Rene Russo

The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle (2000, Des McAnuff)

As a musical, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle might have worked. When there’s the big Pottsylvanian national anthem scene, director McAnuff finally seems comfortable. He needs a stage; Rocky and Bullwinkle is a road movie. There aren’t any stages. The occasional set piece hints at potential for the format–CGI animated moose and squirrel opposite life action–but McAnuff never knows how to direct them. And there’s something off about the CGI.

Rocky and Bullwinkle’s “real world” is drab and generic. But not drab and generic in the right way to match the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” animation style, which the film opens with. The story has “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” forgotten in reruns, but then have to be brought over to the real world to help the FBI. Specifically, FBI agent Piper Perabo, who’s supposed to be the perky, adorable female lead.

She’s terrible. McAnuff doesn’t direct his actors at all, so it’s not like she got any help, but she’s all wrong. Her performance, whatever direction McAnuff gives, all of it; she can’t act well off the CGI moose and squirrel. Sometimes they get close, like Rocky’s flying sequence, but it’s never for long.

And since she’s the one with Rocky and Bullwinkle most of the time, it gets to be a problem. At least she’s better than cameoing Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell. They manage to be the worst of the cameos, save John Goodman. Goodman can’t even pretend in his bit.

If any part of Rocky and Bullwinkle worked–be it Perabo, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Robert De Niro, Rene Russo, and Jason Alexander as the live action idiot spies, the endless cameos–the film would be immensely better. It would be a failed ambition. But it’s not ambitious in any way. McAnuff’s direction is catatonic, Kenneth Lonergan’s script isn’t any better–the occasional laughs are all thanks to Rocky and Bullwinkle voice performers June Forey and Keith Scott. The actors look deranged or miserable. The film sets itself up to fail, betting a lot on the successful introduction of the cartoon characters into reality. When it doesn’t come off, the film stalls.

So it’s stalled for acts two and three. It stalls real early.

Thomas E. Ackerman’s photography is flat and muted. While reality is supposed to be, visually, reality, Lonergan’s script is frequently absurdist. He tries for “Rocky and Bullwinkle” type sight gags and puns for the regular residents of reality. It’d work as a musical.

Everything would work if it were a musical. Maybe even Jason Alexander, who’s lifeless and miserable. Rene Russo tries. She almost has a good scene. But there are no hidden gems in Rocky and Bullwinkle. It’s bad.

Moose and squirrel deserve better.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Des McAnuff; screenplay by Kenneth Lonergan, based on characters created by Jay Ward; director of photography, Thomas E. Ackerman; edited by Dennis Virkler; music by Mark Mothersbaugh; production designer, Gavin Bocquet; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring June Foray (Rocky), Keith Scott (Bullwinkle), Piper Perabo (Karen Sympathy), Robert De Niro (Fearless Leader), Jason Alexander (Boris), Rene Russo (Natasha), Randy Quaid (Cappy von Trapment), and Janeane Garofalo (Minnie Mogul).


Lethal Weapon 3 (1992, Richard Donner)

Lethal Weapon 3 is an expert action movie. Director Donner, cinematographer Jan de Bont, editors Robert Brown and Battle Davis do phenomenal work. Even though the cop action thriller plot of the film is its least compelling–dirty ex-cop Stuart Wilson is funding real estate development through arms dealing–those sequences are still good. The actors carry over everything from their stronger subplots into those scenes.

Mel Gibson gets the showier subplot, romancing a likeminded–and similarly martial arts trained–fellow detective, played by Rene Russo. The ever-about-to-retire Danny Glover has something of a family drama, but also a crisis of character arc. Joe Pesci is around to make plot contrivances a little more palatable. He’s also great for the other actors. Everyone reacts well to Pesci, even if they don’t have a lot of dialogue.

Because Donner is excellent at directing the actors in this film. The sequence where Gibson realizes Russo’s a little bit of a goofball (after the audience is already in on the joke) is beautifully done. Gibson and Glover do get their moments–lots of male-bonding, lots of man tears–but Gibson’s scenes with Russo are basically a showcase for her. She brings such a strong personality to the character right off the bat, the subsequent character reveals are basically mini-delights for the audience. And Gibson and Glover. It’s a phenomenal part and Russo’s fantastic.

Between the two leads, Glover gets the better personal story arc. He gets the harder material–he also gets some great comic material–while Gibson basically just toggles between fun and crazy. Gibson’s really good at the toggling and there’s a maturity to his performance–just because the beast looks upon the face of beauty, it doesn’t mean he’s as one dead, not in Lethal Weapon 3.

The score–one assumes Michael Kamen did all the Michael Kamen sounding action music while Eric Clapton and David Sanborn handled the soul-searching, but who knows–is omnipresent and occasionally too much. It’s too slick against that beautiful de Bont photography and Lethal Weapon 3 starts to feel plastic. But then the actors do something, something in their performance, something in the script, and the integrity comes through. Sometimes the music even ends up helping with it.

Solid supporting turns from Steve Kahan, Damon Hines and Gregory Millar. Glover’s family otherwise doesn’t have enough to do–Darlene Love’s in maybe three scenes, gets one good one. Ebonie Smith has zip. Traci Wolfe has a couple decent moments, but again, not enough. Lethal Weapon 3 is a strange picture in it having too many good things going on while it still needs to be an action movie. Going longer wouldn’t have helped either, the pacing is perfect.

Stuart Wilson’s villain is a bit of a liability. Donner uses him sparingly, or always with a better performance in the same scene. Except maybe two with chief henchman Nick Chinlund–the villains in Lethal Weapon 3 are really lame, thank goodness the rest of the film makes up for it.

Also want to mention the great production design from James H. Spencer.

Lethal Weapon 3 is a great time at the movies. Donner finds just the right mix of comedy, action, drama and suspense.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Donner; screenplay by Jeffrey Boam and Robert Mark Kamen, based on a story by Boam and characters created by Shane Black; director of photography, Jan de Bont; edited by Robert Brown and Battle Davis; music by Michael Kamen, Eric Clapton and David Sanborn; production designer, James H. Spencer; produced by Joel Silver and Donner; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Mel Gibson (Martin Riggs), Danny Glover (Roger Murtaugh), Rene Russo (Lorna Cole), Stuart Wilson (Jack Travis), Joe Pesci (Leo Getz), Darlene Love (Trish Murtaugh), Steve Kahan (Captain Murphy), Damon Hines (Nick Murtaugh), Traci Wolfe (Rianne Murtaugh), Ebonie Smith (Carrie Murtaugh), Gregory Millar (Tyrone), Delores Hall (Delores), Nick Chinlund (Hatchett), Jason Rainwater (Edwards) and Mary Ellen Trainor (Stephanie Woods).


Get Shorty (1995, Barry Sonnenfeld)

There’s a gentle quality about Get Shorty, an invitation from screenwriter Scott Frank and director Sonnenfeld to dwell. One can also not dwell on the film’s little moments, because it’s got awesome big moments as well. Except Shorty doesn’t have much in the way of set pieces; Sonnenfeld does whatever he can to reduce action and suspense. He’s making a comedy–a likable comedy–not an action thriller. So those big moments come in dialogue and actors’ deliveries. Sonnenfeld and his actors layer their performances in each scene. Sometimes it’s so Sonnenfeld can do a sight gag, sometimes it’s just for the exit laugh. But it creates these fantastic characters who don’t get much chance at narrative progression. Get Shorty is a concise, impeccably constructed, impeccably edited film.

Frank’s script often gives each character a sidekick for a scene. Someone to watch while someone else has a big moment. The way Sonnenfeld directs these scenes is for the sidekick to react–in close-up–while listening. It’s not a big reaction, it gives Martin Ferrero a few nice scenes and lets Rene Russo excel in her scream queen turned producer part. Russo’s story is always in relation to the boys–lead John Travolta as her new beau, Gene Hackman as her Corman-esque Svengali, Danny DeVito as her movie star ex-husband–but she still gets to have a real, consequential part. And not because of action, but because of her character’s decisions, which the audience gets to see Russo make thanks to Sonnenfeld’s deliberate approach.

Get Shorty is also perfectly acted. No one gives anything less than an excellent performance (even Bette Midler in a cameo) but there are some particularly exceptional ones (i.e. Travolta). The thing about Get Shorty is it doesn’t ask Travolta to be a movie star. It asks him to be a character actor. Even though Travolta’s the lead, Get Shorty is far more of an ensemble piece. Each actor is intentionally memorable–the way Donald Peterman lights them, the way Jim Miller cuts them, the way Sonnenfeld composes the shot–even the bit players are intentionally memorable. It creates an exceptionally affable mood.

Of course, it’s also about Hollywood. The dream of Hollywood, filtered through Travolta’s exuberant nostalgia. Travolta and Russo have these side conversations about old movies; I wonder if Frank wrote the whole conversation or just cut in. It’s all handled perfectly. But with a couple exceptions, it’s not about “real” Hollywood. It’s about everyone’s dream of it. Whether it’s Travolta’s, Hackman’s, Russo’s, Delroy Lindo’s.

Delroy Lindo.

Delroy Lindo gives the film’s greatest performance. He stands out among all the standouts. He stands out in a film where Dennis Farina is able to so exactly embody his caricature, it becomes magic. Because Lindo has the task of being dangerous, loathsome, likable. You’re watching Get Shorty, you’re hoping Lindo gets his comeuppance, but not too soon.

No one else can do these roles. No one else is imaginable in these roles. Sonnenfeld gets the audience buy-in early, sort of doing a “pilot” for the film before the opening titles. There’s a concise little narrative, an introduction to Travolta and nemesis Farina, then the titles. The titles hinting at what’s to come, John Lurie’s Booker T-esque score excitedly dragging things out. Sonnenfeld makes you impatient to watch this Get Shorty picture he’s teasing.

Get Shorty’s great. I’ve always thought so, but it’s been over a decade since I’ve seen it so I’m really glad it’s so great.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld; screenplay by Scott Frank, based on the novel by Elmore Leonard; director of photography, Donald Peterman; edited by Jim Miller; music by John Lurie; production designer, Peter S. Larkin; produced by Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring John Travolta (Chili Palmer), Gene Hackman (Harry Zimm), Rene Russo (Karen Flores), Danny DeVito (Martin Weir), Dennis Farina (Ray Bones), Delroy Lindo (Bo), James Gandolfini (Bear), Jon Gries (Ronnie), Martin Ferrero (Tommy), Miguel Sandoval (Mr. Escobar), Jacob Vargas (Yayo), Linda Hart (Fay Devoe) and David Paymer (Leo Devoe).


Major League (1989, David S. Ward)

There’s so much strong acting in Major League and director Ward’s script has such likable characters (and such a hiss-worthy villain in team owner Margaret Whitton), the film moves on momentum alone for quite a while. It’s only in the third act, when Ward throws in an unnecessary plot twist to ratchet up tension. He shouldn’t need it–it’s a baseball movie and it’s the big championship game–but, while League has a sports emphasis… it’s a comedy first.

And character drama gets comedy.

Thanks to nice direction, excellent photography from Reynaldo Villalobos and James Newton Howard’s score (which easily toggles between dramatic and comedic), it comes through all right. Even when the film stumbles, it stumbles likably.

Since he’s the ostensible lead, top-billed Tom Berenger gets to romance Rene Russo, which leads to some good scenes. Charlie Sheen and Corbin Bernsen get the next billings, but don’t have a lot to do (until that third act misfire). But they’re both appealing, as is Wesley Snipes. The best acting of the ball players probably comes from Dennis Haysbert and Chelcie Ross, who distinguish themselves in caricature roles.

Whitton’s villain is good, James Gammon’s good as the coach and Charles Cyphers has fun as management.

Ward understands the baseball picture as an American film standard and engages with that standard. Not with much ambition, but he’s got a strong enough cast and script he doesn’t need to do much. It’s a solid and affecting enough with some good moments.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by David S. Ward; director of photography, Reynaldo Villalobos; edited by Dennis M. Hill; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Jeffrey Howard; produced by Irby Smith and Chris Chesser; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Tom Berenger (Jake Taylor), Charlie Sheen (Ricky Vaughn), Corbin Bernsen (Roger Dorn), Margaret Whitton (Rachel Phelps), James Gammon (Lou Brown), Rene Russo (Lynn Wells), Wesley Snipes (Willie Mays Hayes), Charles Cyphers (Charlie Donovan), Chelcie Ross (Eddie Harris), Dennis Haysbert (Pedro Cerrano), Andy Romano (Pepper Leach) and Bob Uecker (Harry Doyle).


The Thomas Crown Affair (1999, John McTiernan)

Every time I watch Thomas Crown, I wonder if there’s some magical explanation for all John McTiernan’s other films (except Die Hard, which is, too, singular). Because The Thomas Crown Affair, as I love saying, is the last great utterly mainstream film. But there’s something more… the tone of the film, the Bill Conti score, the editing… it’s completely different but McTiernan knew what he was doing as he was making it. It’s clear from some of the longer sequences–the glider, for instance–but also from shorter ones, like Rene Russo despondent in the rain. McTiernan knew what he was putting together here.

But Thomas Crown is also–there’s a lot to get to, I’m hoping I remember everything–a New York movie. It’s not a New York movie in the sense a native made it, it doesn’t have that familiar excitement about the city, but it has the fan’s excitement, which makes me wonder if McTiernan just really liked shooting the third Die Hard there. The film has two major reminders of the original, Faye Dunaway’s excellent cameo (it’s the first time I can remember her having so much fun with a role) and the repeated uses of the song from the original (before the end credits Sting cover), and the original was not one of the famous 1970s New York movies, but McTiernan uses the city to–visually–set some of the film’s tone.

I’m thinking I should get Brosnan and Russo out of the way. I think, though I’m not a hundred percent sure (I’m remembering telling my mom about reading this tidbit), MGM was–back around 2000–thinking about a Thin Man remake with Brosnan and Russo. Saying it would work is about all I need to say about their performances and their chemistry. The film sets itself up to fail if the two of them don’t click, but also if Russo can’t pull off, essentially, becoming the lead in the second half. She and McTiernan handle the refocusing beautifully.

Since Russo does become the protagonist, it’s very important her supporting cast is helpful. Frankie Faison is great and the little moments and the exceptionally fast establishing of he and Russo’s camaraderie is fantastic. Denis Leary has the film’s least flashy role and gives an incredibly sturdy and deeply likable performance.

Both Leary and Faison’s characters raise some questions about the screenplay, which–as I recall–split duties. Leslie Dixon handled the relationship between Russo and Brosnan while Kurt Wimmer took over the rest (the heists and the pursuit). Either someone came in and did a fantastic evening draft or… it’s a seamless script, if it truly was written in that manner.

The Thomas Crown Affair is hard to easily sum up because it’s a confident success. McTiernan doesn’t make a single misstep–more, he makes a great move every chance he gets. It’s wonderful.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John McTiernan; screenplay by Leslie Dixon and Kurt Wimmer, based on a story by Alan Trustman; director of photography, Tom Priestley; edited by John Wright; music by Bill Conti; production designer, Bruno Rubeo; produced by Pierce Brosnan and Beau St. Clair; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Pierce Brosnan (Thomas Crown), Rene Russo (Catherine Banning), Denis Leary (Michael McCann), Ben Gazzara (Andrew Wallace), Frankie Faison (Paretti), Fritz Weaver (John Reynolds), Charles Keating (Golchan), Esther Canadas (Anna), Mark Margolis (Knutzhorn) and Faye Dunaway (Psychiatrist).


Ransom (1996, Ron Howard), the extended version

Ransom is not Richard Price’s only “big Hollywood” movie (and it’s probably not his most anomalous one either), but there’s something very particular about the film. You’re watching a mix of various 1990s genres–a Mel Gibson movie, a Richard Price cop movie, and a Ron Howard movie. Except not the current Oscar-bait Ron Howard, the incredibly sturdy and wonderful Ron Howard of that brief period in the 1990s. I’ve seen the original Ransom! and while it is different, most of what the remake adds is the Price-written Gary Sinise material. And it’s a Richard Price cop thing being used for the most Hollywood, blockbuster aspect of the film too, which might be why Ransom is so weird. You’d expect Price to contribute something a little off kilter, but instead, he’s building up toward the rousing finale.

I haven’t seen Ransom in years, mostly because I kept waiting for the as yet still missing DVD release of the extended edition. The longer version adds a lot for Delroy Lindo and, I think, Rene Russo to do. Because the majority of Ransom, the first hour and forty-five minutes of the two-twenty extended version is all Mel Gibson. It’s at least half character study and Gibson does a fantastic job. Mel the actor is always forgotten or ignored (today probably forgotten), but once he hit his 1990s stride (and it’s a spotty stride, but it’s a definite stride), he was giving excellent performances. Just some of his scenes in here, they’re fantastic. I sat and realized Mel Gibson of this era could do anything, he has some perfect scenes. You also get Gibson in contrast to Gary Sinise, who was still somewhat indie at this stage (appreciated only in TV movies) and Mel runs circles around him. Delroy Lindo’s great–the extended version adding significant layers of complexity to his character–and Rene Russo is good too. For about half the movie, she doesn’t have anything to do and then all of a sudden, she has to do everything for a ten minute stretch and she carries it. She and Gibson have a perfect chemistry too.

As for Ron Howard… the Ron Howard who made Ransom was about the most exciting filmmaker in Hollywood. I have no idea what happened (I can guess–pet project Edtv bombed–bombing pet projects often deter great careers, but Howard’s probably will never recover, which is a tragedy). He maintains a sense of coldness, of space-heater heating–he creates a physical temperature with Ransom (his cinematographer helps, of course)–and the attention he gives Mel Gibson, and just the way the film moves from character to character, kidnapper to parents, parents to cops, everything just moves perfectly. It never gets lost, which is amazing.

I always forget the 1990s really did have a bunch of great people making a bunch of really good movies. I mistrust my memory of it, but then I go back and look and I see these films again and think about the people making them and what they were making and something very definite happened and capital-f film suffered. I was about to blame it on Lucas and Episode I (with no basis other than he closed a loop of quality opened in 1977) then I was going to blame it on James Cameron and Titanic (Blockbuster-maker wins Oscar, inspires others to get insipid), but I’d rather close off with something more on Ransom. The last shot. It’s short and it’s over the end credits and it’s a time lapse of a screen corner and it doesn’t belong. Beautiful James Horner music (before he too became a joke) and just this confusing shot, which you get only after it’s moments from being totally black, and there’s something striking about beautiful about how Howard closes the story off for the viewer. It’s quick and graceful, but it’s a ‘thank you’ for watching my film. Other films having such ‘thank yous,’ but it’s inappropriate in Ransom and it’s nice for just that reason.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Howard; written by Richard Price and Alexander Ignon, based on a story by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum; director of photography, Piotr Sobocinski; edited by Dan Hanley and Mike Hill; music by James Horner; production designer, Michael Corenblith; produced by Scott Rudin, Brian Grazer and B. Kipling Hagopian; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Mel Gibson (Tom Mullen), Rene Russo (Kate Mullen), Brawley Nolte (Sean Mullen), Gary Sinise (Jimmy Shaker), Delroy Lindo (Agent Lonnie Hawkins), Lili Taylor (Maris Connor), Liev Schreiber (Clark Barnes), Donnie Wahlberg (Cubby Barnes) and Evan Handler (Miles Roberts).


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