Vincent D’Onofrio

The Thirteenth Floor (1999, Josef Rusnak)

It’d be hard to call The Thirteenth Floor a missed opportunity because that statement suggests there was some promise to it. There’s no promise anywhere near Thirteenth Floor. But it does have some gorgeous set decoration and, presumably, production design from Kirk M. Petruccelli. The presumably qualifier because even though Petruccelli does excellent work on the 1930s and 1990s (the present day has some of the same art deco themes), there’s terrible second unit stuff of modern day L.A. and it just breaks the tone. If that decision was Petruccelli’s and not director Rusnak’s, it’s on him. It’s terrible and breaks the visual tone of the film every time there’s an establishing shot of the city. There’s nothing to enjoy in the film, save the occasionally interesting bit of design. Even if Rusnak and cinematographer Wedigo von Schultzendorff usually screw it up.

The film’s got a lousy script–real, real lousy–by director Rusnak and Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez. Rusnak can’t direct the actors either. They’re all bad, though Vincent D’Onofrio does betray having some ability at one point or another. No one else does. Not even poor Dennis Haysbert, who I was hoping would be a surprisingly great performance. He’s not; he’s really bad, just like most everyone else. Craig Bierko’s the lead. He’s awful. Gretchen Mol’s his love interest. She’s just bad, not awful. Armin Mueller-Stahl is a little better than Mol, only because the plotting. It’s bad plotting, but it still sames Mueller-Stahl some face. No one else gets anywhere near as lucky.

It’s a dumb movie with dumb ideas in a bad script. It’s a poorly acted, poorly directed dumb movie. Any competency is rare–basically just the score’s not bad. If it were a different movie, Harald Kloser would be doing a perfectly acceptable score. It just can’t do what Floor needs its score to do, which is cover plot holes or performance holes. Worse, Kloser seems to get it–only he can improve the film’s quality; it’s impossible. Rusnak is just too bad at his job of directing this film. The Thirteenth Floor is terrible.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Josef Rusnak; screenplay by Rusnak and Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez, based on a novel by Daniel F. Galouye; director of photography, Wedigo von Schultzendorff; edited by Henry Richardson; music by Harald Kloser; production designer, Kirk M. Petruccelli; produced by Roland Emmerich, Ute Emmerich and Marco Weber; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Craig Bierko (Douglas Hall), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Hannon Fuller), Gretchen Mol (Jane Fuller), Vincent D’Onofrio (Jason Whitney), Dennis Haysbert (Detective Larry McBain), Steven Schub (Detective Zev Bernstein) and Jeremy Roberts (Tom Jones).


JFK (1991, Oliver Stone)

JFK is a protracted experience. It runs over three hours, it has no real narrative structure–the film opens with the Kennedy assassination and an introduction to the principal characters (and some of the possible conspirators, always played quite well by a guest star), then jumps ahead three years where it starts chronicling lead Kevin Costner’s investigation into the assassination. He’s the New Orleans District Attorney (there’s a reason for him to get involved–presumably true, JFK is based on the real life DA) and the film does culminate in a trial, but it’s not a courtroom thriller and it’s not a mystery. It’s a lecture. Director Stone delivers the lecture through endless–yet always well-acted–expository dialogue, beautifully filmed flashback scenes (cinematographer Robert Richardson does breathtaking work) and then lead Costner. Stone’s not good at the courtroom stuff. It’s about an hour of Costner talking. Costner does really well in it, but it’s just too much. Overall, JFK is just too much.

There’s lots of good acting, lots of great acting. Even Joe Pesci’s weird portrayal of one of the possible conspirators–Stone doesn’t assign much malice to the “villains” because he doesn’t want to get too bogged down in actual politics. JFK is simultaneously for the informed and the ignorant. Stone nods at respecting the informed, but he doesn’t care about the ignorant at all. There’s nothing but exposition in the film and never any to get the viewer into the ground situation. It ought to come with a viewer’s guide explaining the historical authenticity of each assassination detail. So while Pesci is a little much, he’s a wonderful contrast to too serious Costner.

The great acting comes from bigger name guest stars like Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Oldman. The parts are sort of thin–caricatures again–but the actors figure out a reality to the scene and their character in it. It’s Stone’s direction. These people aren’t people, they’re subjects to be examined. The good acting is from the big name players in cameo parts–Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ed Asner, Donald Sutherland and John Candy don’t have great parts, but there’s some humanity to them because they’re supposedly real people so there’s some implied backstory. Stone leans a lot on what the viewer should be understanding. It’s annoying. Then there are some great smaller parts. The “regular” folk, like Jay O. Sanders, Laurie Metcalf, Michael Rooker, Wayne Knight. Rooker and Sanders both get a lot of material–Metcalf and Wayne Knight do not. Stone doesn’t give these actors real roles, just great scenes opposite Costner and each other. They’re on exposition duty. Stone clearly appreciates having such a good supporting cast.

The film follows the following general structure. 1963 assassination sadness, fast forward to 1966 for Costner to start his investigation. Then big final courtroom sequence. It’s well-acted but not a good courtroom sequence. And the film’s already shaky as the narrative drops guest star opportunities and filling in with Costner’s marital problems, which does give Sissy Spacek something to do as the wife, just makes it drag more. Costner might be playing a real person, but he’s doing it through caricature.

JFK sort of works out. Also has a rather outstanding John Williams score.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Oliver Stone; screenplay by Stone and Zachary Sklar, based on books by Jim Garrison and Jim Marrs; director of photography, Robert Richardson; edited by Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia; music by John Williams; production designer, Victor Kempster; produced by A. Kitman Ho; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Kevin Costner (Jim Garrison), Tommy Lee Jones (Clay Shaw), Kevin Bacon (Willie O’Keefe), Gary Oldman (Lee Harvey Oswald), Sissy Spacek (Liz Garrison), Joe Pesci (David Ferrie), Michael Rooker (Bill Broussard), Jay O. Sanders (Lou Ivon), Laurie Metcalf (Susie Cox), Wayne Knight (Numa Bertel), Brian Doyle-Murray (Jack Ruby), Beata Pozniak Daniels (Marina Oswald), Edward Asner (Guy Bannister), Jack Lemmon (Jack Martin), Walter Matthau (Senator Long), John Candy (Dean Andrews), Sally Kirkland (Rose Cheramie), Vincent D’Onofrio (Bill Newman) and Donald Sutherland (X).


The Player (1992, Robert Altman)

Whatever his faults (and faulty films), Robert Altman never bought into what anyone said about him–not his critics, not his audience. The Player is an overtly hostile outing. Altman never had much nice to say about the film, as I recall, but he doesn’t try to say nice things with the film itself. He makes this unbelievably concise, unbelievably expository, unbelievably cynical film–the agreement for the viewer is unconditional capitulation to the film’s “dream.” Movies, now more than ever. The Player is a film for the film literate. It doesn’t come with a syllabus, but the references target a particular audience. Altman fans, actually. Altman makes The Player as indictment against those who like his work, yet went to go see The Player.

Hostility is one thing, indifference is another, but The Player is practically open warfare against the viewer. It’s amazing.

Of course, it is based on a novel. Presumably that novel had a similar plot; The Player tracks Tim Robbins’s somewhat successful, but not successful enough Hollywood executive through a murder investigation. The investigation’s into him. At the same time, the sharks are circling at the studio and darn if he just doesn’t want to romance the dead guy’s lady friend.

Altman sets everything up real fast. Not just the ground situation, but the film’s visual language. After an ambitious, self-aware lengthy opening shot, photographer Jean Lépine and Altman keep the moving camera. Only now there are lots of graceful cuts into the movement–Maysie Hoy and Geraldine Peroni’s editing of the film is a sublime achievement. Writer Michael Tolkin (adapting his novel) owes everything to them because Robbins’s romance with Greta Scacchi would never have worked without Hoy and Peroni. Altman doesn’t want the characters to be real because he doesn’t think they deserve it. Then he goes out of his way to make the viewer dislike the characters. But he directs the actors to play it less Hollywood and more real. And Hoy and Peroni cut it do make as emotionally effective as possible. Tolkin’s script’s plotting, especially of the relationship between Robbins and Scacchi, is phenomenal. Maybe his best move in the film, because with a different score, I’ll bet The Player could have been noir. But Altman didn’t want to do a noir, because he hates the characters.

It’s a real complex situation and expertly directed. Altman finds a way to mimic interview style for the many celebrity cameos. Even though The Player is a movie about real Hollywood, it’s clear who is a part of it and who isn’t. Altman’s so dismissive of it all, whether it’s the real Hollywood or the imagined. It’s kind of sad, really, as one of the film’s ideas is that older films were more sincere through their filmmaking. And Altman (and The Player) crap all over that idea. Twice. Like I said, it’s hostile.

Altman’s animosity aside, everything else about The Player is great. Sure, Tolkin’s script only works because of the filmmaking–which is another great meta commentary on the plot–but it does work and it works well. He’s got some great moments for actors and Altman has a phenomenal cast. Dina Merrill has a small but great part because Altman understands how an actor’s performance can resonant through a runtime. The Player is masterful work. Resentful, maybe, but more masterful for it.

Great supporting turns from Fred Ward, Whoopi Goldberg, Cynthia Stevenson, Brion James, Lyle Lovett. Scacchi’s good as the love interest but it’s not a great part.

Excellent music from Thomas Newman. Breezy music. The Player is all about smooth movement, whether shots or narrative pace.

And then there’s Robbins. He makes the movie. Robbins makes the movie so much he gets to walk away from it for a while and it’s still his movie (maybe because it takes him so long to get introduced properly in the first place). But Altman gets it, he knows how to make this movie be great and he wants the viewer to know they’re awful for making him do it. We aren’t in on the joke, we are the joke.

Love it.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Altman; screenplay by Michael Tolkin, based on his novel; director of photography, Jean Lépine; edited by Maysie Hoy and Geraldine Peroni; music by Thomas Newman; production designer, Stephen Altman; produced by David Brown, Nick Wechsler and Tolkin; released by Fine Line Features.

Starring Tim Robbins (Griffin Mill), Greta Scacchi (June Gudmundsdottir), Cynthia Stevenson (Bonnie Sherow), Vincent D’Onofrio (David Kahane), Fred Ward (Walter Stuckel), Brion James (Joel Levison), Angela Hall (Jan), Peter Gallagher (Larry Levy), Whoopi Goldberg (Detective Avery), Lyle Lovett (Detective DeLongpre), Sydney Pollack (Dick Mellon) and Dina Merrill (Celia).


Escape Plan (2013, Mikael Håfström)

Given how much fun the actors have in Escape Plan, there are a couple big unfortunates. First is director Håfström; he isn’t able to direct the actors through the poorly scripted parts and he also can’t direct the one-liners. Plan is the first time Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger have ever done a buddy picture together. For a ten minute stretch, it’s like there’s nothing but one-liners.

The second problem is the script. It flounders when setting up Stallone’s character. He works with Curtis Jackson, Amy Ryan and Vincent D’Onofrio. D’Onofrio has a lot of fun in a tiny part–these three characters only show up for maybe five or six minutes of runtime–but he completely overshadows Ryan and Jackson. They’re just doing the script, D’Onofrio turns the weak script into loads of entertainment.

Another person having fun in an underwritten role is Jim Caviezel as the warden. The film concerns Stallone (as a prison break specialist) and Schwarzenegger (as a lackey for a Julian Assange type) breaking out of a prison. Caviezel turns the part into a whirlwind of overcompensation, meanness and pure fun. He’s like Willy Wonka at times.

Of the two leads, Schwarzenegger’s better. He didn’t suffer through the lame setup with Ryan and Jackson.

Faran Tahir is really good as another inmate.

Plan is really entertaining for the bulk of it, just not the beginning or the end. It needed a better script doctor.

It also needed better music. Alex Heffes’s score’s atrocious.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Mikael Håfström; screenplay by Miles Chapman and Jason Keller, based on a story by Chapman; director of photography, Brendan Galvin; edited by Elliot Greenberg; music by Alex Heffes; production designer, Barry Chusid; produced by Robbie Brenner, Mark Canton, Randall Emmett, George Furla and Kevin King Templeton; released by Summit Entertainment.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (Breslin), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Rottmayer), Jim Caviezel (Hobbes), Faran Tahir (Javed), Sam Neill (Dr. Kyrie), Vincent D’Onofrio (Lester Clark), Vinnie Jones (Drake), Matt Gerald (Roag), Curtis Jackson (Hush), Caitriona Balfe (Jessica Miller), Christian Stokes (Babcock), Graham Beckel (Brims) and Amy Ryan (Abigail).


Adventures in Babysitting (1987, Chris Columbus)

If it weren’t for the acting, Adventures in Babysitting would probably be more interesting as a cultural document than anything else. The way the film treats race is probably worth a couple sociology articles. Black people aren’t scary as much as foreign beyond belief. Space aliens would have more in common with the suburban kids than the room of black people they find themselves in a room with. Working class whites, actually, are far more scary.

So I guess, as a Chicagoland filmmaker, Chris Columbus is less racist than mentor John Hughes. Spielberg must have rubbed off on Columbus a little.

The film’s finely acted. Elisabeth Shue’s great in the lead. As her charges, Maia Brewton, Keith Coogan and Anthony Rapp are all good. Brewton and Coogan are sort of best (Coogan has some rather difficult scenes). Calvin Levels is excellent as the car thief who helps them out, as is John Ford Noonan as the first scary guy they meet. George Newbern and Bradley Whitford are both good as Shue’s romantic interests, though Whitford’s got more to do.

In the film’s silliest role, Vincent D’Onofrio has a hard time not laughing.

Penelope Ann Miller starts out strong, but the film eventually requires everyone to laugh at her and dismiss her as silly. Otherwise, she has some of the strongest line deliveries.

John Davis Chandler is weak as the lame villain.

Columbus does a better job with actors than composing shots.

Babysitting‘s moderately amusing, its parts stronger than the whole.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Chris Columbus; written by David Simkins; director of photography, Ric Waite; edited by Fredric Steinkamp and William Steinkamp; music by Michael Kamen; production designer, Todd Hallowell; produced by Debra Hill and Lynda Obst; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Elisabeth Shue (Chris Parker), Maia Brewton (Sara Anderson), Keith Coogan (Brad Anderson), Anthony Rapp (Daryl Coopersmith), Calvin Levels (Joe Gipp), Vincent D’Onofrio (Dawson), Penelope Ann Miller (Brenda), George Newbern (Dan Lynch), John Ford Noonan (Handsome John Pruitt), Bradley Whitford (Mike Todwell), Ron Canada (Graydon) and John Davis Chandler (Bleak).


Ed Wood (1994, Tim Burton)

Ed Wood is a biopic of the unsung. The “misfits and dope addicts” of impossibly low budget American filmmaking. The film’s epilogue, following up with the characters, puts the film on the same level as all other big Hollywood biopics. Except this one is about someone who really didn’t do anything (and didn’t even get famous until after his death).

I remember around the time the film came out–I still have fond memories of seeing it at a sneak preview–the screenwriters talked about how difficult it was to turn Plan 9 from Outer Space into the momentous event in Ed Wood’s life it is in the film. Glen or Glenda, for obvious autobiographical reasons, was the better choice, but it wouldn’t have worked as a film (and certainly wouldn’t have gotten Martin Landau an Academy Award, though I doubt anyone was seriously considering the film for awards season at that point). Their solution is an interesting one. After Wood goes from funny to dramatic (the introduction of Patricia Arquette and the death of Landau’s Lugosi), the last act goes back to funny. But in a strange overdrive, best described by Bill Murray in the film–“How do you get all your friends to get baptized just so you can make a monster movie?” It isn’t just the characters in the film, it’s the viewer too. The lunacy has to encompass the viewer to get the picture to end right. And it works beautifully.

The film portrays Wood as a bit of a dope, but also filled with such unbridled, infectious enthusiasm, he can get anyone to do anything. Of a certain age, anyway. One of Wood‘s funniest running jokes involves the older members of the film crew, who are either perplexed by the director’s actions or resignedly amused.

The whole show actually isn’t Johnny Depp, which is kind of surprising, given the enormity of Depp’s presence. He’s so big it’s hard for him to fit in the frame. I remember during one early scene with Mike Starr, I forced myself to notice Depp’s twitching eyebrows. It was the only time during the viewing when I thought about his approach to the character as an actor. The rest of the time I was transfixed.

It’s all about Tim Burton really. Breaking down the dialogue, it’s better than average, but nothing earth-shattering. It’s Burton’s approach to the characters and to the story itself. Watching Ed Wood and thinking about what careful and deliberate steps Burton took in making it… is a little strange. Especially during the third act with the reenactments of the Plan 9 scenes. Burton convinces the viewer to stick around for the guy who made Plan 9, then goes and shows the film in all its awfulness.

The supporting cast–from Sarah Jessica Parker to Max Casella–are all excellent. Parker’s got some of the meatier scenes in the first half with Depp–Arquette’s basically just playing the dream girl, she’s good, but she doesn’t get to do much–and she’s got a wonderful exit. Landau’s Lugosi performance is something to behold… especially given Lugosi was a terrible actor himself, only to be portrayed as beautifully as Landau does. He really does some amazing things with Lugosi, borrowing the film from Burton and Depp.

Somehow, Burton manages to make the film feel good at the end–it must be the silliness–and it’s an exquisite experience. The deft handling of comedy, drama and practically fetishized filmmaking suggests Burton’s capable of great things. It’s just a shame he doesn’t try to attain them anymore.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Tim Burton; screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, based on a book by Rudolph Grey; director of photography, Stefan Czapsky; edited by Chris Lebenzon; music by Howard Shore; production designer, Tom Duffield; produced by Denise DeNovi and Burton; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Johnny Depp (Ed Wood), Martin Landau (Bela Lugosi), Sarah Jessica Parker (Dolores Fuller), Patricia Arquette (Kathy O’Hara), Jeffrey Jones (Criswell), G.D. Spradlin (Reverend Lemon), Vincent D’Onofrio (Orson Welles), Bill Murray (Bunny Breckinridge), Mike Starr (Georgie Weiss), Max Casella (Paul Marco), Brent Hinkley (Conrad Brooks), Lisa Marie (Vampira), George ‘The Animal’ Steele (Tor Johnson) and Juliet Landau (Loretta King).


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