Polygram

No Looking Back (1998, Edward Burns)

No Looking Back runs just under a hundred minutes. The first half of the film–roughly the first half–evenly relies on its cast. In fact, top-billed Lauren Holly almost has less than either Jon Bon Jovi and director Burns (acting, second-billed) in the first half. It’s a love triangle and she’s the prize. Burns is coming back to Nowhere, Long Island after running away to California years before. Ex-girlfriend Holly has moved on and in with Bon Jovi, who’s ostensibly a childhood friend of Burns’s but it’s a somewhat reluctant friendship. Burns is a jerk from scene two. He has two honest moments in the film; his first and his last. The rest of the time, he’s basically just a prick.

But he’s a different kind of prick than Bon Jovi, who’s the too perfect man. He wants to be a good dad, can’t wait for Holly to join his mom and sisters in the kitchen for football Sunday (he’s in the living room with his brothers), and so on and so forth. There’s this strange transition with sympathies, which Burns (as a writer and director) doesn’t deal with very well. He tries hard to keep the love triangle restless–the three characters never all interact in a single scene, even if all present–and it strains the film at times. But it also pays off because it means Holly gets more opportunity.

Then around the halfway market, a Bruce Springsteen song comes on the radio and No Looking Back totally changes. The first half soundtrack, with the exception of a Patti Scialfa track or two, is indistinct, bland, late nineties pseudo-alternative songs. Nothing distinct. And then, all of a sudden, Holly assumes the protagonist role decisively. Performance, script, direction. The first half of the movie has been an awkward setup to provide back story to turn the second half into a Bruce Springsteen mix tape set to film. And it’s exceptional. The film’s flow is better, the scenes more poignant–I mean, it’s a soap opera. The thing couldn’t fail the Bechdel test more if it tried. But it’s this exceptional soap opera turned character study. And what ends up saving it is when Burns, as writer and director, stops pretending there’s any depth to he and Bon Jovi’s characters. More, the characters have to stop pretending too. It’s awesome.

Plus, there’s scene payoff for most of the supporting cast. Blythe Danner (as Holly’s mom) gets almost nothing in the first half and ends up being essential in pulling off the big finale upswing. Connie Britton’s great as Holly’s sister, with the first half’s least disjointed arc. Jennifer Esposito and Nick Sandow are both good as various friends, though Sandow’s basically Norm from “Cheers” and Esposito doesn’t get enough to do.

Oh–and Joe Delia’s score is a mess in the first half. There’s this generic hard rock theme running through the score. Maybe Burns could only get the four or five Springsteen songs and had to save them, but it’s not a good theme for Holly as Burns intentionally and maliciously upends her life, albeit through accepted social conventions. Score is much better in the second half.

Great photography from Frank Prinzi. Nice, patient editing from Susan Graef.

Holly doesn’t have a great character here; Burns ignored her too much in the first half to setup the second, but she gives an excellent performance. The stuff she gets to do in the second half, it’s like a reward for having to suffer through the first half’s weaker scenes. Bon Jovi gives a strong performance and once Burns, as an actor, gets to the Springsteen section, he really comes through as well.

No Looking Back has more than its share of problems, all of them (with the exception of the music) director Burns’s fault. It’s also pretty darn great; again, all Burns’s fault.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Edward Burns; director of photography, Frank Prinzi; edited by Susan Graef; music by Joe Delia; production designer, Thérèse DePrez; produced by Ted Hope, Michael Nozik, and Burns; released by Polygram Filmed Entertainment.

Starring Lauren Holly (Claudia), Edward Burns (Charlie), Jon Bon Jovi (Michael), Connie Britton (Kelly), Blythe Danner (Claudia’s Mom), Nick Sandow (Goldie), Jennifer Esposito (Teresa), Welker White (Missy), John Ventimiglia (Tony the Pizza Guy), and Kathleen Doyle (Mrs. Ryan).


Shallow Grave (1994, Danny Boyle)

Shallow Grave has bold colors. The production design–by Kave Quinn–isn’t particularly good. Over ninety percent of the film takes place in a rather boring apartment. But that boring apartment has a lot of bold colors. Sure, photographer Brian Tufano doesn’t know how to shoot those bold colors to make them effective, but he doesn’t know how to light any of the other scenes either. Grave is slick and economical, but no one–not the actors, not director Boyle, certainly not writer John Hodge–ever makes it feel particularly creative. It’s got a low budget so they shoot it like a play. With occasionally interesting, but inert, visuals.

As far as the actors, of the three principals–Ewan McGregor, Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston–only McGregor shows any life. None of them have much character depth to work with, which obviously doesn’t help. Eccleston eventually gets the biggest part of the film, but he’s so poorly handled through the first act, he doesn’t do anything interesting. It’s not his fault, there’s just nothing interesting in that script of Hodges’s.

The film, ostensibly a thriller, is often tedious. The script has some funny dialogue exchanges–the trio live in that boldly color apartment and mock prospective tenants they do not like–but not enough to even temporarily disguise the logic holes.

Boyle’s composition is often excellent and Masahiro Hirakubo’s editing is outstanding. But there’s just not enough to the film. It’s trite, cynical, forcibly amusing. Grave’s one controlled misstep after another.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Danny Boyle; written by John Hodge; director of photography, Brian Tufano; edited by Masahiro Hirakubo; music by Simon Boswell; production designer, Kave Quinn; produced by Andrew Macdonald; released by Polygram Filmed Entertainment.

Starring Kerry Fox (Juliet Miller), Christopher Eccleston (David Stephens), Ewan McGregor (Alex Law), Ken Stott (Detective Inspector McCall), Keith Allen (Hugo), Peter Mullan (Andy), Leonard O’Malley (Tim) and Colin McCredie (Cameron).


Fargo (1996, Joel Coen)

Much–probably most–of Fargo is exceptional. The Coens take over half an hour to bring their protagonist into the movie. They spend that first half hour with the villains, even having time to make said villains simultaneously lovable and even more dangerous. William H. Macy isn’t just some loser who schemes to rip off his father-in-law, he’s a dangerous sociopath. It’s amazing what the Coens can fit behind those goofy accents and the folky talk.

And those levels of Fargo are what make it so fantastic. Frances McDormand isn’t playing a silly sheriff, she’s playing this incredible investigator who just happens to sound like she lives in a waffle commercial. All of the police work in the film is thoroughly executed; the cops aren’t of the Keystone variety.

But the Coens don’t engage with this situation. They don’t force the viewer. They don’t even acknowledge it. They’re playing it straight.

Until the end. McDormand stumbles across the bad guys by accident. Even worse, there was a plot point earlier to set up an actual investigatory discovery of the bad guys and the Coens skip it. Very disappointing.

Otherwise, the film is fantastic. Great photography from Roger Deakins, wonderful score from Carter Burwell. Fargo speeds along too. There’s never a slow moment.

The supporting cast–Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell, Peter Stormare, John Carroll Lynch–is great. Buscemi has some exceptional rants throughout.

McDormand and Macy are both excellent. McDormand even manages to sell the questionable stuff at the end.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Coen; written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Roderick Jaynes; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Rick Heinrichs; produced by Ethan Coen; released by Polygram Filmed Entertainment.

Starring Frances McDormand (Marge Gunderson), William H. Macy (Jerry Lundegaard), Steve Buscemi (Carl Showalter), Harve Presnell (Wade Gustafson), Peter Stormare (Gaear Grimsrud), Kristin Rudrüd (Jean Lundegaard), John Carroll Lynch (Norm Gunderson) and Steve Park (Mike Yanagita).


Bean (1997, Mel Smith)

I’m trying to imagine how Bean would play to someone unfamiliar with the television show. Depending on one’s tolerance for bland family comedy-dramas, it might actually play better. Because Bean, the movie, removes a lot of Bean, Rowan Atkinson’s character, and instead fills the time with Peter MacNicol and his problems.

His job is on the line and his wife of presumably sixteen plus years has decided their marriage is on the rocks because of those problems with his job. Pamela Reed plays the wife and she’s exceptionally unsympathetic in her anger. Screenwriters Richard Curtis and Robin Driscoll don’t just do a hatch job with the characterizations, they keep it going and going.

Some of the problem is director Mel Smith. He resists ever shooting the film from Atkinson’s perspective, except in the longer slapstick sequences, but he also doesn’t direct the film around him well. Harris Yulin especially stumbles around looking for direction. The supporting cast is mostly indistinct, though Burt Reynolds gets a smile or two and Larry Drake gets an actual laugh.

With all the celebrity cameos, Bean should feel bigger. But Smith doesn’t know how to direct it big. Or small. Until the ludicrous finish, the script’s tolerable. Tepid, but tolerable. The finish is atrocious though.

So why’s Bean all right, even with the finish? Because Atkinson is really, really funny and he never acts like there’s anything wrong with the film. He’s fully committed, even though his character’s constantly changing.

The film shamefully fails him.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mel Smith; screenplay by Richard Curtis and Robin Driscoll, based on characters created by Rowan Atkinson and Curtis; director of photography, Francis Kenny; edited by Chris Blunden; music by Howard Goodall; production designer, Peter S. Larkin; produced by Peter Bennett-Jones, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner; released by Polygram Filmed Entertainment.

Starring Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), Peter MacNicol (David Langley), Pamela Reed (Alison Langley), Harris Yulin (George Grierson), Burt Reynolds (General Newton), Larry Drake (Elmer), Chris Ellis (Det. Butler), Johnny Galecki (Stingo Wheelie), Richard Gant (Lt. Brutus), Danny Goldring (Security Buck), Andrew Lawrence (Kevin Langley), Tom McGowan (Walter Merchandise), Sandra Oh (Bernice Schimmel), Tricia Vessey (Jennifer Langley) and John Mills (Chairman).


Body Count (1998, Robert Patton-Spruill)

Body Count is unexceptionally bad. Theodore Witcher’s script is poorly plotted and stagy; Patton-Spruill’s direction is simply lame. He’s got no personality; it’s a heist gone wrong picture and it’s clear Witcher’s seen Reservoir Dogs, but Patton-Spruill’s apparently incapable of directing scenes with any tension whatsoever. Oddly Curt Sobel’s musical score reminds of seventies American New Wave so… maybe someone else made that decision? With an eighty-five minute run time and no theatrical release, Body Count obviously had its post-production issues.

Still, the acting’s good. Donnie Wahlberg’s probably the best, followed by David Caruso, then John Leguizamo. Body Count has the added problem of having no redeemable characters whatsoever–Ving Rhames is revealed as a religious man late in the picture as a way to endear him. Without a sympathetic lead and with Patton-Spruill’s vapid direction, Count‘s often tedious to watch. But then Witcher will come up with a great line or two (usually for Caruso) and it engages a little again.

Rhames is all right as the de facto lead. There’s not enough to his character (the religion thing is inane) and his arc is unbelievable, but he’s solid.

The film’s about a bunch of robbers on a lousy road trip, with Linda Fiorentino as a hitchhiker who tags along. She’s surprisingly mediocre. It’s not her fault, of course. Witcher’s script frequently reviles in its misogyny.

Good photography from Charles Mills. It could be a lot worse. Like if it were eighty-six minutes.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Patton-Spruill; written by Theodore Witcher; director of photography, Charles Mills; edited by Joseph Gutowski and Richard Nord; music by Curt Sobel; production designer, Tim Eckel; produced by Mark Burg, George Jackson and Doug McHenry; released by Polygram Filmed Entertainment.

Starring Ving Rhames (Pike), David Caruso (Hobbs), John Leguizamo (Chino), Linda Fiorentino (Natalie), Donnie Wahlberg (Booker) and Forest Whitaker (Crane).


Wonderland (1999, Michael Winterbottom)

From a description–not even from a few minutes–Wonderland might appear to fit into (or create again) the British realism movement. It’s shot on video, natural lighting, natural make-up, no visible tripod shots, all hand-held, all very cinema verite. There’s no artificiality to it. Except the artificiality of being a filmed narrative.

Wonderland even visibly bucks against the idea of cinema standards–the easy comic scene of an expectant father encountering a troublesome newborn is instead everyday, one of the things Eddie (John Simm) sees as a kitchen salesman. Lawrence Coriat’s script is set on a weekend, starting with Thursday night–the weekend’s special, by the end of the film, because of the events transpired during the running time, but initially, it’s special–and Wonderland is presented as the slice of these characters’ lives to present to an audience–because of absent brother Darren (Enzo Cilenti), his birthday and his visit to London.

He’s not there to visit his sisters, Debbie (Shirley Henderson), Nadia (Gina McKee) or Molly (Molly Parker)–though it’s seriously implied the only one he had any sort of significant relationship with is Nadia. Nor is he there to see his parents, Bill (Jack Shepherd) or Eileen (Kika Markham). He’s there with his girlfriend Melanie (Sarah-Jane Potts), who’s apparently in the financial position to throw him a great birthday weekend.

There’s no glorious family reunion. There are no tearful, heartfelt moments where Darren and Bill talk. Winterbottom and Coriat enjoy dangling possible cinematic melodramas in front of the viewer, only to dismiss such events, sometimes not unkindly–like when Debbie’s son, Jack (Peter Marfleet), gets mugged. It’s a huge moment, the culmination of everyone concerned’s fears, yet it’s barely shown. The villains are not emphasized and if one were to look away for a moment, he or she could miss it.

But there is glory to Wonderland and that glory is where the film doesn’t just earn its title, but its place alongside Tati’s Play Time. Wonderland is a celebration of Londoners and an exquisitely discrete one. Winterbottom’s London doesn’t come alive until after dark, when it’s awash with lights. Though he’s shooting with digital cameras and using natural light, Winterbottom emphasizes how the artificial lights of the landscape–whether cars’ headlights or shopfronts’ fluorescents–create the vibrant backdrop for the wonderment.

One of the things Tati did with Play Time and, to a somewhat lesser extent, M. Hulot’s Holiday, was draw attention to the generic beauty of people through music. There’s a compilation of Tati’s film’s themes out and if one listens to it when observing the common–people playing frisbee in a park, people walking through an urban center–everything becomes beautiful. To some degree–and it’s a little measured, because Winterbottom and composer Michael Nyman are conservative with it–Wonderland does the same thing. It shows the viewer how beautiful life can be, how wondrous it can be, all while acknowledging its subjects might only be experiencing this beauty and wonder for a moment.

Wonderland‘s interpretation of beauty and wonderment in the common world–because there’s nothing fantastic about the plot, about the setting–even the “melodramatic” moments are completely reasonable, whether it’s Nadia meeting ex-brother-in-law Dan (Ian Hart) on a blind, dating service date or Molly and missing husband Eddie meeting up in the metropolitan hospital–these moments play out without melodrama, without acknowledgment of the possibility of Coriat contriving them. Instead, they’re part of the tapestry, part of the web–they’re part of these characters’ lives. That coincidence–without Coriat or Winterbottom ever drawing attention it or the general artificiality of the motion picture scenario–is one of Wonderland‘s greatest beauties. As the events pass in the running time, as people argue or people cry, it immediately becomes something in the memory of the characters experiencing the events. It’s a crazy idea–if the film doesn’t slow down to acknowledge contrivance or melodrama, do the characters themselves experience it?

But if Wonderland is moving too fast to let its characters catch on, it’s also moving so fast it begs to have the viewer slow it down, to consider each day (separated by title card) or even further–to look at how Winterbottom and Coriat juxtapose the characters with one another. Nadia and Eileen, who have no scenes, don’t even talk about each other–one of the stranger and more realistic facets of Wonderland is how the daughters’ stories, with the exception of Molly, could be separated from the parents and they’d be narratively sound–have this stunning juxtaposition in terms of camera placement. And camera placement means more in Wonderland, something where camera placement and composition should seemingly be more environment defined. When Winterbottom places an actor in the same place as another actor, it isn’t a cute transition, it’s a silent, telling comment on the relationship between the family members, between the people.

And Wonderland really does–like all great stories–bring Faulkner’s point about literature discussing people, not characters, to the fore. It’s impossible to think of Nadia as Gina McKee, even though–at the time–she was the most famous (at least to American audiences) actor in the film. Nadia, with her goofy hair and dating problems, is definitely the protagonist for a lot of the film, but it’s all so fluid, the film moves away from her. Her story is the most cinematic… but not really. All of the sisters–Debbie, Nadia, Molly–go through an incredibly cinematic story during Wonderland‘s running time. How Coriat found time to include Debbie’s son or Molly’s husband or their parents in this story–which only runs an hour and fifty minutes–is incredible. Wonderland begs for narrative deconstruction, not just for Coriat’s plotting, but for how Winterbottom films it.

The last sibling, Darren, is different from the rest. He’s living–with girlfriend Melanie (I’m not sure Potts’s character ever gets named in the film)–the life his family dreams of. He’s out in that exciting, Technicolor, neon London nighttime landscape his sisters only can look at. Molly doesn’t even realize she has anything to do with it, which makes her both sympathetic and sad. Her husband, Eddie, can clearly see what they’re missing and longs for it. Debbie tries to straddle it and being a single mother, but finds both difficult. Nadia, who should move through it with the greatest ease, stumbles. The scene where Nadia falls for a guy–the first time–is devastating, because it reveals this character, this protagonist, in a way the viewer never before saw.

Like I said before, Wonderland begs a certain amount of analysis–why do the colors of Eddie and Molly’s apartment match the colors of the title cards, why does London only come to life on film at night, why does the viewer get a closer look into Nadia’s life than any of the other sisters–but it resists any analysis. It’s a distant film–there’s not a single pay-off moment in the whole thing; it’s populated with unhappy people struggling.

In the end, not everyone gets a reward, nor should they.

But some do and they deserve it.

And so does the viewer.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Winterbottom; written by Laurence Coriat; director of photography, Sean Bobbitt; edited by Trevor Waite; music by Michael Nyman; production designer, Mark Tildesley; released by PolyGram.

Starring Shirley Henderson (Debbie), Gina McKee (Nadia), Molly Parker (Molly), Ian Hart (Dan), John Simm (Eddie), Stuart Townsend (Tim), Kika Markham (Eileen), Jack Shepherd (Bill), Enzo Cilenti (Darren), Sarah-Jane Potts (Melanie), David Fahm (Franklyn), Ellen Thomas (Donna) and Peter Marfleet (Jack).


The Gingerbread Man (1998, Robert Altman)

Somehow Altman lets The Gingerbread Man get away from him. Never the direction, which holds up until the end–and seeing Robert Altman direct a fight scene is something to behold–but the plotting. The film starts high, thanks to the compelling plot and the performances, but then the plot gets more and more… not convoluted, but desensitizing. Once Kenneth Branagh’s kids are in danger, it’s clear there’s nothing special about the plot, since it’s such a genre standard. The film also loses, around that section, as the storytelling becomes more set piece oriented, the strange texture Gingerbread Man had before. It was clearly, both through style and script, a Robert Altman movie. Branagh, always the protagonist, was not the whole show. Then he becomes the whole show and the movie loses something.

It never regains it either. Even with one nice moment or two, there’s the epical storytelling key turn and then it’s liftoff and it’s Branagh racing to discover the truth, just like every other thriller involving a lawyer who gets involved with a client. At that point, it’s sort of clear the story came from John Grisham. Or maybe I’d just like to think Altman wouldn’t have made a pedestrian conclusion. It’s possible, since it is Altman, he was pandering to see what it was like to pander (Altman’s disinterest in his finished product, good or bad, is always a little stunning).

The acting is, with one and a half exceptions, fantastic. Branagh’s performance (as a Southerner) is excellent. Embeth Davidtz makes a great white trash femme fatale, Daryl Hannah is good as Branagh’s (long suffering) associate. Robert Downey Jr. has a great time in a flashy private investigator role–not spinning Downey off into his own movie is probably Gingerbread‘s greatest tragedy (as is not sticking with him as much as possible). Even Tom Berenger is good in a small part. The two exceptions? Well, the half is Robert Duvall, who does his crazy thing again here. Duvall looks the part and I suppose he’s fine, but it’s a lame casting choice and a poorly written character. Then there’s Famke Janssen, who’s less convincing as a parent than as a Southern belle (her accent is less convincing than Marge Simpson as Blanche). Luckily, Branagh is frequently around to save Janssen’s scenes.

The Gingerbread Man is a fine filmmaking exercise from Altman, has some great acting, and has some great cinematography. But its production quality is not matched by the rote plot. Altman, had he taken the film at all seriously, could have done a lot more with it.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Altman; written by Clyde Hayes, based on an original story by John Grisham; director of photography, Gu Changwei; edited by Geraldine Peroni; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Stephen Altman; produced by Jeremy Tannenbaum; released by Polygram Filmed Entertainment.

Starring Kenneth Branagh (Rick Magruder), Embeth Davidtz (Mallory Doss), Robert Downey Jr. (Clyde Pell), Daryl Hannah (Lois Harlan), Tom Berenger (Pete Randle), Famke Janssen (Leeanne Magruder), Mae Whitman (Libby Magruder), Jesse James (Jeff Magruder) and Robert Duvall (Dixon Doss).


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