot. At its best, Clerks is creative with its constraints. At its worst, Clerks is lead Brian O’Halloran whining (badly, I might add). There’s a lot of whining. Only O’Halloran is supposed to be the viewer’s POV; Smith structures the narrative from this negative place. That POV allows for a lot of the humor–and it gives Jeff Anderson’s sidekick character more implied depth than O’Halloran gets–but it does get annoying at times. As Clerks progresses, Smith gets a lot less inventive and not just with the filmmaking, but with the narrative.

The film ends up being about O’Halloran and his place in the universe. While it does start with O’Halloran, it’s more about his juvenile behavior in his relationship with his girlfriend, Marilyn Ghigliotti in the film’s best performance. O’Halloran isn’t good and Smith doesn’t know how to direct him to be better. The script requires a lot of charm for the part to work and O’Halloran doesn’t have it. He even gets less likable as the movie goes on and he becomes less and less imposing a protagonist.

Maybe if O’Halloran were actually structured to have everything go on around him, but Smith doesn’t set things up well. Clerks is a lot of solid creative impulses running out of steam before they’re anywhere near finished. Same goes for Smith’s script–he’s got some interesting questions but the answers never surpass mediocre.

Anderson’s fantastic, O’Halloran isn’t. There’s amusing support from Jason Mewes, problematic–but earnest–support from Lisa Spoonauer (in the film’s most problematic role).

Great photography from David Klein, great editing (for the most part) from Smith and Scott Mosier.

Clerks goes from better to worse to a little bit better, but having a strong sense of itself for the finale doesn’t make up for all the time it spends floundering.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kevin Smith; director of photography, David Klein; edited and produced by Scott Mosier and Smith; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Brian O’Halloran (Dante Hicks), Jeff Anderson (Randal Graves), Marilyn Ghigliotti (Veronica), Lisa Spoonauer (Caitlin Bree), Jason Mewes (Jay), Kevin Smith (Silent Bob) and Scott Mosier (Willam the Idiot Manchild).


Reservoir Dogs (1992, Quentin Tarantino)

The least violent part of Reservoir Dogs is the bloodiest. One of the characters is in a pool of blood, slipping on it as he delivers his dialogue. Director Tarantino finds a moment of Shakespearian tragedy and builds a film to it. He uses stylish ultra-violence, Dogs is visceral with the blood, but the action itself implies a far more frugal production. He uses seventies music, but not the trendy stuff. His somewhat fractured narrative, which owes something to classic film noir, wants to be an updated version of seventies crime. And he succeeds with it. Tarantino would never be able to get away with Dogs having actual tragedy if he weren’t able to sell everything else he packages with that tragedy.

Dogs acknowledges the idea of being outlandish exploitation but the film’s so tightly constructed, Tarantino never lets anything get wild. The film’s most “uncontrolled” sequence, as Michael Madsen does a freestyle torture dance to “Stuck in the Middle with You,” turns out to be Tarantino’s most controlled sequence in the film’s primary location, where everything is controlled. But with Madsen’s dance, Tarantino takes the time to acknowledge the various realities of the situation. He breaks the movie magic, not because he wants to offer commentary or deconstruct genre, but because the film needs reality. The tragedy doesn’t work with reality. Without the reality, Dogs wouldn’t be difficult. It’d be amusing, sure, but it wouldn’t require the viewer to mentally engage with the film.

And Tarantino starts with those demands on the viewer right off. The first scene of the film demands the viewer make some value judgements on the cast. Harvey Keitel has to be likable, same goes for Tim Roth, even Lawrence Tierney a little. Certain actors just get to be actors, certain actors have to do a bit of a feint, but the scene has a whole bunch to do. It’s the hook. And it’s not in Tarantino’s monologues, it’s how the characters talk to one another, how they react to one another. The rhythm isn’t in one actor’s voice, but in how the banter works.

Many of the actors do get great scenes, some even get great monologues–Harvey Keitel, for instance, just gets tons of great stuff to do in the film. Right from the start, he gets the hardest work opposite Tim Roth and then Steve Buscemi. When Keitel and Madsen finally get around to facing off, there’s so much built up energy, anything seems possible. Of course, anything is not possible, because Tarantino is trying to get things somewhere specific.

Most of the film’s runtime takes place in a warehouse. Most of the film’s present action, once the flashback structure establishes, takes place in various locations. Tarantino takes forever to open up the film. It takes Dogs forever to get to a daytime scene without violence. Tarantino puts off letting the viewer identify with any of the characters. Because Dogs, for the viewer and for the characters, is about sympathy with the devil, taking responsibility for that sympathy and even requesting for that sympathy. It’s really, really good.

Andrzej Sekula’s photography is fine. Sally Menke’s editing is phenomenal. The sets are the real star. David Wasco’s production design. Tarantino shoots on cheap but Dogs never looks it. Wasco and Tarantino make it look like there’s no other way to see this film, no other angles. Tarantino holds his shots, making the hanging clothes or the wash basins extremely important–they burn into the viewer’s mind. Especially in the first act. The film implies a larger world outside itself, in no small part thanks to the set design and decoration; Tarantino asks a lot of the viewer.

And he does reward it. He promises it right off with the actors. Keitel, Buscemi, Chris Penn. They’re doing dynamic, sensational work. Even though the introduction of these characters and their development throughout the film might make them less sympathetic characters, the performances are magnificent. Especially Keitel and Buscemi. And Michael Madsen’s really good. Everyone’s really good. Except Tarantino. He’s really bad at acting. He gives himself a bad part, which is kind of good. Kind of. He’s still bad.

Tim Roth’s great.

Nice support from Randy Brooks and Kirk Baltz. Stephen Wright’s unseen DJ is almost an essential compenent.

Reservoir Dogs is never startling. Tarantino isn’t trying to exploit his viewer, he’s trying to tell a story. It’s not a big story. It’s not a grand story. It’s something of a tragic anecdote. Something tragic that happened to these guys when they were doing a job.

It’s an outstanding film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; director of photography, Andrzej Sekula; edited by Sally Menke; production designer, David Wasco; produced by Lawrence Bender; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Harvey Keitel (Mr. White), Tim Roth (Mr. Orange), Michael Madsen (Mr. Blonde), Steve Buscemi (Mr. Pink), Chris Penn (Nice Guy Eddie), Lawrence Tierney (Joe Cabot), Edward Bunker (Mr. Blue), Quentin Tarantino (Mr. Brown), Randy Brooks (Holdaway), Kirk Baltz (Marvin) and Steven Wright (K-Billy DJ).


Trainspotting (1996, Danny Boyle)

Trainspotting moves. More than anything, director Boyle concerns himself with the film’s pace, whether through Masahiro Hirakubo’s glorious editing or lead Ewan McGregor’s narration, the film immediately sets a fast pace and keeps it throughout the film. Nothing can slow the film down, not even big events, because there’s no real plot. It’s sort of a character study, though McGregor’s narration should make him far too subjective to be the character studied. Only John Hodge’s screenplay doesn’t use the narration to move the plot–it does occasionally help keep track of the summary storytelling–mostly that narration is Trainspotting‘s version of exposition. The film drops the viewer into McGregor’s world of heroin addicts and their acquaintances (and their families and their acquaintances’ families); the narration gives the viewer some context. Not a lot, but some.

The first act of Trainspotting, which it turns out is a flashback–Boyle and Hodge only have ninety minutes and change and they maximize it through a lot of nice narrative tricks–introduces the lovable cast of heroin addicts. McGregor’s the most normal, most relatable, Ewen Bremner’s an adorable screw-up, Jonny Lee Miller’s the sort of loathsome but amusingly obsessed with Sean Connery James Bond movies one, Robert Carlyle’s the non-using, loathsome, awkwardly funny, psychotically violent one. Kevin McKidd’s another square. The heroin addiction gives Boyle and company opportunities to visually impress, but it’s not really the center of the film. The relationship between the characters is the center, only it’s not a particularly healthy relationship. Trainspotting has a sort of pithiness to its self-awareness. It’s a whirlwind. It doesn’t calm down until after the end credits have started.

All of the acting is excellent. McGregor’s great, but he has nowhere near as much time to shine in his regular performance as he does in the narration. Carlyle’s just too distracting. Even when Carlyle doesn’t have lines, he’s distracting. He’s this incredibly strange, incredibly dangerous presence in the film. Even though Boyle can visualize the heroin high, realizing McGregor’s internal experience on film, it’s almost impossible to understand how Carlyle can exist in the film. There’s fantastical and then there’s otherworldly. To Boyle, Hodge and Carlyle’s credit, they realize the character. They make it work. They make you believe the bull belongs in the china shop.

Nice smaller supporting turns from Peter Mullan, James Cosmo and Eileen Nicholas. Kelly Macdonald has a good part as McGregor’s love interest.

Great photography from Brian Tufano. Great soundtrack.

Trainspotting is an easy film about difficult subjects. It’s painstakingly objective but almost disinterested in the idea it should be judgmental. There’s no time for it. Boyle’s got to keep things moving.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Danny Boyle; screenplay by John Hodge, based on the novel by Irvine Welsh; director of photography, Brian Tufano; edited by Masahiro Hirakubo; production designer, Kave Quinn; produced by Andrew MacDonald; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Ewan McGregor (Renton), Ewen Bremner (Spud), Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy), Kevin McKidd (Tommy), Robert Carlyle (Begbie), Kelly Macdonald (Diane), Pauline Lynch (Lizzy), Shirley Henderson (Gail), James Cosmo (Mr. Renton), Eileen Nicholas (Mrs. Renton) and Peter Mullan (Swanney).


There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson)

There Will Be Blood. I don’t know where to start. Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance is biggest thing in the film–it’s the film, after all. Without Day-Lewis, the film’s not possible. Director Anderson gives Day-Lewis some quiet at the beginning of the picture to establish himself; there’s nothing to do but stare as the music comes up, as Robert Elswit’s photography contains the carefully executed action. Day-Lewis transfixes and never lets go.

But Blood is, beneath all its epic trappings, just a character study. It’s such an intense character study, Anderson is more than willing to let the narrative take a back seat to Day-Lewis’s performance. While the setting and the script are all meticulous, their details are background. Day-Lewis exists in front of them, directly in between the viewer and the story.

At the same time, Anderson goes out of his way with the grandiosity. Between Elswit’s photography, Jonny Greenwood’s music and Jack Fisk’s production design, every moment of Blood has audiovisual impact. Anderson and Elswit do these incredibly complex tracking shots from time to time; they’re breathtaking filmmaking but they never betray the film’s focus. The viewer’s attention is on Day-Lewis.

Anderson’s concentration–the way he forces the viewer to pay attention–mirrors Day-Lewis’s concentration. Just the time he loses that concentration is when Anderson forces the viewer to start re-evaluating things.

Great support from Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier and Ciarán Hinds.

It’s a brilliant film. Every moment’s absolutely perfect.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; screenplay by Anderson, based on a novel by Upton Sinclair; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by Dylan Tichenor; music by Jonny Greenwood; production designer, Jack Fisk; produced by JoAnne Sellar, Anderson and Daniel Lupi; released by Miramax Films and Paramount Vantage.

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis (Daniel Plainview), Paul Dano (Eli Sunday), Kevin J. O’Connor (Henry), Ciarán Hinds (Fletcher) and Dillon Freasier (HW).


Bullets Over Broadway (1994, Woody Allen)

Bullets Over Broadway has a lot going for it. Between Chazz Palminteri, Jennifer Tilly and Dianne Wiest, there’s a lot of great acting and great moments. There are a decided lack of great scenes, however, thanks to director Allen’s choice of John Cusack as leading man. Cusack doesn’t so much give a performance as imitate Woody Allen, though not all of the time. Occasionally he gives an overly affected performance and comes off as mocking the material. As opposed to Wiest, who gives an overly affected performance and embraces the material.

There are also some big writing problems, like the narration. For whatever reason, Allen and co-writer Douglas McGrath go with some useless narration from Cusack to show time progressing. There are a half dozen better devices they could have used, but if Cusack’s performance of the narration weren’t terrible, it might work a little better. But a lot of it is on Allen, especially the moronic ending, which relies entirely on the nonexistent chemistry between Cusack and girlfriend Mary-Louise Parker.

There’s some really nice supporting work from Jim Broadbent. Some okay support from Joe Viterelli and Tracey Ullman. Not so good supporting work from Jack Warden. He and Cusack’s scenes together are particularly bad.

The best thing about Bullets is Allen’s matter-of-fact presentation of violence. It’s simultaneously shocking and mundane, as opposed to the film itself, which oscillates between mundane and annoying. It does move pretty well though. The good acting moves it right along.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Woody Allen; written by Allen and Douglas McGrath; director of photography, Carlo Di Palma; edited by Susan E. Morse; production designer, Santo Loquasto; produced by Robert Greenhut; released by Miramax Films.

Starring John Cusack (David Shayne), Chazz Palminteri (Cheech), Dianne Wiest (Helen Sinclair), Jennifer Tilly (Olive Neal), Tracey Ullman (Eden Brent), Jim Broadbent (Warner Purcell), Jack Warden (Julian Marx), Joe Viterelli (Nick Valenti), Mary-Louise Parker (Ellen), Harvey Fierstein (Sid Loomis) and Rob Reiner (Sheldon Flender).


Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002, George Clooney)

As the dangerous mind in the title (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), Sam Rockwell should be entirely unsympathetic. The film spends its first act mocking Rockwell and inviting the viewer to participate. With the exception of his chemistry with Drew Barrymore’s saintly character, there’s nothing redeeming about Rockwell’s character. Yet he’s tragically endearing.

The film is based on Chuck Barris’s autobiography, where the game show host says he worked as an assassin for the CIA. Charlie Kaufman’s script–and Clooney’s direction of that script–never really raises a question about it. Even though there are real entertainment people giving interviews (it opens with Dick Clark’s recollections of Barris), Clooney approaches the spy stuff straightforward. It’s the story of a successful showbiz guy who was a spy.

The conflicts caused by that absurd contradiction are where Confessions devastates. The relationship between Rockwell and Barrymore, which is a third plot line, separate from both the spy stuff and the TV stuff, doesn’t actually give the film its humanity, it gives it its emotional veracity. Rockwell, who’s phenomenal throughout, has a lot more acting hurdles to jump in the spy stuff–the TV stuff is almost straight comedy. The romance with Barrymore is a period piece but is intricately tied to the reality of the film.

It’s great. Clooney and Rockwell do a great job. Rockwell’s breathtaking, Barrymore’s good, Clooney’s got a small part, Julia Roberts has a small part–they’re both really good.

Confessions is flashy and noisy and precise and singular.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Clooney; screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, based on the book by Chuck Barris; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by Stephen Mirrione; music by Alex Wurman; production designer, James D. Bissell; produced by Andrew Lazar; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Sam Rockwell (Chuck Barris), Drew Barrymore (Penny Pacino), George Clooney (Jim Byrd), Julia Roberts (Patricia Watson) and Rutger Hauer (Keeler).


The Importance of Being Earnest (2002, Oliver Parker)

Oliver Parker takes an interesting approach when it comes to adapting The Importance of Being Earnest from play to screen. He doesn’t worry much about opening up the film; at the beginning of the film, he showcases late nineteenth century London and later does quite a bit with Colin Firth’s country estate… but during the lengthy, dialogue-heavy scenes, he just lets the dialogue do its work.

The playfulness of the dialogue, the combination of sincerity and humor the cast imbues in it, makes Earnest seem open even when it’s closed. Tony Pierce-Roberts’s sumptuous photography and Charlie Mole’s playful music help quite a bit–and there are some distinct, memorable outdoor sequences (not to mention a singing montage). It’s quite an interesting adaptation.

Of the two male leads–Firth and Rupert Everett–Everett gets to have more fun. It’s appropriate, because of their love interests–Frances O’Connor for Firth and Reese Witherspoon for Everett–O’Connor gets to have more fun. It all balances out.

The film moves through a few phases, with the focus switching between Everett and Firth, before it becomes their dual effort to win back their love interests. That structure also allows for some nice scenes with O’Connor and Witherspoon. O’Connor and Everett are outstanding.

There’s some nice support from Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Anna Massey and Edward Fox.

As the film winds down and the contrivances stack up, it does appear a little flimsy. Luckily, Parker saves some good jokes for the finale and recovers.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Oliver Parker; screenplay by Parker, based on the play by Oscar Wilde; director of photography, Tony Pierce-Roberts; edited by Guy Bensley; music by Charlie Mole; production designer, Luciana Arrighi; produced by Barnaby Thompson; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Rupert Everett (Algy Moncrieff), Colin Firth (Jack Worthing), Frances O’Connor (Gwendolen Fairfax), Reese Witherspoon (Cecily Cardew), Judi Dench (Lady Augusta Bracknell), Tom Wilkinson (Dr. Chasuble), Anna Massey (Miss Prism) and Edward Fox (Lane).


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