Rip Torn

Wonder Boys (2000, Curtis Hanson)

Wonder Boys has a very messy third act. The film takes place over a weekend, Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon; it’s the annual writers conference at an unnamed Pittsburgh university, which kicks off some of the film’s events, lines up some other ones, but is really just an excuse for exposition. It’s fine—it’s great exposition—but it’s somewhat redundant because lead Michael Douglas narrates the whole movie anyway. The film’s about how and why Douglas ends up playing hooky from the conference, even though it’s never clear how involved he was supposed to be. Douglas’s professionalism, which is at least seems ostensible at the beginning of the film, slowly evaporates as events start getting… weird.

Unfortunately the first thing to get weird is super-cringey. The film’s from 2000 and it doesn’t think it’s being transphobic and it actually gets somewhere very interesting with the subplot, but… it’s super-cringey. And kind of makes the three generations of Wonder Boys—Douglas, Robert Downey Jr., Tobey Maguire—seem like dicks. It makes Downey icky when he’s supposed to be lovable.

Downey’s Douglas’s agent. They both got famous when Douglas wrote his first (and only) novel. He’s been working on his new one for seven years. It’s over two thousand pages. Maguire is one of Douglas’s students; his best student, who already has a finished novel. And is really weird. He’s not so much moody as peeking at the world from his Nietzschean hole in the ground. The film’s at its best when Douglas and Maguire are bonding. It’s at its funniest when Douglas and Downey are mugging. It’s got the most potential when Douglas is canoodling (or trying to canoodle) Frances McDormand. McDormand is the chancellor of the school. She’s married to Richard Thomas, who’s the chair of the English department and Douglas’s boss. Douglas and McDormand are in love. Douglas’s wife has left him that very morning for unrelated martial strife; McDormand just found out she’s pregnant. Maguire might be suicidal (the movie drops this one hard, like it doesn’t want to take the responsibility). Downey’s about to lose his job (but doesn’t care so it’s a throwaway subplot; also he’s—unfortunately—a glorified guest star). There’s a lot going on.

Throw in stolen movie memorabilia, a blind dog, Katie Holmes as Douglas’s student and lodger who thinks she understands her grandpa-aged crush, and a stolen car. Not to mention Douglas’s unseen wife, who hangs over the narrative but has absolutely no presence. It’s impossible to imagine Douglas married, not to mention anyone else living in his de facto flophouse. Beautifully designed de facto flophouse, but flophouse nonetheless. So the ethereal wife is a problem. And Holmes is a problem. She’s trying to make time with Douglas and he’s aware but completely disinterested. He likes women closer to his own age—McDormand’s only thirteen years younger versus Holmes’s thirty-four. Presumably the phantom wife is somewhere in middle. But Holmes, who either gets to be really insightful or really thin—she’s flirting with Rip Torn, who’s—you know—forty-some years older—never seems to realize Douglas isn’t into her that way. He’s not into her any way. It’s hard to believe they live in the same house.

The film doesn’t exactly have plot holes, it just often has soft plot details. Director Hanson and screenwriter Steve Kloves gloss over things they shouldn’t, then somehow lose track of what the film’s supposed to be doing. During the second act, it falls completely in love with the supporting cast—Maguire in particular, which is fine and dandy because Maguire’s great—but then it chucks him in the third act to bring Downey back in. Okay, Downey’s really good, really fun (not great because he doesn’t have the part), but… wasn’t Maguire supposed to be important. Then it turns out Downey’s not important. What’s important is something the film’s had the opportunity to focus on and hasn’t. Intentionally avoided it, actually, which maybe is supposed to be a metaphor for pot-addled Douglas’s indecision—the film’s also got some really dated pot politics—but it’s a miss. Douglas is phenomenal and a great protagonist, but his narration doesn’t add anything to the film. The occasional smile, the tiniest bit of context for some exposition or another, but there’s never anything important in it.

Especially not after Douglas loses his agency in the third act.

But the script’s still good. It’s a complete mess, plotting-wise, but the scenes are great. The pacing is great. And Hanson knows how he wants to shoot the conversations. There’s a lot of beautiful direction, with outstanding photography from Dante Spinotti. Cool but warm photography, intense but natural. It’s a great looking film. Dede Allen’s editing is great, especially since Hanson’s composing these wide Panavision shots and the cuts between angles ought to be jarring. They’re not. They’re perfectly timed. Sublimely timed. Solid music from Christopher Young, mostly emphasis stuff. There’s a great soundtrack for the film, including an original Bob Dylan song. Though it’s hard to imagine any of the Wonder Boys listening to Bob Dylan.

Going through the acting again. Douglas and Maguire are phenomenal. McDormand’s great. Downey’s good. Rip Torn’s fun. Holmes gets a crap part. Richard Thomas gets cast way too perfectly as a cuckold.

Wonder Boys is, problems and all, outstanding. It’s just frustratingly close to exceptional and when Hanson and Kloves so completely bungle the third act… it takes some real damage. But it’s still outstanding though. And Douglas and Maguire’s performances are exceptional… the parts just don’t end up being so.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Curtis Hanson; screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by Michael Chabon; director of photography, Dante Spinotti; edited by Dede Allen; music by Christopher Young; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; produced by Hanson and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Michael Douglas (Grady Tripp), Tobey Maguire (James Leer), Frances McDormand (Sara Gaskell), Robert Downey Jr. (Terry Crabtree), Katie Holmes (Hannah Green), Rip Torn (Q), Richard Knox (Vernon Hardapple), Jane Adams (Oola), Alan Tudyk (Traxler), and Richard Thomas (Walter Gaskell).


The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976, Nicolas Roeg)

The Man Who Fell to Earth is an endurance test. The film runs 138 minutes and has a present action of… dozens of years? Eventually Candy Clark and Rip Torn are in old age makeup, milling about the film from scene to scene, like being forgotten by it would be worse. Everyone’s a drunk by the end, their lives ruined throughout. Man Who Fell to Earth is one of those rare pictures where if it were more melodramatic, it might get better mileage out of the script and cast.

But director Roeg rejects melodrama. He rejects exposition as well, which you need for melodrama but you also need for character development. Torn’s in the film from near the start–his self-destructive university professor subplot is initially juxtaposed against the main one–and Torn stops getting any character moments. He doesn’t get to develop. He gets established, a little more in-depth than other cast members, but then he stops perturbing. He just ages. With makeup assistance.

Clark doesn’t even get that initial setup. She gets one memory, but it doesn’t inform her character at all. She’s initially a big plot foil, then she’s background. Eventually her life is ruined off-screen, just like Torn’s.

Only Buck Henry gets any active resolution, along with the film’s most overt reference to him having a male love interest. That reference comes at the very end, after setting Henry up as a bifocaled visual punchline for an hour or so. Maybe longer. Time loses meaning at some point during Fell to Earth. You’re just waiting for Roeg to get around to something.

He doesn’t, of course, which is sort of the point. You can suck the energy out of any story, no matter how fantastical.

The whole thing revolves around David Bowie’s eclectic genius recluse millionaire who arrives out of the desert with some gems of technical ingenuity. Those gems lead to patents, patents lead to attorney Henry. Then it’s off to New Mexico (again) for Bowie, where he meets Clark and begins his reluctant descent into hedonism.

Bowie’s performance is rather flat. Not unlikable, sometimes rather sympathetic, but always flat. For a while, it’s Clark’s job to give the scenes some buoyancy. She’s got to make up for Bowie’s flat affect. Eventually, Roeg doesn’t even bother having Clark do it. By the time she’s caked in old age makeup, it’s in her scenes without Bowie where she gets to show that buoyancy. Only in scenes not needing any.

It’d lead to a third act drag if the whole thing didn’t drag.

Roeg wants Man to operate without the story having to be the compelling part. Each individual scene has its own internal logic–especially when Bernie Casey, as either anti-capitalist American government agent (Bowie’s inventions are just too good and they’re throwing the economy out of whack) or a rival company man. Casey’s got this whole setup with his family, juxtaposing him against Bowie, who’s temporarily abandoned his own.

About the only thing Casey has in common with Bowie is the butt shots. Roeg goes all out with nudity in Man Who Fell to Earth–initially all Torn is doing is rolling around naked with his female students, which ends up being the most interesting character development in the whole movie–and it gets rather tiresome. It never goes anywhere. The long lingering shots of Bowie’s emaciated form? They’re just long lingering shots.

Technically, the film’s more than competent. Excellent photography from Anthony B. Richmond, decent editing from Graeme Clifford. Roeg’s direction is sort of tedious, just like everything else.

The Man Who Fell to Earth builds until it stops building–pretty much with the introduction of Casey–and there’s nothing to go in the place of that building. Working up some sympathy for Bowie, maybe, but it’s far too late.

When it finally does getting around to stopping, it finally embraces Bowie as the rock star–the beginning of the film, with stranger in town Bowie bewildered by a desolate American town, could be the opening for a Bowie concert film with him ambling around before the show. Only it’s not much of an embrace, because Roeg never wants the film’s pulse to get too high.

The film tries hard with some of its symbolism, some of its dramatic echoes (though, really, with this one I’m being polite), but nothing else. Roeg’s sense of scenic sensationalism wears off. There are only so many times you can be shocked by everyone in the cast except Henry running around naked.

Roeg’s so dramatically restrained, he can’t even get Man to a pretentious state.

The acting’s okay, most of the time. Torn’s probably the best. At least, once people’s regular appearances become more sporadic, Torn’s the only one you’re happy to see again. Clark’s eventually just around to scream and cry. And tumble around naked with Bowie in proto-MTV music videos.

Henry might be better if the exagerrated bifocals didn’t get in the way. Well, that change and some better writing. Mayersberg’s script–or Roeg’s direction of it–doesn’t give the actors much to work with.

Roeg’s got problems with verisimilitude (the film’s got none), which is more than clear during the flashforward third act. In its place, he has his flat, protracted artiface. It’s exhausting. And Man Who Fell to Earth should be anything but.

Also, frankly, Clark doesn’t shoulder the weight of the picture puts on her. Her character’s too thin, her performance is too thin. Old age makeup a performance does not make.

The film doesn’t completely flop until the finale, when Man shrugs at the idea of adding up to anything for any of the cast–everyone lies to one another throughout, so much so their actions seem “dramatically” (quotation marks because drama would help too much) mandated versus naturally occuring.

Again, if Roeg had just like the natural melodrama come through–and maybe had a better production design than Brian Eatwell–Man Who Fell to Earth might be something other than an exasperating, if inoffensive, waste of time.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Nicolas Roeg; screenplay by Paul Mayersberg, based on the novel by Walter Tevis; director of photography, Anthony B. Richmond; edited by Graeme Clifford; music by John Phillips and Stomu Yamashta; production designer, Brian Eatwell; produced by Barry Spikings and Michael Deeley; released by British Lion Film Distribution.

Starring David Bowie (Thomas Jerome Newton), Candy Clark (Mary-Lou), Rip Torn (Nathan Bryce), Bernie Casey (Peters), and Buck Henry (Oliver Farnsworth).


Robocop 3 (1993, Fred Dekker)

It’s actually not hard to find nice things to say about Robocop 3. There’re about fifteen nice seconds of Phil Tippett stop-motion, Dekker’s got a neat way of shooting cars to give a sense of realism (his cinematographer, Gary B. Kibbe, did a lot of Carpenter’s films)… umm… wait, I’m sure I can find a third. It was cool seeing Jeff Garlin in a movie? Does that one count?

Robocop 3 is an unmitigated disaster, made on the cheap–made a few years later, if Orion Pictures had maintained solvency, it would have just been a direct-to-video entry–the only amusing way to pass a viewing experience is to rate the actors’ sense of embarrassment. Worst has to be Nancy Allen, who had so much vested interest in the sequel’s artistic import, she demanded to be killed off. There are a few “reasons” Peter Weller didn’t return–the costume, filming conflicts–but maybe he just read the script. As a PG-13 movie, Robocop 3 is silly. It turns RoboCop into a Saturday morning cartoon superhero, complete with bad one-liners.

What’s peculiar about the film is the cast. It’s a veritable who’s who of television personalities–famous ones. There’s Stephen Root from “NewsRadio,” he’s really bad. CCH Pounder, I’ll use “ER” as an example to keep up the strange NBC connection, is also bad. She’s usually quite good, so I suppose by not being more visibly embarrassed while delivering her lines–well, there’s a compliment somewhere in there. Jill Hennessy from “Law & Order.” She’s absolutely atrocious. Robocop 3 was delayed a couple years while Orion worked its way out of bankruptcy and I wonder if, had it come out as scheduled, she’d ever have gotten another role again.

But my favorite has to be Bradley Whitford, if only because he’s actually all right in Robocop 3. His character’s a generic corporate slime, but Whitford’s got a couple good deliveries. It doesn’t make the movie any better, but they’re funny deliveries. I wonder if he kept the glasses he got to wear in the movie.

I haven’t seen Robocop 3 in ten years and it appears to have corked rather significantly. I haven’t even gotten to some of the worst performances, which is mind-boggling since I have mentioned Hennessy already. I’m just worried I’ll forget the stunt performers, who jump long before they have any reason to, creating an almost surreal effect. But I don’t think Dekker was trying to bring Fellini to Robocop.

There’s an annoying little kid in this one–Remy Ryan Hernandez–she’s real bad. She’s got a great scene where–after doing calculus at a Doogie Howser age–doesn’t seem to understand her parents have been bussed away (the script’s got some real logic problems). Every scene with Hernandez is painful. It’s like the filmmakers were trying to appeal to a Disney girl audience or something.

Rip Torn is also terrible here, mugging for the camera (I’d believe it if they told him he was just doing a voice for a cartoon, which might explain his exaggerated expressions and so on). John Castle, terrible. Mako, terrible. Daniel von Bargen, okay.

As the new RoboCop, Robert John Burke is the pits. Why they didn’t just leave the helmet on all the time and hire Peter Weller to dub in the lines….

Well, that suggestion makes sense and nothing in Robocop 3 makes any sense.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Fred Dekker; screenplay by Dekker and Frank Miller, based on a story by Miller and characters created by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner; director of photography, Gary B. Kibbe; edited by Bert Lovitt; music by Basil Poledouris; production designer, Hilda Stark; produced by Patrick Crowley; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Robert John Burke (RoboCop), Nancy Allen (Officer Anne Lewis), Rip Torn (The CEO), John Castle (Paul McDaggett), Jill Hennessy (Dr. Marie Lazarus), CCH Pounder (Bertha), Remy Ryan Hernandez (Nikko), Bruce Locke (Otomo), Stanley Anderson (Zack), Stephen Root (Coontz), Daniel von Bargen (Moreno), Robert DoQui (Sergeant Warren Reed), Felton Perry (Johnson), Bradley Whitford (Fleck), Mako (Kanemitsu) and Jeff Garlin (Donut Jerk).


August (2008, Austin Chick)

August clocks in, with end credits, at eighty-four minutes. I didn’t know the running time going in, so I wasn’t thinking about it. I would have guessed, just based on the perceptive passage, around two hours. My wife, not being a fan, probably would say three and a half. Doing a good movie in ninety minutes has gotten, for whatever reason, to be near impossible in the last forty-odd years. Doing a great one in under ninety, in New York, with a limited cast, has actually gotten a little easier in the last few. I’m thinking of Looking for Kitty.

August does a couple things, a couple important things. First, it fulfills Josh Hartnett, whose career has been in a mainstream paralysis the last six years. He’s the whole show in August, playing an unlikable, unsympathetic alpha male selling a useless internet product before the technology for it even exists. His character thinks he’s Prince. I’d seen some previews and they don’t properly represent his performance (August is, as the next point will clarify, difficult to sell). He’s fantastic.

The second thing it does is more and less important. August is a character study. I kept waiting for it not to be a character study, I kept waiting for it to go bad once it started getting great, but then the last scene came around and it became clear how Chick was ending the film.

August is set in August 2001. The World Trade Center only appears in one establishing shot. What Chick and writer Rodman do with that setting is rather unexpected. The film also has a lot of financial hyperbole–most of the conversations in the film are about Hartnett and brother Adam Scott’s company’s financial condition, not the most riveting to audiences. But it’s a character study.

As a director, Chick was one of my initial problems with August. His composition kept bothering me. It was like he was wasting a quarter of the screen (August is Panavision aspect, a quarter off would make it fit for HD). Then, after the first time shot using the entire screen, it became clear he was using that empty space. He was using it all along, but I guess I was just too suspect to give him the credit. I thought it was getting lucky.

The rest of the cast is good (even David Bowie). Since it’s all about their relationships with Hartnett, Adam Scott and Naomie Harris have the best parts. Scott and Hartnett only mildly resemble each other around the eyes (and it’s only at the end Chick uses close-ups), but August has one of those good, difficult brother relationships. Harris is the ex-girlfriend; she and Hartnett only have three scenes, but they’re all excellent. The other supporting cast members–Andre Royo, Robin Tunney, Rip Torn, Caroline Lagerfelt–all good.

August is definitely the sum of its parts–Nathan Larson’s music, awkward in the trailer and, I’m sure, on its own, is an essential element–as is Andrij Parekh’s cinematography. Chick makes an eighty-four (sorry, eighty-nine… with end credits) film, shot on limited locations (I figure the driving sequence was either the most expense or illegally done), about three weeks, expansive.

At some point, I guess somewhere after the twenty minute mark, I thought how nice it would be if August were great, then dismissed it. I’m not sure if I’m happier with the unexpected surprise or if I’m mad I’m so defeatist about film. But considering August, there’s no reason to be quite so cynical.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Austin Chick; written by Howard A. Rodman; director of photography, Andrij Parekh; edited by Pete Beaudreau; music by Nathan Larson; production designer, Roshelle Berliner; produced by Elisa Pugliese, Clara Markowicz, Josh Hartnett, Charlie Corwin and David Guy Levy; released by First Look Studios.

Starring Josh Hartnett (Tom), Naomie Harris (Sarrah), Adam Scott (Joshua), Robin Tunney (Melanie), Andre Royo (Dylan), Emmanuelle Chriqui (Mo), Laila Robins (Pivo), Caroline Langerfelt (Nancy), Alan Cox (Barton), David Bowie (Ogilvie) and Rip Torn (David).


Nadine (1987, Robert Benton)

There’s got to be some kind of story behind Nadine, one explaining why it makes no sense in its plotting, why the ending makes no sense and why it only runs seventy-eight minutes. Unfortunately, I can’t find any reference online to those issues, so I guess they’ll remain a mystery.

As it stands, Nadine is a couple great characters in search of a story. Well, not even a story–the characters have a story. They’re separated and they get back together. It’s everything around that story. Benton’s script moves real fast–without a lot of bridging scenes; it’s frequently confusing–and he spends some real nice time on the couple, ably aided by Howard Shore’s score.

But the rest of the film–involving a land deal, Rip Torn as a lame villain (he’s Rip Torn, no other explanation for villainy needed apparently), Jeff Bridges’s dumb bar and Kim Basinger hating the dumb bar–is a mess. The bar in question barely appears in the film, but everyone’s always talking about it or mentioning it–at least as much as something can be talked about in seventy-eight minutes.

Bridges and Basinger are both fantastic, whether together or apart, but together’s a lot more fun. But I really don’t know what Benton thought he was doing with the film. There’s a visible lack of content, even if there were bridging scenes in place, because–well, it appears he’s trying to tell the romantic comedy equivalent of Chinatown, which isn’t even necessarily a bad idea (I guess), but there’s no setting beyond the cars and the title announcing the time and place.

There’s three action set-pieces too. There’s a car chase, which isn’t bad and is somewhat amusing, but it’s not a movie with car chases… then there’s a suspense sequence, then there’s a gunfight.

Oh, no, I think Benton was trying to do a non-traditional traditional Hollywood comedy here… argh.

If a movie could float on Jeff Bridges’s considerable charm, Nadine would certainly be a candidate. Except, it’s disqualified, because Basinger’s really appealing and the two of them are wonderful together.

Glenne Headly has a bit part and is great, big shock, as is Jay Patterson. Jerry Stiller is in it for a minute and a half, but it seems like keeping him around would have been a better idea.

I just wish I knew the “making of” of Nadine.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Robert Benton; director of photography, Nestor Almendros; film editor, Sam O’Steen; music by Howard Shore; production designer, Paul Sylbert; produced by Arlene Donovan; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring Jeff Bridges (Vernon Hightower), Kim Basinger (Nadine Hightower), Rip Torn (Buford Pope), Gwen Verdon (Vera), Glenne Headly (Renee), Jerry Stiller (Raymond Escobar), Jay Patterson (Dwight Estes), William Youmans (Boyd), Gary Grubbs (Cecil) and Mickey Jones (Floyd).


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