Steve Martin

The Spanish Prisoner (1997, David Mamet)

Every moment, every line of dialogue, every shot–every use of sound–is so precise in The Spanish Prisoner, it’s sometimes hard to comprehend of Mamet put it all together. There are not a handful of precise moments, or a few precise scenes. Minute after minute, from the first shot, everything in the film is precision.

But none of the filmmaking precision–Carter Burwell’s score is the most obvious, but Gabriel Beristain’s photography and especially Barbara Tulliver’s editing are essential components as well–none of these components would matter without the acting. Between Ricky Jay, who delivers his lines–usually quotes–with enough memorability, even though Mamet never makes them obvious, the viewer can call back to them and how they relate to the film’s events.

Or lead Campbell Scott, who is simultaneously sympathetic and annoying because of his deep-seated desire for wealth, so much it causes him to ignore a possible romance with nice, regular girl Rebecca Pidgeon. She’s a little annoying herself, which often implies the pair is perfect for one another.

The important part about Scott, Pidgeon, Ben Gazzara (who has the perfect voice for Mamet dialogue), Jay, Felicity Huffman and Steve Martin (cast against type as a mystery man) is how they’re able to sell their roles. Mamet’s dialogue should put a glass pane between the viewer and The Spanish Prisoner, the unreality should pulse, but thanks to the cast (and Mamet’s direction) it feels realer than real.

It is an exceptional piece of filmmaking.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by David Mamet; director of photography, Gabriel Beristain; edited by Barbara Tulliver; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Tim Galvin; produced by Jean Doumanian; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Campbell Scott (Joe Ross), Rebecca Pidgeon (Susan Ricci), Steve Martin (Jimmy Dell), Ben Gazzara (Mr. Klein), Felicity Huffman (Pat McCune), Lionel Mark Smith (Detective Jones) and Ricky Jay (George Lang).


Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987, John Hughes)

Planes, Trains & Automobiles is probably most impressive technically. The narrative is problematic but not a bad narrative, it’s just a problematic one. Director Hughes can’t decide if he wants Planes to be a comedy with John Candy or a comedy about Candy. Candy’s able to be sympathetic while still being unbelievably annoying–his performance is the film’s finest–but Hughes doesn’t know how to use him. Planes is Steve Martin’s picture or it’s Martin and Candy’s, but it’s never just Candy’s. Though Hughes pretends otherwise.

As for the technical qualities. Donald Peterman’s photography and Paul Hirsch’s editing are sublime. Peterman and Hirsch turn Hughes’s often mediocre composition into beautiful visuals. Ira Newborn’s score, which has some ill-advised eighties remix, also creates these amazing moments more appropriate for a film in the Cinéma du look movement. They’re some of the most memorable scenes in Planes and are startling to see in an American buddy comedy.

The narrative’s also peculiar because Hughes puts the big blow-out between Martin and Candy early in the picture. The later minor ones are still funny, they just don’t resonate. The choice probably hampered Hughes’s narrative pacing, but it deepens Planes.

In the supporting cast, Edie McClurg is obviously the standout. Dylan Baker’s real funny too. As Martin’s wife (Hughes plays with juxtaposing the stories, then drops it), Laila Robins is perfect–though the filmmaking might have more to do with it than her acting.

Planes is a fine time; its singular scenes near transcendence.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written, directed and produced by John Hughes; director of photography, Donald Peterman; edited by Paul Hirsch; music by Ira Newborn; production designer, John W. Corso; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Steve Martin (Neal Page), John Candy (Del Griffith), Laila Robins (Susan Page), Michael McKean (State Trooper), Dylan Baker (Owen), Carol Bruce (Joy), Olivia Burnette (Marti), Diana Douglas (Peg), Martin Ferrero (Second Motel Clerk), Larry Hankin (Doobie), Richard Herd (Walt), Susan Kellermann (Waitress), Matthew Lawrence (Little Neal), Edie McClurg (Car Rental Agent), George Petrie (Martin), Gary Riley (Motel Thief), Charles Tyner (Gus) and Kevin Bacon (Taxi Racer).


Three Amigos (1986, John Landis)

Three Amigos is beautifully made. Whether it’s the silent era Hollywood scenes at the opening, the silent movie in the movie, or the Western the film quickly becomes… it all looks fantastic. Landis even brings in the singing cowboy genre–the scene with the animals accompanying the song is wonderful. The locations desire some credit, but it’s primarily Landis and cinematographer Ronald W. Browne. Amigos‘s style goes a long way towards its success.

The film frequently has stretches without a laugh, at times even deviating to ominous and disturbing. The excellent performances make up for the lazy pace.

Oddly, co-writer, executive producer and top-billed actor Steve Martin is not one of them. Martin is good, but he’s in the middle of a trio of numbskulls. Chevy Chase has more to do as the idiot of the bunch and Martin Short gives the best performance of the three as the secretly intelligent one.

But the best performances in the film are from Alfonso Arau and Tony Plana. Arau is the bad guy and Plana’s his head stooge. From his first frame, Arau is likable. He and Plana get better writing than the three leads, if only because they’re morons. The most successful moments for Martin, Chase and Short tend to be gags.

Joe Mantegna shows up for a hilarious small part, as does Fred Asparagus. Kai Wulff is good as the scary German aviator.

Amigos isn’t great, but it’s pretty darn good. Though Elmer Bernstein’s score is tiresome.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Landis; written by Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels and Randy Newman; director of photography, Ronald W. Browne; edited by Malcolm Campbell; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, Richard Tom Sawyer; produced by George Folsey Jr. and Michaels; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Steve Martin (Lucky Day), Chevy Chase (Dusty Bottoms), Martin Short (Ned Nederlander), Alfonso Arau (El Guapo), Tony Plana (Jefe), Patrice Martinez (Carmen), Philip Gordon (Rodrigo), Kai Wulff (German), Fred Asparagus (Bartender), Jon Lovitz (Morty), Phil Hartman (Sam) and Joe Mantegna (Harry Flugleman).


The Muppet Movie (1979, James Frawley)

The Muppet Movie takes it upon itself to be all things… well, two things. It has to be appealing to kids and adults. The film is split roughly in half between the audiences, with the adults having more to appreciate in the star cameos–some cute, some hilarious (Steve Martin in short shorts)–and terrible puns and the kids have the songs.

To keep the kids amused during the more “adult” parts, there are the Muppets. The level of puppetry on display here is staggering, particularly once one realizes only a couple of the Muppets have moving eyes. The others just give the impression of moving, lifelike eyes through head tilts and reaction motion. Jim Henson and the Muppet performers show a masterful understanding of how the slightest motion implies real animation.

But the adults also have to be kept amused during the song sequences, which is a little harder, even though the Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher songs are great. There’s occasional humor, but there’s also amazing filmmaking. Director Frawley does a great job, as does Isidore Mankofsky’s photography and Christopher Greenbury’s editing. The Muppet Movie‘s beautifully made… and they know it.

The script frequently breaks the fourth wall, including references to how great some of the previous shots came out. The only bad shot is during Dom DeLuise’s cameo, like his close-ups had to be reshot.

The film’s idealistic and infectious. If you can believe the Muppets are real… you can believe in the film’s positive, inspiring message.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by James Frawley; written by Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl; director of photography, Isidore Mankofsky; edited by Christopher Greenbury; music by Paul Williams; production designer, Joel Schiller; produced by Jim Henson; released by Associated Film Distribution.

Starring Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt and Dave Goelz as the Muppets and Caroll Spinney (Big Bird).

Starring Charles Durning (Doc Hopper), Austin Pendleton (Max), Dom DeLuise (Bernie the Agent), Mel Brooks (Professor Max Krassman), Orson Welles (Lew Lord), Carol Kane (Myth) and Steve Martin (an insolent waiter).


Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988, Frank Oz)

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels manages to have a full, three act plot–with all the twists necessary for a confidence picture–but it also is constantly funny. Oz juggles his two leads but mostly relies on Steve Martin for the more immediate humor. With Michael Caine, Oz and the screenwriters tend to be a lot quieter… letting the humor build. Martin gets the gags.

Deciding the better performance–between Caine and Martin–is difficult. Caine has a lot more to do in terms of range, but Martin has to be doing something almost every frame of film.

I’ve seen Scoundrels before, but I never fully appreciated the film’s successes. For example, Oz uses montages a couple times to hurry the plot along and each scene in the montage is hilarious, but the film never pauses to laugh at itself. It never loses momentum, even during the more outrageous gags.

And Scoundrels has a lot of potential speed bumps. The first act alone has a micro-three act structure built into it, as the focus transitions from Caine to Martin (it shifts throughout the film). Then there’s the appearance of Glenne Headly, who arrives during the second act. She’s an essential player and is absent during the first act. Actually, Headly probably gives the film’s best performance.

Anton Rodgers and Ian McDiarmid, who both have big parts at the start, slowly fade away. Rodgers in particular has some fantastic scenes. Barbara Harris is great in a small part too.

Scoundrels is outstanding.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Oz; written by Dale Launer, Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Stephen A. Rotter and William S. Scharf; music by Miles Goodman; production designer, Roy Walker; produced by Bernard Williams; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Steve Martin (Freddy Benson), Michael Caine (Lawrence Jamieson), Glenne Headly (Janet Colgate), Anton Rodgers (Inspector Andre), Barbara Harris (Fanny Eubanks), Ian McDiarmid (Arthur), Dana Ivey (Mrs. Reed), Meagen Fay (Lady from Oklahoma), Frances Conroy (Lady from Palm Beach), Nicole Calfan (Lady in Dining Car) and Aïna Walle (Miss Krista Knudsen).


It’s Complicated (2009, Nancy Meyers)

It’s not difficult to come up with compliments for It’s Complicated. Alec Baldwin is very funny. Unfortunately, he’s very funny playing a slight variant on his character from “30 Rock.” Similarly, John Krasinski is very affable. Unfortunately, he too is simply playing a variation on his “Office” character. The film is from Universal (or NBC Universal) and both those television shows air on NBC. One almost has to wonder.

Without the two of them, there might be a somewhat silly but still sincere divorce romance for Meryl Streep and the ludicrously second-billed Steve Martin (if anyone ever deserved an “and” credit, it’s Martin in this film). Both of them turn in solid, nearly believable performances.

If Meyers had wanted the film to be serious, I’m not just sure she could have handled it, I’m sure she could have handled it well. Instead, It’s Complicated feels like something spun out of “The View.” Streep appearing in this film is even more absurd than her appearing in Mamma Mia! Martin’s on par, but he’s still at least acting his character, not just acting a character from his tv show. Though his–and the film’s–best moment is when he’s a wild and crazy guy.

Meyers started her career as an amazing director. It’s hard to tell if she still has those skills. Most of her composition is for home video, wasting John Toll’s cinematography. However, it’s editors Joe Hutshing and David Moritz who do the most damage overall. It’s hideously edited.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Nancy Meyers; director of photography, John Toll; edited by Joe Hutshing and David Moritz; music by Hans Zimmer and Heitor Pereira; production designer, Jon Hutman; produced by Meyers and Scott Rudin; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Meryl Streep (Jane), Steve Martin (Adam), Alec Baldwin (Jake), Lake Bell (Agness), John Krasinski (Harley), Rita Wilson (Trisha), Mary Kay Place (Joanne), Alexandra Wentworth (Diane) and Hunter Parrish (Luke).


Traitor (2008, Jeffrey Nachmanoff)

Traitor is the Superman IV of terrorism movies. I suppose I need to explain. I think Tom Mankiewicz once told Christopher Reeve you couldn’t have Superman messing around with the real world. Traitor is a Hollywood terrorism movie–in the vein of Telefon, The Assignment, Nighthawks or even The Jackal–except it takes 9/11 into account. The result is a goofy concoction–one I’m sure the filmmakers think is well-intentioned, but comes off as one of the most xenophobic things I’ve seen in a long time.

Simply put, in the world of Traitor, all Muslims–except one or two–are terrorists ready to kill innocent children, even if they have innocent children of their own. These Muslims tend to be Middle Eastern–Traitor has a ludicrous sleeper cell plot point with a female suicide bomber who would have been inserted long before women became suicide bombers–but there’s also a couple Africans. Not African-Americans, who the film has an awkward relationship with, but African immigrants. Not to be pointing fingers at writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff, but I think Louis Farrakhan would have done a much more even-handed tale of a black American Muslim who discovers himself (working for the U.S. in Afghanistan in the 1980s with Osama Bin Laden no less) and finds his Middle Eastern brothers a little confused when it comes to the articles of faith.

As for the film’s approach to religion… another pitfall. It really tries hard in some ways, but it can’t escape its active contention (i.e. ninety-three percent of Muslims are heartless, unthinking mass murderers–worse, they all dream of some day getting to be mass murderers), so it’s laughable in the end. But there’s a lot to laugh at in Traitor, starting with its handling of the FBI.

Since 9/11, common knowledge of what American intelligence agencies do has skyrocketed. So when FBI agents Guy Pearce (he’s an Arabic languages PhD who couldn’t find another job… really) and Neal McDonough (he’s a big tough mean agent, who doesn’t know his partner is a PhD) wing around the world–Yemen, France, Canada, maybe England–it seems somewhat unrealistic. They don’t appear to have a boss, either.

Pearce’s performance is somehow good and somehow not. Technically, it’s a great performance, but the character’s so insanely stupid it’s hard to take him seriously. McDonough is bad. Cheadle’s decent–I kept wondering what the filmmakers would have done if they hadn’t signed him–if bland. As the only Arab terrorist with any elements of humanity, Saïd Taghmaoui is amazing–he gives the film’s best performance and if it’d been about him, it would have been something. As the heartless terrorist–who doesn’t even follow Islam’s basic tenets–Alyy Khan is awful. The rest of the cast is, generally, fine.

The first twenty or thirty minutes of Traitor is good. Until the last couple scenes, it’s on a steady decline but it takes a huge plunge at the end.

Nachmanoff’s direction is better than his writing–it’s fun to see them work cross-purpose. Nachmanoff goes the steady-cam route here (for realism, I’m sure), but he’s got tons of goofy Hollywood dialogue.

And Mark Kilian’s music is good. So good I’m surprised I don’t know his name.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff; screenplay by Nachmanoff, based on a story by Steve Martin and Jeffrey Nachmanoff; director of photography, J. Michael Muro; edited by Billy Fox; music by Mark Kilian; production designer, Laurence Bennett; produced by Don Cheadle, David Hoberman, Kay Liberman, Todd Lieberman, Chris McGurk, Danny Rosett and Jeffrey Silver; released by Overture Films.

Starring Don Cheadle (Samir Horn), Guy Pearce (Roy Clayton), Saïd Taghmaoui (Omar), Neal McDonough (Max Archer), Alyy Khan (Fareed Mansour), Archie Panjabi (Chandra Dawkin) and Jeff Daniels (Carter).


Parenthood (1989, Ron Howard)

I’m trying to find a synonym for genial… excuse me a moment. I like the look of gregarious, but the definition doesn’t fit. Convivial is going to be the compromise word. Parenthood is convivial. Somehow, Howard and company manage to convince the viewer to be touched by the movie’s events, but not to give them enough thought to realize how contrived and unrealistic the situations get. It’s kind of brilliant in a way–Ganz and Mandel don’t exactly mature their humor of the early 1980s, but they add parental responsibility to it. To some degree it works. Parenthood is a pleasant, if too long and too saccharine, experience.

But it fails in some special ways. For instance, I think I remembered, while watching, Keanu Reeves’s character’s name and only because Dianne Wiest says it so many times. The rest of the characters, the names sound kind of familiar, but I could never do a lineup. It’s the Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen family or the Dianne Wiest family or the Rick Moranis. Howard cast very recognizable people. The two least recognizable main cast members–Tom Hulce and Harley Jane Kozak, are the only ones recognizable because of their characters. Even so, a lot of the acting is excellent. Wiest, Martin, Steenburgen… actually almost everyone is good. Except Hulce. Hulce is terrible. So’s Joaquin Phoenix, showing youth and a different name do not a better actor make. Hulce and Phoenix’s scenes get painful at times, taking the onus off Reeves, who isn’t good, but at least has a few solid moments. Jason Robards has some great scenes, but the movie–the problem with it–is there aren’t enough. There aren’t enough scenes with Robards and Martin together, since the movie blames Robards for all of Martin’s problems. There aren’t enough–really any, the funny grandmother (Helen Shaw is a lot of fun), gets more scenes–with Eileen Ryan. She’s mother to main cast, wife to Robards, but takes a backseat to everything. At best, she gets a few extra seconds of screen time being mortified at having an interracial grandkid. At best. There’s literally nothing for her to do in the movie, which probably speaks volumes if anyone wants to stop and listen.

Howard’s direction is only distinctive in tone–look, he’s found a way to make a very special episode of a sitcom into a two hour movie–not in composition, certainly not in direction of actors. Hulce and Phoenix strain the suspension of disbelief, particularly Hulce. Phoenix, though atrocious, at least has the excuse of playing the weakest character in the script. It’s cheap and obvious, but passable.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Howard; screenplay by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, based on a story by Ganz, Mandel and Howard; director of photography, Donald McAlpine; edited by Mike Hill and Daniel P. Hanley; music by Randy Newman; production designer, Todd Hallowell; produced by Brian Grazer; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Steve Martin (Gil Buckman), Dianne Wiest (Helen Buckman), Mary Steenburgen (Karen Buckman), Jason Robards (Frank Buckman), Rick Moranis (Nathan Huffner), Tom Hulce (Larry Buckman), Martha Plimpton (Julie Buckman), Keanu Reeves (Tod Higgins), Harley Jane Kozak (Susan Buckman), Joaquin Phoenix (Garry Buckman-Lampkin), Eileen Ryan (Marilyn Buckman) and Helen Shaw (Grandma).


The Jerk (1979, Carl Reiner)

“Classics.” In the sense, “oh, it’s a classic.” Possibly even, “it’s classic.” “Classic” is a lousy classification for film. It’s applied mostly as if it were a genre, with something like King Kong escaping to the sci-fi section, but A Night at the Opera absent from the comedy one.

The Jerk is considered a “classic” and I don’t quite get it. It’s occasionally funny, but mostly drags on. It’s poorly titled (according to IMDb, the working title was Easy Money, which is better), because The Jerk suggests… well, it suggests Steve Martin is playing a jerk. According to Oxford’s, a jerk is (in the informal) a contemptibly obnoxious person. The film gets the title from the colloquialism, “What do you think I am, some kind of a jerk or something?” Except, in that colloquialism jerk doesn’t mean obnoxious person, it means sap, dope, maybe patsy. I suppose they could have called any of those, but didn’t. Because The Jerk, starring Steve Martin in a bathrobe, looks like a movie you’d want to see. It looks like a funny movie.

The film’s structure is also particular. Bernadette Peters has almost no dialogue for the film’s last third or so. She’s around–both on screen and in the story–but she’s not doing anything. The film is so delineated into scenes, once she’s done, she has to stick around, but the film doesn’t have anything to do with her. The first half of the film has this deliberate pacing–lots of funny moments in amusing scenes. The scenes flow from one to the other, more on the comedic factor than any sort of dramatic one. It’s not extreme enough to be notable, but it creates a pleasant viewing experience. The second half of the film, which feels like someone checked his or her watch and got really worried about the running time, is hurried and almost all in summary or half-scene.

Steve Martin wrote the script with Carl Gottlieb, who’s the only guy to work on all of the first three Jaws films. I imagine the tight structure of the first half is from his hand, but it’s hard to blame the second act on either writer. Once director Carl Reiner shows up in a cameo, it’s apparent the film’s lost its footing. Most of Reiner’s filmography is Steve Martin films, so I guess they liked each other, but Reiner’s not bringing anything particular to the film. I just finished watching it an hour ago and nothing’s resonating. It’s all seeped away, except maybe the subtly touching relationship between Martin and his adopted brother, played by Dick Anthony Williams.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Carl Reiner; screenplay by Steve Martin, Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias, based on a story by Martin and Gottlieb; director of photography, Victor J. Kemper; edited by Bud Molin; music by Jack Elliot; production designer, Jack T. Collis; produced by William E. McEuen and David V. Picker; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Steve Martin (Navin R. Johnson), Bernadette Peters (Marie Kimble Johnson), Catlin Adams (Patty Bernstein), Mabel King (Mother), Richard Ward (Father), Dick Anthony Williams (Taj Jonson), Bill Macy (Stan Fox), M. Emmet Walsh (Madman) and Dick O’Neill (Frosty).


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