Xander Berkeley

Sid and Nancy (1986, Alex Cox)

It takes a while for anyone in Sid & Nancy to be likable. Even after they’re likable, it’s not like they’re particularly sympathetic. They’re tragic, sure, which is director Cox and cowriter Abbe Wool’s point, but entirely unpleasant to spend time with. The film has a bookend–Sid (Gary Oldman) being taken into police custody for murdering–at that point an unseen–Nancy (Chloe Webb). Oldman makes a visual impression, but kind of gets overshadowed by Cox’s New York cops. They’re all outlandish caricatures, including their costuming, which clashes with Oldman’s punk rock chic.

After the bookend, the action goes back in time to London, with Oldman hanging out with Andrew Schofield (as Sex Pistol’s vocalist Johnny Rotten–the film doesn’t offer any exposition to set up a viewer not at least somewhat familiar with The Sex Pistols) and meeting Webb. Webb’s an American punk rock enthusiast–and heroin addict–with a grating voice and an obnoxious demeanor. But she’s being obnoxious to Oldman and Schofield, so it’s hard to fault her. Oldman’s a moron, arguably–as the film starts–Schofield’s flunky. Meanwhile Schofield comes off as a pretentious poser (needless to say no one thought much of Sid & Nancy’s historical accuracy, not its surviving subjects or even the filmmakers).

But Oldman soon becomes sympathetic to Webb and ends up, after some misadventures, getting high with her. From then on, they’re always together. Much to everyone else’s displeasure; well, not band manager David Hayman, who encourages Oldman’s behavior for the media attention. But much to Schofield’s. Sex is anti-punk so Schofield is anti-sex. Until they’re strung out too long, Webb and Oldman like the sex.

Most of the first half of Sid & Nancy is Oldman and Webb getting high, trying to find money for getting high, getting mad about not finding money to get high (Hayman apparently has Oldman on an allowance without a heroin allotment), Oldman messing up band obligations, Webb pissing off Schofield and others with her demands (which become Oldman’s demands, only he’s way too high most of the time to put much force behind them), Webb and Oldman fighting (usually over drugs, sometimes over the band). The dramatic result comes from the actors in scene more than anything in the script. The intensity, which sometimes means Oldman being almost completely inert, or Webb hitting a new level of annoying, propels the film. As a director, Cox oscillates between indifference and dislike for his protagonists; friction keeps the film in motion.

Until the Sex Pistols go on their U.S. tour–leaving Webb in London–and Cox gets a jumpstart, starting with the first shot of the U.S. tour. He finally finds something cinematic to chew on. The U.S. tour itself, the visual juxtaposing of English punk and cowboy hat wearing Americans, Oldman freaking out on payphone in the middle of Americana… it all becomes visual foreshadowing of the second half. The band breaks up on tour; Oldman and Webb head to Paris for a bit, back to London for a bit, then end up in New York. She becomes his manager. They visit her family. Sid & Nancy gets these moments of absurd hilarity, a pressure release as it tracks its protagonists’ descent. Cox doesn’t glamorize their heroin dependency (he does very little exploring it). As it becomes more and more clear Oldman and Webb can’t survive–they quite clearly can’t take care of themselves–Cox focuses in tighter on the two characters and their relationship. It’s always in a nightmarish setting, but often dreamy.

Oldman’s performance gets better and better as the film progresses. At the start, thanks to the narrative, Schofield overshadows him, then Webb overshadows him. After the tour sequence, when Oldman appears to get some agency, he’s always the narrative’s driving force. If not in scene, than in performance. Even when it’s Webb’s scene, like when they visit her grandparents and extended family and are way too punk rock for the late seventies suburbs. Webb gets to be flashy in those scenes, but they’re all built around Oldman’s eventual contribution.

The second half descent also has the film’s most beautifully edited and realized cinematic sequences, always set to music, sometimes (apparently) diegetic music, sometimes not. Roger Deakins’s photography is always phenomenal, but it’s often phenomenal in its dreariness. In the grand cinema sequences, Deakins never changes the film’s visual tone, he, Cox, and editor David Martin just find a way to hold the moment long enough the intensity burns through the dreary. But not visually, obviously. Cox and Martin are aware, the whole time, how to control the mood (and Deakins’s photography’s affect on it) through length of scene, length of shot. They just don’t start doing much with that knowledge until the second half.

And once Sid & Nancy opens itself ot cinematic splendor, there’s always a subtle impatience until the next sequence. The first half is so light on them (and so frequently narratively unpleasant), it causes some de facto resentment. Cox could’ve done more with the film and didn’t.

Oldman’s great, Webb’s (annoying as all hell and) great, Schofield’s great (regardless of historical accuracy). None of the supporting performances are bad and there’s a large supporting cast, but they just don’t have much to do. Or they don’t have much to do for long. Sometimes getting out faster is better. Sy Richardson, for instance, has a great scene as Oldman and Webb’s methadone caseworker. But it’s a scene. Meanwhile, Hayman’s around so much without any character development, he suffers. Ditto Xander Berkeley (as Oldman and Webb’s New York drug dealer) and Courtney Love. The more scenes they have, the more it matters they’re caricatures.

Transfixing lead performances, excellent direction, great cinematography, sublime music (original score and soundtrack)… Sid & Nancy is a technical marvel. It just should’ve been more of one, which matters since Cox isn’t invested in the narrative.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alex Cox; written by Cox and Abbe Wool; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by David Martin; music by Dan Wool; production designers, Lynda Burbank, J. Rae Fox, and Andrew McAlpine; produced by Eric Fellner; released by The Samuel Goldwyn Company.

Starring Gary Oldman (Sid), Chloe Webb (Nancy), Andrew Schofield (John), David Hayman (Malcolm), Anne Lambton (Linda), Perry Benson (Paul), Tony London (Steve), Debby Bishop (Phoebe), Courtney Love (Gretchen), Xander Berkeley (Bowery Snax), and Sy Richardson (Methadone Caseworker).


Repo Chick (2009, Alex Cox)

If Repo Chick were a half hour short, it would work a lot better. Sadly, it’s an almost ninety minute feature–even as a seventy minute feature, it’d be a lot better.

The problem’s the front end. Cox has to introduce his cast, sure, but he never manages to give the film a real narrative. He opens establishing Jaclyn Jonet as the titular Repo Chick–she’s a Paris Hilton analog who needs a job–but the second, better half of the film involves some nonsense about Predator drones, runaway trains and Chloe Webb being hilarious as a televangelist.

The second half also has better acting overall, with Jonet’s three moronic sidekicks barely showing up. Cox had to know he was getting bad performances out of Danny Arroyo, Jenna Colby and Zahn McClarnon, but he doesn’t seem to care. Colby’s particularly incapable.

Miguel Sandoval and Robert Beltran are good throughout, but Beltran doesn’t get any good material until the second half. Also good in the second half are Jennifer Balgobin and, especially, Angela Sarafyan. Xander Berkeley’s really funny in the bad first half too.

Jonet’s never exactly good, but she certainly does get better as the film goes on. Cox doesn’t give her the promised character arc, but it’s no surprise. He doesn’t take Chick seriously. He’s got absurd digital backdrops, using miniature train sets with actors moving among them. It’s supposed to be unconvincing, he just doesn’t have a good story for that approach.

Still, it’s intentional ineptness somewhat succeeds.

1/4

CREDITS

Written, directed and edited by Alex Cox; director of photography, Steven Fierberg; music by Dan Wool; production designer, Nicolas Plotquin; produced by Cox, Eric Bassett, Bingo Gubelmann, Daren Hicks, Benji Kohn, Austin Stark and Simon Tams; released by Industrial Entertainment.

Starring Jaclyn Jonet (Pixxi), Miguel Sandoval (Arizona Gray), Del Zamora (Lorenzo), Alex Feldman (Marco), Chloe Webb (Sister Duncan), Xander Berkeley (Father de la Chasse), Rosanna Arquette (Lola), Robert Beltran (Aguas), Karen Black (Aunt de la Chasse), Zahn McClarnon (Savage), Jenna Colby (Eggi), Danny Arroyo (666), Jennifer Balgobin (Nevada), Zander Schloss (Doctor), Angela Sarafyan (Giggli), Eddie Velez (Justice Espinoza), Frances Bay (Grandma de la Chasse), Bennet Guillory (Rogers), Olivia Barash (Railroad Employee), Tom Finnegan (Senator Fletcher), Linda Callahan (Rikki Espinoza) and Karen E. Wright (Colonel).


Taken (2008, Pierre Morel)

Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen have been writing ninety minute and change action movies for about seven years. It’s the only thing Kamen–who at one time was a Hollywood action screenwriter–is known for these days. Besson’s written a lot more of these mindless action feasts on his own and I don’t think it ever occurred to me one of them might some day turn out good. I didn’t even know the duo was behind Taken (Besson also produces). I just thought Liam Neeson’s career as a leading man had gotten too tenuous. But maybe only a leading man on the outs could make Taken, because even though it’s good, it’s still a subplot-free, ninety minute action movie. There’s no character development, nor the pretense it would have any part in such a narrative.

Taken‘s story is simple–Neeson’s an action guy (in this case a former CIA operative) who’s daughter gets kidnapped in Paris. He goes to get her back. He beats up a lot of people. Every frame of film is utilized towards that story–even tangential sequences reveal themselves to be part of the main plot. The first act of the film, which runs a half hour (lengthy for a ninety minute movie), is actually rather boring.

There’s a lot of (as it turns out) necessary setting and character stuff; these quieter moments are where Taken is chubby and off-point. Without them, however, the movie would only run an hour, which means it’d never get a theatrical release in the United States. Also, the viewer wouldn’t get to find out Maggie Grace is fine (nothing more) playing a teenager at twenty-five. He or she also wouldn’t get to suffer through Famke Janssen’s latest attempt at essaying a harpy. She fails once again, no surprise.

But immediately–with the kidnapping scene–Taken becomes captivating. It’s cheap and manipulative and it works. It’s short enough not to outstay its welcome and its occasional incredulousness can’t surmount Neeson’s fine performance.

Neeson makes Taken seem like it isn’t a disposable action movie. As goofy as the film gets in its scenes (not the action ones, the buddy scenes at the beginning), Neeson always makes them work. The whole movie depends on him and he doesn’t fail it.

Taken is very obviously not a mainstream American action movie, simply because of the plot’s clearness. The bad guys are not techo-terrorists, they’re just human traffickers. As the film revealed that plot point, I wondered if Taken was going to inform on that situation (on average, American men laugh when told of human trafficking; American soldiers in Iraq frequent victims of human trafficking), but it does not. Taken doesn’t really have room to educate, doesn’t have room to linger. It slices quickly and directly, just like Neeson’s character.

Morel’s direction is similarly efficient. The fight scenes are well-cut (especially given how tall Neeson is compared to his co-stars) and Taken–thanks to the combination of acting, directing and editing–never feels as though it’s trying to hide Neeson not actually being a trained martial artist. There’s also no sped up film, which is a pleasant surprise.

Taken succeeds on a higher level than it should because Besson and Kamen have constructed it to be self-evident. Just as there aren’t any subplots, there aren’t any themes or metaphors. It’s an action movie and a good one.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Pierre Morel; written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen; director of photography, Michel Abramowicz; edited by Frédéric Thoraval; music by Nathaniel Mechaly; production designer, Hugues Tissandier; produced by Besson, Pierre-Ange Le Pogam and India Osborne; released by EuropaCorp.

Starring Liam Neeson (Bryan), Maggie Grace (Kim), Famke Janssen (Lenore), Xander Berkeley (Stuart), Katie Cassidy (Amanda), Olivier Rabourdin (Jean Claude), Leland Orser (Sam), Jon Gries (Casey), David Warshofsky (Bernie), Holly Valance (Diva), Nathan Rippy (Victor), Camille Japy (Isabelle), Nicolas Giraud (Peter) and Gérard Watkins (Saint Clair).


Quicksand (2003, John Mackenzie)

Most of Quicksand plays like a multi-national mystery from the 1970s, filled with familiar faces (or a few familiar faces anyway). About three-quarters of it, approximately. There’s good and bad stuff in those seventy minutes. Michael Keaton’s excellent, which isn’t surprising. Michael Caine shows up for what appears to be a small role (it gets bigger later) and has a fun time. He’s playing a washed up action star who’s too busy drinking and gambling to realize his career’s over. Kathleen Wilhoite and Xander Berkeley also have small roles–the plot moves Keaton from New York to the south of France for the dramatics and, presumably, cheaper location shooting–and both are great. There’s also Rade Serbedzija, in an unfortunately mediocre role. He’s fine, but it’s just a lame character. Unfortunately, the female lead–Judith Godrèche–cannot emote while speaking English. It’s obvious the first time she tries and, after that scene, she always has tears (Visine?) to show she’s upset.

But something happens once Caine becomes more integral to the plot. Quicksand all of a sudden gets neat. The script is very standard thriller fare and, in most ways, the resolution isn’t Archimedes hopping out of the tub, but it’s well-constructed and works.

In the last fourth (maybe third, I didn’t time the end credits), Berkeley gets a much bigger role–Quicksand might be one of his best performances and, given what a solid actor he is, it’s saying something. It’s a simple role–the friend–and he does it perfectly. Godrèche doesn’t really get any better, but the plot requires different things from her and she becomes more appealing.

When the film closes, it’s on a strange uptick, like it took a short cut to an ending it didn’t quite “earn,” but maybe getting to those places and getting a pass on the question means it did.

It’s not a particularly compelling mystery and Mackenzie somehow makes the south of France boring, so I spent a lot of time bemoaning the lack of more Keaton films. (Someone thought, at some point in production, the film was going to get a theatrical release, because they spent money on the casting agency). And then it gradually improves after a point, going from a standard thriller (which seem consigned to direct-to-DVD these days) to a moderately pleasant surprise.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by John Mackenzie; screenplay and screen story by Timothy Prager, based on a novel by Desmond Lowden; director of photography, Walter McGill; edited by Graham Walker; music by Hal Lindes and Anthony Marinelli; production designer, Jon Bunker; produced by Jim Reeve; released by First Look International.

Starring Michael Keaton (Martin Raikes), Michael Caine (Jake Mellows), Judith Godrèche (Lela Forin), Rade Serbedzija (Oleg Butraskaya), Matthew Marsh (Michel Cote), Xander Berkeley (Joey Patterson), Kathleen Wilhoite (Beth Ann), Rachel Ferjani (Rachel), Elina Löwensohn (Vannessa), Clare Thomas (Emma) and Hermione Norris (Sarah).


Volunteers (1985, Nicholas Meyer)

The oddest part of Volunteers is the opening credits. I queued it because I’ve been reading Ken Levine’s blog (he’s one of the screenwriters) and he did a whole write-up on it a while ago. I suppose I knew, but had forgotten, Nicholas Meyer directed the film. Volunteers is his follow-up to Star Trek II, which would have been considered a success for him. He even brought James Horner along from Star Trek to score Volunteers. James Horner should not score comedies (though he does use some of his other material, I think from Star Trek and Aliens, in the film).

Since Meyer brings nothing to the film, all the responsibility falls on Tom Hanks, who does the whole film with an exaggerated New England accent. He manages to keep the accent for the whole film too. The film takes place in 1962, just after Kennedy started the Peace Corps–I missed that detail somehow, I just thought they were showing the old film clips over the titles to be historical–and I’m wondering if my misunderstanding affected the first twenty minutes. The first twenty minutes are mildly amusing. Tom Hanks is acting like a prick, which he’s very good at doing, but nothing really made me laugh. Then, once he gets to Thailand–maybe just on the Peace Corps plane–Volunteers starts getting funny. It might have more to do with John Candy. Candy is good in Volunteers, better than anything else I’ve ever seen him in. Still, he’s not the best supporting cast member–Gedde Watanabe is great.

Since I saw the film for Levine, I suppose I do have to say something about the writing. It’s good and funny. There are quite a few laugh out-loud moments in Volunteers–most of Watanabe’s lines for a forty minute period are real funny–and the film’s never predictable in the story progressions, with the regular exception of the romance between Hanks and Rita Wilson. The film’s become a footnote in Hanks’ biography for that reason. She’s not good, but it hardly matters, the film isn’t interested in her character. The funny stuff is going on elsewhere.

Even with the traditional romance story-arc, Volunteers ends on an unexpected note, managing to stay truer to itself than expected. The film’s humor isn’t irreverent–Levine and co-writer David Isaacs are sitcom writers who write for good shows–but it is a referential humor. One would need to know, for example, about the CIA’s activities in East Asia, which might not have been too much to ask in 1985, but certainly is too much today. Hanks’ performance is also so unlike his regular performances (he only had a few years before he found his shtik) doesn’t help its accessibility either. Still, there’s no excuse for its bad reputation. It actually needed to be longer–Levine and Isaacs set up a few jokes they never finished and could have….

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Nicholas Meyer; screenplay by Ken Levine and David Isaacs, from a story by Keith Critchlow; director of photography, Ric Waite; edited by Ronald Roose and Steven Polivka; produced by Richard Shepherd and Walter F. Parkes; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring Tom Hanks (Lawrence Whatley Bourne III), John Candy (Tom Tuttle), Rita Wilson (Beth Wexler), Tim Thomerson (John Reynolds), Gedde Watanabe (At Toon), George Plimpton (Lawrence Bourne Jr.), Ernest Harada (Chung Mee), Allan Arbus (Albert Bardenaro) and Xander Berkeley (Kent Sutcliffe).


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