Patti D’Arbanville

Fresh Horses (1988, David Anspaugh)

The surprise tragedy of Fresh Horses is Molly Ringwald could’ve been good in it. Even though she’s top-billed, she doesn’t get a scene without Andrew McCarthy until almost halfway through the movie—she’s the white trash object of his working-to-middle class sexual lust—but she’s not good in that scene. Actually, it’s her only scene without McCarthy in the movie, I think. Wow. Anyway. She has this scene where she shocks the three girls McCarthy and best friend Ben Stiller have brought to she and McCarthy’s love nest (a shack alongside the railroad) to party and, if Stiller has his way, orgy. It’s not a great monologue by any stretch but it does show agency, which Ringwald’s without the rest of the film even when it pretends she’s got some.

But that scene… it’s where Fresh Horses, for the first time since the first act, has some potential to go somewhere good. The film’s so far past the point of no return but for a moment, it seems like it might. Maybe because of the awesome rainy sequence at these stairs (the Serpentine Wall in Cincinnati), when it seems like McCarthy and Stiller are going to go for some wholesome bonding as they take McCarthy’s dad’s boat out on the river, which is actually the opening titles.

They don’t. They go to try to get laid, which ends up being the most passively offensive sequence in the film (as opposed to the actively offensive ones like when McCarthy accuses Ringwald of making up sexual assault or, you know, hits her… Fresh Horses is truly fucked up). McCarthy and Stiller on the prowl isn’t just why the sequence—they crash rich girl Molly Hagan’s house, where she’s having a pool party with Welker White and Rachel Jones—is so offensive, but because it turns out the three girls are just waiting for the guys to validate their existence with the gift of McCarthy and Stiller sticks. There’s an actual line of dialogue—from a female character—about how men don’t realize how lucky women feel to get laid.

Now, in a better world, I wouldn’t have given Fresh Horses enough time to get to that point in the film. Director Anspaugh can shoot a mean Serpentine Wall in the rain but it’s not like his direction is good. His instincts are terrible, especially with the actors—like, no one thought we should actually hear McCarthy break up with rich girl fiancée Chiara Peacock or maybe have the scene after McCarthy gets beat up for not pimping out Ringwald where they see each other. The subsequent scene to the sad fade out on beaten McCarthy is Ringwald asking surrogate mom Patti D'Arbanville if she’d ever been the object of working-to-middle class sexual lust and D’Arbanville–Fresh Horses doesn’t just reject Bechdel, it rejects the idea of it—D’Arbanville wistfully tells Ringwald she’d trade one McCarthy for all her experience, which doesn’t so much sound romantic as make all of D’Arbanville’s encounters sound like rape.

But writer Larry Kenton (who adapted his apparently just as fucked up play) doesn’t… have a concept of consent. The film’s a relic of toxic masculinity among the beta males, as Stiller (who’s got a serious girlfriend, Marita Geraghty, but spends most of the movie on the prowl) explains it to McCarthy—it’s hard to make male friends so you have to make sure not to lose the ones you’ve got, even if it means making sure they don’t get to be with the girls they want to be with. See, Stiller’s buds with college scuz bucket Doug Hutchison who gossips about Ringwald actually being sixteen and married, which leads to the first time McCarthy lays hands on Ringwald. Not the hitting scene. That one comes later, after he smuggles her into his house—the film doesn’t establish he lives with his parents until that point, in fact, given Peacock being so ostentatiously wealthy, it seems more like McCarthy’s similarly classed—and she makes too much noise.

Fresh Horses makes you wonder if the men who made it regretted it after they had daughters.

Actually, the first big tell of problems isn’t the strange opening credits where you can never follow the vapid rich folk conversations because no one could be bothered to really write them, it’s when McCarthy’s leaving his class (he’s an engineering student in college who also knows his rules of grammar because he’s going to correct high school dropout Ringwald on occasion, including when she’s telling him about being assaulted)… McCarthy pointlessly says, “Hi, Mr. Berg,” to this guy in the background. The producer. The producer put a cameo in the movie where the movie star lead has to identify him by name and show some deference. So I did learn one thing from Fresh Horses. Avoid movies where stars have to suck up to the producers onscreen.

Is there anything good about Fresh Horses? Is Viggo Mortensen good as Ringwald’s definitely abusive maybe husband? Umm. He’s not as bad as some people. You feel bad for D'Arbanville; her character runs a rural Tennessee party house where rough men play poker and pool and D’Arbanville serves them liquor and perv on her fifteen year-old daughter. Fresh Horses is basically a White guy’s shitty short story with a romance subplot grafted on. I know because it’s the kind of shitty short story I would’ve written because I grew up on crap like Fresh Horses.

Oh. What are Fresh Horses? They’re women. Once you tire out one horse, you get another. But they also get tired out by other riders so you don’t want those ones either.

Fresh Horses is terrible. You shouldn’t watch it. I shouldn’t have watched it. I feel bad I made my cat sit through it. I’m sorry, Fozzy. I’m very sorry.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by David Anspaugh; screenplay by Larry Ketron, based on his play; director of photography, Fred Murphy; edited by David Rosenbloom; music by David Foster and Patrick Williams; production designer, Paul Sylbert; costume designer, Colleen Atwood; produced by Richard Berg; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Andrew McCarthy (Matt), Molly Ringwald (Jewel), Ben Stiller (Tipton), Chiara Peacock (Alice), Marita Geraghty (Maureen), Doug Hutchison (Sproles), Molly Hagan (Ellen), Rachel Jones (Bobo), Welker White (Christy), Viggo Mortensen (Green), and Patti D’Arbanville (Jean).


Personal Velocity (2002, Rebecca Miller)

Personal Velocity: Three Portraits. Writer and director Miller (adapting her own collection of short stories) ties together three very different stories, each with its own structure, each with its own narrative approach. Velocity is short too–under ninety minutes–so Miller is fast to establish her protagonists. The biggest disconnect, of course, is the narration; John Ventimiglia narrates these three women’s stories. It’s a close, omnipresent narration too. Otherwise, even though men both pervade and infect the film and the protagonists’ lives, the film’s entirely from its female protagonists’ perspectives. Even when the narration is doing fill-in exposition on a male character, it’s always from over the female protagonist’s shoulder. Even if she’s not present. Miller and editor Sabine Hoffman go wild on the summary flashbacks in the second story.

The film starts serious and sincere. Kyra Sedgwick is a thirty-four year-old, low income housewife with three kids and an abusive husband (David Warshofsky). Miller’s even cruel about revealing the abuse. She and editor Hoffman introduce it as a glance, something for the viewer to fixate on or ignore. Michael Rohatyn’s music–maybe the most affecting in the first story–doesn’t slow down, doesn’t change tone. They may be poor but they love each… then it stops and Miller throws the viewer for Personal Velocity’s only “loop.” Less than five minutes into the film, she dismisses the idea she owes the viewer any expectation for the narrative. The rest of Sedgwick’s story, where Sedgwick’s shockingly unlikable, is about dismissing the viewer’s expectations for characters as well now.

Personal Velocity is digital video. It’s very digital video. Ellen Kuras does light the heck out of it, but she and Miller are going for specific level of verisimilitude. The first story takes place in upstate New York. There’s an expectation of Americana and Kuras and Miller make sure it works as an appropriate setting for Sedgwick’s performance. Because Sedgwick doesn’t tear up the film, she slow burns. For the first story, the film is about seeing what Sedgwick’s character is going to do (Velocity is like eighty percent hard character study) and how Sedgwick is going to essay those actions.

When Sedgwick’s story ends, there’s a feeling of “time’s up.” The sturdy first act Miller gives to the segment doesn’t come with a third. She sort of slices into the second act and pulls the narration higher. Sedgwick’s left a bit of a mystery.

Then Parker Posey’s story. It’s the most different in the film. Its narration is very different, its editing is very different. It’s a light romantic drama set in New York City with book editor Posey and her doctoral student husband Tim Guinee. She’s a disappointment to high-powered lawyer dad Ron Leibman, but then she becomes a success. The narration walks Posey through almost every action, every decision. The editing becomes far more creative–freeze frames, both for action and summary, building on the first story’s occasional usage–the pace is different. The tone is different. Different, different, different. Why is the difference important?

Because the differences between first and second stories help set the film up for the third. The second story isn’t just less dangerous than the first one, more erudite, it also changes how Miller’s going to have the protagonists relate to the viewer. Miller changes how she’s portraying these characters from story to story. The second story is the closest the film gets to having fun–Miller, Kuras, and Hoffman are doing slow motion, they’re doing the freeze frames, there’s flashbacks; there’s a lot of enthusiasm. By the end of it, the film has held the viewer’s hand into getting inside Posey’s perspective. Thanks to the filmmaking, thanks to the writing, thanks to Posey, Miller has gone from outside the protagonist’s perspective to inside it and then turned it around. The viewer understands the character’s decision-making without the narration to explain it anymore.

It’s an important change because the third story mostly drops the narration. It also speeds up a lot. Fairuza Balk has a lot of action, not much summary. Some quick flashbacks, but the third story is all about Balk and what’s going on in her head. A fifth of it has got to just be Balk in close-up, thinking. As the viewer gets to know her better, they get to know what she’s thinking too. It’s a very gentle story. Miller keeps all three acts intact, making it different from the first story, but the lack of narration makes it very different from the second story. But Miller’s really just leaving room for reflection in the third story. It’s about the viewer identifying, relating, considering. Miller sort of uses Balk as a guide. The story even starts out in the city and then goes to the country. It’s completely unrelated–narratively–to the first two stories. Yet Miller needs the viewer to make the connections to succeed.

She does, thanks to Balk, thanks to the crew, thanks to David Patrick Kelly, Patti D’Arbanville, and Lou Taylor Pucci. Everything works out really well, which is something since Hoffman changes up the editing style yet again in the third story. These stylistic changes mean Miller and Hoffman have to introduce them and establish them while the stories are already trying to get the protagonists and ground situations set up. Personal Velocity moves very fast, very pragmatically. But only in the pace. Visually, Miller’s an exuberant director. Lots of visuals, lots of imagery. She’s setting up the best angle into her individual protagonist’s stories.

Acting-wise–Balk’s best, then Sedgwick, then Posey, or you could reverse it, or just mix it up and pick one. The viewer’s relationship with each protagonist is so different, they’re all three just phenomenal. Ventimiglia’s narration is great. Supporting cast is all good. They’re not as essential in the first two stories as the third. Though Leo Fitzpatrick does get a touching monologue of sorts.

Personal Velocity’s fantastic. Miller, her cast, her crew, all do awesome work.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Rebecca Miller; screenplay by Miller, based on her book; director of photography, Ellen Kuras; edited by Sabine Hoffman; music by Michael Rohatyn; production designer, Judy Becker; produced by Lemore Syvan, Gary Winick, and Alexis Alexanian; released by United Artists.

Starring Kyra Sedgwick (Delia Shunt), Parker Posey (Greta Herskowitz), Fairuza Balk (Paula), Ron Leibman (Avram Herskowitz), Wallace Shawn (Mr. Gelb), David Warshofsky (Kurt Wurtzle), Leo Fitzpatrick (Mylert), Tim Guinee (Lee), Patti D’Arbanville (Celia), Ben Shenkman (Max), Joel de la Fuente (Thavi Matola), Marceline Hugot (Pam), Brian Tarantina (Pete Shunt), Seth Gilliam (Vincent), Lou Taylor Pucci (Kevin), Mara Hobel (Fay), and David Patrick Kelly (Peter); narrated by John Ventimiglia.


Real Genius (1985, Martha Coolidge)

It’s hard to know where to start with Real Genius. It runs just over a hundred minutes, but gets so much done in the first forty, then so much different stuff done in the next thirty, the remainder is almost entirely separate.

The plot evolves, expanding as events unfold. Genius isn’t its concept or MacGuffin. Instead, it’s something wholly original, maybe because it doesn’t worry about the audience identifying with the characters. But director Coolidge never treats them as subjects; they’re always the film’s driving force.

Gabriel Jarret plays the lead–a fifteen year-old genius off to a science school–and brings the viewer into the film. Until he passes it off to Val Kilmer, a slightly older genius. But while Kilmer’s character confronts personal accountability, Jarret’s busy having a touching romance with Michelle Meyrink.

While all this character development is going on, Kilmer and Jarret are also dealing with William Atherton’s deceptive prick of a professor and Robert Prescott (as his lackey).

The juxtaposing of Kilmer and Jarret’s characters is one of Genius‘s strongest elements, especially since the actors do so well with it. Kilmer gets to give an absurd, rock star type performance (and excels), while Jarret is introverted but also more mature.

Meyrink’s great, as is Prescott. Atherton, in the type of role he’d quickly become typecast for, is perfect. Jon Gries is also excellent in a small role.

Coolidge uses her Panavision frame well and there’s beautiful Vilmos Zsigmond photography.

Real Genius is really good.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martha Coolidge; screenplay by Neal Israel, Pat Proft and Peter Torokvei, based on a story by Israel and Proft; director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by Richard Chew; music by Thomas Newman; production designer, Josan F. Russo; produced by Brian Grazer; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring Val Kilmer (Chris Knight), Gabriel Jarret (Mitch Taylor), Michelle Meyrink (Jordan), William Atherton (Prof. Jerry Hathaway), Jon Gries (Lazlo Hollyfeld), Robert Prescott (Kent), Ed Lauter (David Decker), Patti D’Arbanville (Sherry Nugil), Stacy Peralta (Shuttle Pilot), Beau Billingslea (George), Joanne Baron (Mrs. Taylor), Sandy Martin (Mrs. Meredith), Dean Devlin (Milton), Yuji Okumoto (Fenton) and Deborah Foreman (Susan Decker).


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