Susan Sarandon

Twilight (1998, Robert Benton)

Unfortunate bit of trivia to start us off—Twilight is supposed to be called The Magic Hour, but just around the time of release, Magic Johnson’s high profile (and quickly cancelled) TV show had the same title and they changed the movie’s title. Titles are both important and not. They definitely establish a work’s intention—you may know nothing about something but once you see the title, you ostensibly know something. The problem with Twilight’s title change is two-fold. While, sure, Twilight is The Magic Hour as far as a time of day when Los Angeles looks particularly hot and haunting, but Twilight also carries with it some implications given the film’s all about being old and dying. Whereas The Magic Hour does not carry those similar implications.

So about a hundred and fifty words to say, you most likely know it as Twilight, but it will always be The Magic Hour to me.

Twilight opens with Paul Newman having a beer at a Mexican resort, then another. He’s on the trail of seventeen year-old Reese Witherspoon; she’s run away with inappropriate older boyfriend Liev Schreiber. We get a little of the Newman charm as he extricates Witherspoon from Schreiber, but things soon go wrong; Newman’s passive gender expectations get him shot.

Fast forward two years and Newman’s living above the garage of seventies Hollywood stars Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon. Newman does odd jobs around the house, plays cards with Hackman, flirts with Sarandon, bickers with their daughter… Witherspoon. Hackman felt bad for wounded Newman and gave him a place to stay. Then Hackman got sick and they needed Newman around. The inciting action is Hackman asking Newman to run an errand… which may or may not have something to do with Hackman’s simultaneous news—his cancer is back and he’s not going to be doing anymore treatment, which is pissing off Sarandon.

What unfolds is a mess of dreams and nightmares. Newman’s got his own dreams and nightmares, but he’s wading through everyone else’s. There are the older folks’—retired ex-cops James Garner and M. Emmet Walsh, who’ve gone on to the private sector with differing results; Newman’s old cop partner, Stockard Channing, who’s got commonalities with the old ex-cops but very different dreams; Giancarlo Esposito’s Newman’s de facto old partner from private investigating days, still starstruck at the possible glamour of the profession. You’re in Hollywood, even if you avoid it, it’s a magical place where dreams come true. Even the obvious villains—Margo Martindale’s blackmailer, for instance, or Schreiber—are just mired in the cultural magical thinking. The script—by director Benton and Richard Russo—does an exceptional job layering in all that subtext. Essential in getting that subtext across is Piotr Sobocinski’s lush, deliberate photography, Elmer Bernstein’s lush, deliberate score, Carol Littleton’s lush, deliberate editing, and David Gropman’s… no, not lush and deliberate, but sharp yet functional production design. Twilight is very much about people in their chosen environments. The difference between locations speak volumes about the characters who live in them, who visit them, as well as the setting in general.

Because Twilight is exceptionally smart.

And should’ve gotten whatever title it wanted.

(The Magic Hour).

Anyway. Great performances. Benton and Russo’s script provides just the right amount of foundation, Benton’s direction stretches the canvas—all the mixed metaphors—and the actors then inhabit and expand. Should’ve gone with some kind of sculpture thing.

The best performance, just in terms of pure unadulterated success, is Martindale. She’s magnificent. But the most successful with the least is Esposito, who seems to be taking what ought to be a caricature and turning it into the film’s realest person. Witherspoon’s got some really good moments, ditto Schreiber. But it’s all about the older adults—though Newman, Hackman, and Garner are a decade and a half (at least) older than Sarandon. It’s all about the complicated relationships Newman’s forged with Hackman, Garner, and Sarandon; as the film progresses, we find out more and more about Newman before the opening mishap in Mexico. Twilight’s a Raymond Chandler story about seventies Hollywood done twenty years later with Hollywood stars playing type and against but also a character study. Kind of more a character story. It’s not really an L.A. movie only because Benton doesn’t dwell. He’s all about the locations, but showcasing the action occurring in them.

Because even though Benton does a great job with the supporting actors—Sarandon the most-it’s all about Newman. It’s not clear in the first scene—the Mexico flashback—because Newman’s got on sunglasses, but the film’s all about his performance. About how the events wear on him, how he reacts to them. Benton makes his cast sit in their emotional states—freezing them, just for a second or two—and shows how the pressure is crushing them. Not the pressure of their failures or successes, but the Hollywood dreams.

Again, should’ve been called The Magic Hour. Or something else entirely.

Hackman and Sarandon are both great. Garner’s got this wonderful flashy ex-cop turned studio security turned old codger part. He’s really enthusiastic about taking that extra reaction time. Hackman seems used to it, Sarandon’s different—but Garner’s visibly (albeit reservedly) jazzed; the performance does a lot to establish Garner’s place in the story, which is more often than not offscreen. Hackman and Sarandon, Garner, they’re places Newman visits. Sometimes for a long time, but he’s always a guest in those places. It’s very a Chandler-esque narrative.

Because Twilight is very much within the genre constraints of a mystery, which is the only thing wrong with it—Russo and Benton are careful never to strain said constraints too hard; they’re too respectful of genre. But what they do—what the film does—is magical enough.

Because it should’ve been called the damn Magic Hour.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Benton; written by Benton and Richard Russo; director of photography, Piotr Sobocinski; edited by Carol Littleton; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, David Gropman; costume designer, Joseph G. Aulisi; produced by Arlene Donovan and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Harry Ross), Susan Sarandon (Catherine Ames), Gene Hackman (Jack Ames), Reese Witherspoon (Mel Ames), Stockard Channing (Lt. Verna Hollander), James Garner (Raymond Hope), Giancarlo Esposito (Reuben Escobar), Liev Schreiber (Jeff Willis), Margo Martindale (Gloria Lamar), John Spencer (Capt. Phil Egan), and M. Emmet Walsh (Lester Ivar).



The Hunger (1983, Tony Scott)

A lot of The Hunger is so exquisitely directed by Scott, it almost seems like there’s nothing the narrative could do to mess it up. His Panavision composition is precise, fixated on the small detail, whether it’s David Bowie’s stubble or Catherine Deneuve’s sunglasses. These details become larger than life, filling the frame, but Scott and photographer Stephen Goldblatt want their actual size to be far more important, always haunting the viewer. The Hunger’s filmmaking is all about precision, whether it’s the direction, the photographer or Pamela Power’s thoughtfully hectic editing. It’s a shame the same can’t be said for Ivan Davis and Michael Thomas’s script, which eventually undoes most of the filmmaking.

The Hunger is a very tight story. David Bowie is a vampire. He is getting sick. Catherine Deneuve is his master. There’s no description of the vampire logic in The Hunger, which is initially charming and then grating. It gets grating about the time it’s clear Scott’s style can’t carry the film, somewhere around the second half. Anyway, Deneuve finds out about aging scientist–she’s a scientist who specializes in aging, she’s not aging herself–aging scientist Susan Sarandon. Bowie tries to go to Sarandon for help. After some complications and revelations, Sarandon herself is afflicted.

The simple problem with The Hunger is the script. The more complex problem with it is how little Scott cares about the script. David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve manage a classical tragic elegance. Sarandon brings this modern elegance. Scott loves the dark elegance of it, he doesn’t care about the story. The film rushes through any of its “science” scenes, which come across as so ludicrous Bram Stoker wouldn’t have used them in 1897. But when Scott’s got to show the science–regardless of how stupid Davis and Thomas explain that science–Scott is able to make it look good. He stumbles occasionally in the third act, which is way too rushed both in terms of present action and runtime, but Scott’s even able to visualize the dumb ending pretty well. It’s just too bad he can’t save it. Once Sarandon stops being the protagonist of the film and its subject, The Hunger slips and doesn’t recover. It handled changing protagonists from Bowie to Sarandon, but when it tries to hand off to Deneuve, the third act rush is too close and it’s a big fumble.

Lots of mixed metaphors and so on in there but The Hunger’s a little hard to rip on. It deserves it–the bad finish just makes the previous missteps more obvious, especially in the case of Cliff De Young. He’s Sarandon’s fellow aging scientist and also her boyfriend. He gets nothing to do, not even in the scenes where the other scientists have something to do, and then he gets a couple big moments. Scott doesn’t direct either of those scenes well. It feels like a different picture.

Good music from Danny Jaeger and Michel Rubini. Some great special effects. Good performances from Bowie and Sarandon. Deneuve’s fine until the script passes the buck on her as a protagonist (and, subsequently, even as a character). Effective supporting turn from Beth Ehlers. Dan Hedaya is out of place as a grizzled cop. Dan Hedaya should never be out of place as a grizzled cop.

It’s a beautifully made film. Shame about that script.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Tony Scott; screenplay by Ivan Davis and Michael Thomas, based on the novel by Whitley Strieber; director of photography, Stephen Goldblatt; edited by Pamela Power; music by Denny Jaeger and Michel Rubini; production designer, Brian Morris; produced by Richard Shepherd; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Susan Sarandon (Sarah), David Bowie (John), Catherine Deneuve (Miriam), Beth Ehlers (Alice), Cliff De Young (Tom), Rufus Collins (Charlie), Suzanne Bertish (Phyllis) and Dan Hedaya (Lieutenant Allegrezza).


Atlantic City (1980, Louis Malle)

For a film with quite a bit of grounded violence, Atlantic City is pretty genial. Director Malle shoots in close medium shots; there’s not a lot of grandeur to his shots. Atlantic City has grandeur, as a setting, but Malle doesn’t go out of his way to stylize it. Cinematographer Richard Ciupka shoots the whole thing with a fuzzy brightness.

That geniality is sort of strange, given the film opens with lead Burt Lancaster peeping on next door neighbor Susan Sarandon. He’s an old flunky, taking caring of a boss’s widow (a fantastic Kate Reid); Sarandon is the sort of young dreamer who’s trying to make it in the casinos. She wants to be a dealer, but her creepy older man mentor Michel Piccoli might have other plans for her.

The film takes place in a couple days; it’s what happens when Sarandon’s husband (an underwhelming Robert Joy) shows up with his pregnant mistress, who happens to be Sarandon’s sister (Hollis McLaren in a nothing role). Lancaster ends up helping Joy out, which gives him a taste of the leading man gangster lifestyle he never had in his own youth.

Lancaster’s wonderful in the role, but Malle and writer John Guare never want to hold him accountable for anything. The viewer isn’t supposed to judge the character, though Joy (and Piccoli) get run through the ringer. It’s very uneven and the film would probably work better as Lancaster’s wish fulfillment. Instead, Sarandon occasionally gets promoted to protagonist and it’s problematic because she’s kind of a sap. The character, not Sarandon. Sarandon comes off as way too smart for the character. It’s worse when the character gets a smart line, because it just feels like Sarandon got fed up playing such a shallow character and ad libbed logically.

Look fast for Wallace Shawn.

Atlantic City has a lot of thoughtful, solid scenes, but it doesn’t come together in the end. Malle’s mixing too many things and trying to force Guare’s script into places it doesn’t go. The film asks the viewer to pity Lancaster because he’s old, which is frequently uncomfortable.

It starts slow, gets going, has big problems in the third act but gets a last minute reprieve with the finish. It ought to be a whole lot better though.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Louis Malle; written by John Guare; director of photography, Richard Ciupka; edited by Suzanne Baron; music by Michel Legrand; production designer, Anne Pritchard; produced by Denis Héroux and John Kemeny; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Burt Lancaster (Lou), Susan Sarandon (Sally), Robert Joy (Dave), Hollis McLaren (Chrissie), Michel Piccoli (Joseph) and Kate Reid (Grace).


Speed Racer (2008, Lana and Lilly Wachowski)

I may be a little naive, but I think one of the aspects of adapting materials between mediums is to encourage (or at least tacitly imply) someone to look at the original material. I find it particularly odd in the case of Speed Racer. Being somewhat aware of the cartoon but never having seen it, I’ve now formed the opinion–just based on the film–it’s for six year olds and anyone older than six years of age watching the cartoon is a little slow. The Wachowskis’ adaptation suggests there isn’t a single intelligent thing in the source, something their insanely bad, outrageously expensive adaptation gleefully amplifies.

The film is aimed at an audience of adults–it’s not aimed at NASCAR fans, simply because it gives the appearance of being high brow (but couldn’t be further from)–but adults who think the things they liked at age six are good. Not realizing a six year old might not make the best cinematic or literary recommendations.

Still, the film is so unbearably bad–the green screen shooting (there are very few real sets) looks terrible–I find it hard to believe the film has supporters, but I know it does… I’ve read positive reviews. Though such reviewers must be driving to work in a gift from Warner Bros….

I do have one positive observation to make about the film. The casting of John Goodman and Susan Sarandon. While their performances are awful, their makeup is very successful.

Otherwise, it’s indescribably bad.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski; screenplay by the Wachowskis, based on a manga and an anime by Yoshida Tatsuo; director of photography, David Tattersall; edited by Zach Staenberg and Roger Barton; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Owen Paterson; produced by the Wachowskis, Joel Silver and Grant Hill; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Emile Hirsch (Speed Racer), Christina Ricci (Trixie), John Goodman (Pops Racer), Susan Sarandon (Mom Racer), Paulie Litt (Spritle), Roger Allam (Royalton), Rain (Taejo Togokhan) and Matthew Fox (Racer X).


Leaves of Grass (2009, Tim Blake Nelson)

I wonder if Tim Blake Nelson has read Disgrace. Cheap, cheap, cheap comment.

One-liner even.

It’s a one-liner.

Leaves of Grass is not–if I underlined, I would here–an American Disgrace. It’s something different from that sort of attempt, but also something different from a mainstream or independent attempt… it’s a comedy drama unlike most others because the comedy is absurd at times and it’s got Edward Norton playing a genius pot grower.

It’s also got him playing a genius classical philosophy professor, which then makes it a twin movie–in a genre occupied, with the exception of Parent Traps, mostly–in recent history–by Jean-Claude Van Damme. I wonder if anyone mentioned that one to Norton.

It’s a fine, fine film. It’s funny, it’s touching–it features the best Richard Dreyfuss performance in many years not to mention actually talking about anti-Semitism in an American film without being sensational. I don’t think, actually, anti-Semitism even gets a sensational handling in American film anymore. American film pretends the country isn’t chock-full of bigots, unless they’re bigots who get easily cured by the end of the picture.

Great acting by Norton (the lack of Oscar nomination is a hilarious, gut-bursting joke), Dreyfuss and Nelson. Susan Sarandon’s underwritten but fine, as is Melanie Lynskey. Keri Russell’s surprisingly okay.

It’s a great film until the third act, when Nelson seems to realize something should probably happen and it’s fine after that point.

Just not great.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson; director of photography, Roberto Schaefer; edited by Michelle Botticelli; music by Jeff Danna; production designer, Max Biscoe; produced by Nelson, Edward Norton, Bill Migliore, John Langley, Elie Cohn and Kristina Dubin; released by Millennium Films.

Starring Edward Norton (Bill/Brady Kincaid), Tim Blake Nelson (Bolger), Keri Russell (Janet), Richard Dreyfuss (Pug Rothbaum), Susan Sarandon (Daisy), Josh Pais (Ken Feinman) and Melanie Lynskey (Colleen).


The January Man (1989, Pat O’Connor)

People hate The January Man, just hate it. It’s famous for being hated, in fact. It’s one of the earliest movies I can remember real bile about. Dune’s another one, but Dune deserves it. The January Man gets a lot of it because it’s from the pen of John Patrick Shanley, that screenwriting whirlwind behind Congo and Moonstruck. Oh, Moonstruck, that Academy Award-winning overrated embarrassment. Going after The January Man so hard–saying it’s unbelievable Shanley wrote this one and that one–provides an excuse… The January Man is about well-written as Moonstruck and it’s about as well as Shanley can write.

I started it with an open mind, I really did. I thought maybe I was wrong about Shanley and I was all set to hurry to watch Moonstruck and queue up John Versus the Volcano. But I wasn’t wrong about Shanley. When I saw Susan Sarandon’s name, I assumed she would be terrible–I was wrong, she’s solidly mediocre. When I saw Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s name, I assumed the same and I was much wronger. And wronger is a word, I thought it might not be. Mastrantonio is excellent in the movie. She gives, easily, the best performance and now I’m thinking about queuing a couple of her movies.

It’s not well-written, the mystery is uninterestingly investigated, and the character melodramas are pat and standard and were tired in 1933. Man in love with his brother’s wife and, oh, what a shock, turns out the bad brother framed the good brother and on and on. When Wallace Beery made these movies, there were at least guns.

It being an incredibly standard exercise, The January Man is actually believably set in New York City and that facet makes–by today’s standards, when Hollywood shoots LA for New York–somewhat unique. It’s a welcome aspect, I suppose.

Kevin Kline’s not particularly good. He has accent in some scenes and in other ones he does not, but he carries the film. He’s particularly bad whenever he and Mastrantonio talk about her being so young (at thirty she’s playing Hollywood twenty-three) and their romance is only made palatable by her performance. Kline’s best when he’s bickering with Danny Aiello (who gets the film’s worst dialogue) and Harvey Keitel (who gets the film’s lamest character… well, him or Sarandon).

Rod Steiger’s not particularly good, but he’s real funny–the movie tries to be a comedy but Shanley wrote it, so it isn’t funny… Alan Rickman has a little bit more fun, with only two really terrible lines, which is quite an achievement in this film. Brian Tarantina has a small role, but he’s good.

The big problem with the film is the present action. It takes place over five days, in which time, Kline–in three nicely directed scenes–learns more about the case he’s been on for twenty hours than the entire NYPD did in a year. It’s convenient. It’s all contrived and all convenient.

But it’s not that terrible.

And, except a handful of bad parts, Marvin Hamlisch’s score is nice.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Pat O’Connor; written by John Patrick Shanley; director of photography, Jerzy Zielinski; edited by Lou Lombardo; music by Marvin Hamlisch; production designer, Philip Rosenberg; produced by Norman Jewison and Ezra Swerdlow; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Kevin Kline (Nick Starkey), Susan Sarandon (Christine Starkey), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Bernadette Flynn), Harvey Keitel (Police Comissioner Frank Starkey), Danny Aiello (Captain Vincent Alcoa), Rod Steiger (Mayor Eamon Flynn), Alan Rickman (Ed), Faye Grant (Alison Hawkins), Kenneth Welsh (Roger Culver), Jayne Haynes (Alma), Brian Tarantina (Cone), Bruce MacVittie (Rip) and Bill Cobbs (Detective Reilly).


Lorenzo’s Oil (1992, George Miller)

I’m not sure when Lorenzo’s Oil lost me. The opening credits are set in East Africa, the focus is on Lorenzo–for those who don’t know, who don’t remember the previews if not the film, Lorenzo is a kid who gets a rare disease–and the film takes a lyric quality. George Miller was a good, straightforward workman on the Mad Max films, but on Lorenzo’s Oil, he adopts camera angles and lighting techniques out of an early Hitchcock film and applies them–in color–to his film. At times, these methods are successful, but that opening scene promises something more than Lorenzo delivers. That opening scene suggests the film will have some enthusiasm for film and for the beauty it can display… and Lorenzo’s Oil (and Miller) never deliver it.

The problem, of course, is the reality. In reality, Lorenzo’s parents had passion for their son and they fought and these (somewhat) average people developed a treatment for the disease. The film latches on to those people’s struggles and triumphs and doesn’t create anything for itself. It manipulates the audience. The scenes with the kid in pain are excruciating to watch, so excruciating I wonder if Miller used them to compensate for the flatness coming from Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon for the first quarter of the film. As Lorenzo’s parents, Nolte and Sarandon spend the first quarter as the film’s peripheral subjects. They guide the audience through Lorenzo’s diagnose–since the kid’s pain is so intensely displayed, it’s for the audience, not for the audience to see the parents react to… Only in the second and third acts does Nolte get any personality. He’s playing an Italian and for that first flat quarter, it’s Nolte fighting against having to do an accent. Eventually, he gets it and just in time, since Sarandon finally gets a personality too–she goes somewhat nuts.

Since Lorenzo’s Oil is based on a true story and it’s based on an inspiring true story and it’s informing people about a disease affecting kids, there’s no chance it can really examine what’s going on. Sarandon’s mother abandons everyone in her life (except the husband), throwing out her sister (an excellent Kathleen Wilhoite), and instead of looking at the real human conflicts going on, Lorenzo’s Oil does a lot of fades to black. Because those have a lot of emphasis. Sarandon isn’t any good, but I’m not sure how much of the performance is her fault. It’s impossible to imagine her and Nolte–as a married couple–doing anything but what they’re doing at each and every moment in the film. They’re automatons, moving in the film to make it go where it needs to go. Nolte’s best scenes are the ones with Wilhoite or some of the other supporting cast members, whenever he gets away from Sarandon and Lorenzo’s Oil begins to feel like a narrative again.

It’s a piece of propaganda and it’s propaganda for a good cause, it’s just not a particularly good film. At times, with some of Miller’s camera angles, I kept thinking of Scorsese’s Cape Fear, especially since Nolte was occupying the same space… until the end, when Miller ripped of The Elephant Man, which I found unbelievably bold.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Miller; written by Nick Enright and Miller; director of photography, John Seale; edited by Richard Francis-Bruce, Marcus D’Arcy and Lee Smith; production designer, Kristi Zea; produced by Doug Mitchell and Miller; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Nick Nolte (Augusto Odone), Susan Sarandon (Michaela Odone), Peter Ustinov (Professor Nikolais), Kathleen Wilhoite (Deirdre Murphy), Gerry Bamman (Doctor Judalon), Margo Martindale (Wendy Gimble), James Rebhorn (Ellard Muscatine), Ann Hearn (Loretta Muscatine) and Maduka Steady (Omuori).


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