Category Archives: ★★½

Indian Summer (1993, Mike Binder)

Indian Summer is genial and life-affirming. Writer-director Binder imbues it with an optimism and positivity–as long as you have the right support system, anything is possible. Given the film’s about a bunch of thirtysomethings who return to their childhood summer camp to find themselves, it’s a little weird Binder gives the best character arc to Kimberly Williams-Paisley. She’s the twenty-one year-old fiancée to the most obnoxious thirtysomethings (Matt Craven). Her arc, forecasted nowhere, propels the film into its third act, full of possibility. Shame Binder doesn’t do much with the momentum.

Diane Lane and Julie Warner get the biggest story arcs. Lane’s a recent widow–her husband was also a camper, because summer camp apparently decided everyone white’s life in the early seventies–and she needs to mourn. She’s got good friend Elizabeth Perkins there to support her, which she really needs when her husband’s childhood best friend returns a bit of a hunk (Bill Paxton). Meanwhile, Warner is married to Vincent Spano (who used to get busy with Perkins when they were in camp) and the marriage is rocky. Maybe because Spano wants to quit his business with cousin Kevin Pollak (also a camper), but can’t figure out how to tell him. So apparently Spano takes it out on Warner. Binder’s script isn’t great at scenes of angst and it’s downright terrified of getting too close to its characters.

They might be unlikable then and it’s such a pretty, pleasant cast (everyone has great, brown hair), who would want them to be unlikable? Except maybe Craven, who’s cut off from everyone else, hence having to bring Williams-Paisley along. Paxton’s arc is more with camp owner Alan Arkin, who has invited his favorite campers from over the years back for a week. Oddly, they’re all from the same year. Coincidences abound in Indian Summer.

Arkin’s really solid when he’s lead. Binder never really gets into how the campers coexist with him–they’re back to hang out with each other, leaving Arkin to mostly pal around with handyman Sam Raimi (who’s in this mystifyingly great slapstick part)–and it’s a missed opportunity. Especially since, unless you’ve got someone to kiss, Binder leaves you behind. Perkins and Pollak end up with almost nothing to do by the end, Perkins with even less. But Indian Summer’s got to be genial and life-affirming, it’s got to live up to the beautiful Newton Thomas Sigel photography, which turns the summer camp–in the late summer sun–into a golden Great Lakes paradise.

Still, it’s not like Indian Summer is always lazy. Binder does go somewhere with the Paxton and Arkin thing, he does go somewhere with Williams-Paisley. He’s just not willing to hinge the whole thing on being too thoughtful. There needs to be cheap payoff, albeit beautifully lighted cheap payoff. Until that payoff, however, Binder’s really just letting the actors develop their characters. The second act is pretty loose–there are set pieces, usually involving pot or pranks, but Binder’s in no rush. The present action changes pace fluidly in the tranquil setting, with its amiable cast and their not too serious, but sort of, grown-up problems.

So the performances matter a lot. Arkin’s always good, but he doesn’t get anywhere near enough to do. Binder’s just as set in an age group–the thirtysomethings–as if he were making a movie about teenagers at camp and barely had the counselors in it. Pollak and Perkins are great. They get to be great, because Binder doesn’t need them for anything structural. Lane and Paxton are fine. Lane should have more to do than Paxton but doesn’t. Warner’s good. She overshadows Spano, who tries to imply depth instead of convey it. Craven’s the weakest performance and he’s still perfectly solid. He provides a great springboard for Williams-Paisley to take off from.

And Raimi’s awesome.

Nice editing from Adam Weiss, okay if a little much music from Miles Goodman. Binder’s direction is good–he showcases that beautifully lighted scenery and moves his actors around in it well. Indian Summer is never trite, which is an accomplishment on its own, but Binder is way too safe with it. He denies Lane and Paxton a better story in particular. He writes caricatures then has his actors create people, so it’s a particular kind of disappointing.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Mike Binder; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by Adam Weiss; music by Miles Goodman; production designer, Craig Stearns; produced by Jim Kouf, Lynn Kouf, Robert F. Newmyer, and Jeffrey Silver; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Alan Arkin (Unca Lou Handler), Diane Lane (Beth Warden), Bill Paxton (Jack Belston), Julie Warner (Kelly Berman), Vincent Spano (Matthew Berman), Elizabeth Perkins (Jennifer Morton), Kevin Pollak (Brad Berman), Kimberly Williams-Paisley (Gwen Daugherty), Matt Craven (Jamie Ross), and Sam Raimi (Stick Coder).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE SUMMER MOVIE BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CHRIS OF BLOG OF THE DARNED.


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Making Mr. Right (1987, Susan Seidelman)

Making Mr. Right feels a little incomplete. It’s not entirely unexpected as Floyd Byars and Laurie Frank’s script plays loose with subplots–even after the film forecasts its basic structure, it loses track of a lot, and some essential scenes happen offscreen. The subsequent reveals in the narrative (to other characters and the audience) never play for enough surprise value to cover the missing moments.

One has to wonder what got cut.

Director Seidelman keeps things moving over the absences, having structured the picture into two separate parts in the first act. Ann Magnuson runs an ad agency, has a crappy congressman for a boyfriend and client (a delightfully bland Ben Masters); she’s also got a somewhat annoying family and friend situation intruding. Then she gets a contract to promote an android in time to get Congress to continue funding. John Malkovich is the android and the inventor.

The film keeps Magnuson’s life bisected. Even when Malkovich, in either of his roles, crosses over into Magnuson’s personal life–her misadventures with the android, even out on the town, are work stuff–but even when Malkovich is present in the personal life, Seidelman and editor Andrew Mondshein keep it somewhat separate. For example, Malkovich doesn’t really have any scenes with Magnuson and anyone else (outside Masters); but he’s present in some of the scenes. It’s just not somewhere Seidelman takes the film.

And it gets to be a problem in the third act when all of a sudden Malkovich has got a character arc of his own. As the android. The human inventor Malkovich has a second act subplot where Laurie Metcalf is trying to put a ring on it, which just ends up jumpstart Malkovich the android’s character development only to abruptly end it. Making Mr. Right runs almost 100 minutes and feels like a good twenty minutes are missing.

One of the film’s complete subplots–which the film contrives to intersect with the main plot to end the second act–involves Magnuson’s friend Glenne Headly. Headly’s having marriage problems and bunks up with Magnuson, ostensibly to give Magnuson someone to play off at home but the Headly subplot’s too good and overshadows Magnuson’s romance-induced ennui. Headly’s married to soap opera star Hart Bochner–who initially shows up onscreen in his cheesy soap with absurd hair–and Seidelman gets a lot out of having Headly around. Magnuson never gets to be silly, just frantic and stressed. Headly gets to have some fun.

Making Mr. Right is all about its actors–Magnuson, Malkovich, Headly–with Seidelman striving to facilitate as best she can. Malkovich and Magnuson both get some degree of physical comedy and they’re great at it. Malkovich plays the android with more soul than the inventor. The inventor part Malkovich does stiff and deadpan. The android is absurd and sincere. There are some scenes between Malkovich’s two characters–Magnuson drives past a theater showing The Parent Trap–but the film avoids them. Malkovich is only able to get one of his parts out of caricature as a result. He chooses well, but with some more time, who knows what Malkovich and Seidelman could get done.

Magnuson has a similar situation of underutilization, also because of the script. After all the intricate setup, Byars and Frank don’t keep subplots moving in the background. At least, not enough of them to compensate for the changes in the film’s narrative flow.

Making Mr. Right is a solid comedy. Great performances, some great scenes; overall, it’s a moderate success. But with a better third act, thanks to Magnuson, Malkovich, and Seidelman, it could’ve gone further.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Susan Seidelman; written by Floyd Byars and Laurie Frank; director of photography, Edward Lachman; edited by Andrew Mondshein; music by Chaz Jankel; production designer, Barbara Ling; produced by Joel Tuber and Mike Wise; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Ann Magnuson (Frankie Stone), John Malkovich (Dr. Jeff Peters / Ulysses), Glenne Headly (Trish), Ben Masters (Steve Marcus), Polly Bergen (Estelle Stone), Harsh Nayyar (Dr. Ramdas), Laurie Metcalf (Sandy), and Hart Bochner (Don).


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Oscar (1991, John Landis)

Excluding prologue and epilogue, Oscar has a present action of roughly four hours. The movie runs just shy of two hours. A lot happens with a lot of characters. And, while the film’s based on a play–which explains the limited setting–and even though it’s not like director Landis does anything spectacular except keep the trains running, it never feels stagy. Sometimes Landis’s composition is a little strange, but it’s never stagy. Oscar is always in motion. It never gets to take a break.

The story is extremely, intentionally convoluted. Sylvester Stallone is a mobster who’s going straight at noon; it’s a big day and he’s going to get a suit. We know he’s going to get a suit because the movie opens with flunky Peter Riegert reading off the morning schedule. It’s quickly executed, but it’s a good forecast. Even though Oscar never really looks good, Landis packages it fairly well. Bill Kenney’s production design is one of the big stars. Stallone’s got a mansion, people coming and going, the cops watching from across the street.

Oscar’s also a period piece, set in the early thirties, which presents some performance problems. Can’t forget to talk about those.

So Stallone’s got a big day and his accountant, a likable but somewhat thin Vincent Spano, shows up and throws a wrench in it. Turns out Spano is carrying on with Stallone’s daughter–Marisa Tomei in a great role. Except maybe it ends up Tomei likes Stallone’s elocution coach, Tim Curry. Curry and Tomei flirting ought to be weird, but it actually works out gloriously. There’s an adorable quality to Oscar, maybe because it’s a thirties gangster picture without any violence. Just positive vibes. Stallone is trying to go straight, after all.

There’s a whole lot more. The film isn’t real time but is consecutive enough characters’ presences define sections–like when Harry Shearer and Martin Ferrero show up as Stallone’s goofy Italian tailors. And Curry isn’t in the picture near the start, more like halfway, yet Landis and screenwriters Michael Barrie and Jim Mulholland make it feel like Oscar can’t get on without him. Same with how Chazz Palminteri’s part grows. Initially, Riegert has a lot more to do, but eventually Palminteri ends up as the audience’s stand-in. He’s been watching the events unfold and the convolutions are driving him nuts.

It’s a great performance from Palminteri. There are a lot of great performances. Riegert, Tomei, Curry, Ferrero. And a lot of solid ones–Ornella Muti (who has way too little to do), Shearer, Joycelyn O’Brien, Elizabeth Barondes. Oscar is cast pretty well and Landis seems to know what do with the actors. At least those in orbit around Stallone.

The ones not in orbit? Like Kurtwood Smith’s doofus police lieutenant, the bankers hesitant to partner with Stallone–including William Atherton and Mark Metcalf, or rival gangster Richard Romanus–well, Landis has no idea. He goes for broad “hokey” comedy and it doesn’t work. Especially not with Eddie Bracken’s stuttering informant. What should be a nice cameo from Bracken is instead cringeworthy.

And how does Stallone do playing the relative straight man to all the lunacy? He does all right. He lets the better performances overshadow his own, which is great. He gets some funny stuff, but he never gets to goof. The goofing in Oscar is great; Ferrero and Shearer, Reigert and Palminteri–some finely executed comedy. Stallone’s good with Muti, good with Tomei, good with Barondes. And he’s good in the scenes with Spano.

Except Spano’s pretty thin. Landis shoots these over-the-shoulder shots down onto Stallone (Spano’s about four inches taller) and it seems like there should be something to it and there’s not. Here’s Spano trying to intellectually strong-arm Stallone for almost two hours, while never getting too unlikable, and Landis hasn’t got any ideas on how to visually jazz it up. It doesn’t do Spano any favors.

Nice score from Elmer Bernstein; there’s not a lot of it, but it’s nice. Mac Ahlberg’s photography is a yawn, though it’s not like Landis tasked him with anything ambitious or difficult. That mansion set is phenomenal. Great costumes too.

Oscar is a little quirky and the third act stumbles in large part thanks to Smith’s performance and Landis’s handling of the finale, but it’s a fine comedy with some excellent performances and sequences throughout.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by John Landis; screenplay by Michael Barrie and Jim Mulholland, based on the play by Claude Magnier; director of photography, Mac Ahlberg; edited by Dale Beldin; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, Bill Kenney; produced by Leslie Belzberg; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (Snaps Provolone), Ornella Muti (Sofia Provolone), Marisa Tomei (Lisa Provolone), Vincent Spano (Anthony Rossano, C.P.A.), Tim Curry (Dr. Poole), Peter Riegert (Aldo), Chazz Palminteri (Connie), Elizabeth Barondes (Theresa), Joycelyn O’Brien (Nora), Martin Ferrero (Luigi Finucci), Harry Shearer (Guido Finucci), William Atherton (Overton), Mark Metcalf (Milhous), Ken Howard (Kirkwood), Sam Chew Jr. (Van Leland), Don Ameche (Father Clemente), Kurtwood Smith (Lieutenant Toomey), Richard Romanus (Vendetti), Robert Lesser (Officer Keough), Art LaFleur (Officer Quinn), Linda Gray (Roxanne), Yvonne De Carlo (Aunt Rosa), and Eddie Bracken (Five Spot Charlie).


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The Meaning of Life (1983, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones)

Terry Jones’s The Meaning of Life is a seven-part rumination on The Meaning of Life. At least the title cards for each part suggest its a seven-part rumination on the Meaning of Life. Not to spoil anything, but if the film does get around to addressing said meaning… well, it acknowledges you don’t need to be a philosopher with an S in your name to figure certain things out.

Instead, The Meaning of Life is some very controlled lunacy from the Monty Python troupe. Terrys Jones and Gilliam direct (Jones the feature, Gilliam a prologuing short), everyone writes, everyone actings (though barely Gilliam). There aren’t many standouts in the cast. Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, and sort of Jones do the best. But no one’s got a great part. Eric Idle’s problem is he just has bad parts, time and again. Except one waiter bit and it’s just a scene. And he does headline a nice musical number. His acting roles are always competently done… they’re just slight.

John Cleese has an entirely different, though at first seemingly opposite, problem. Cleese has all these big parts–(British) public school teacher, British empire officer, extremely American waiter–and none of them are great. Even when Cleese is good, the parts are thin. As the films progress, things even out–Cleese’s performance and the parts get to an equal thinness.

Some of it could be Jones’s direction. He’s far more interested in the filmmaking of Meaning of Life than the humor of it. There’s a lot of special effects, there’s a lot of narrative devices in moving from sketch-to-sketch, moving around in sketches. He loves the theatricality of the film, dropping a big musical number in, but he’s not particularly invested in the sketches themselves. Sometimes the writing is just poorly timed, sometimes the punchline isn’t enough. Director Jones, cinematographer Peter Hannan, and editor Julian Doyle do some rather cool stuff in Meaning of Life; one minute it feels like a British crime cheapie, then French New Wave, then Bergman. Jones throws a lot of spaghetti on the wall and most of it sticks.

Except not really when it comes to the “narrative.” The sketches aren’t good enough for the MacGuffin not to function. It’s a bumpy almost too hours. It moves well, but it’s really bumpy. Right after a gross-out sequence Jones highlights as an effective, if icky segue into the third act, it becomes obvious Life’s never smoothing out. It’s not all building up to a grand finale. In fact, Jones cuts away from the grand finale, which might actually be the better move.

That Gilliam-directed prologue is a weird bit of early eighties yuppie bashing and old British men wearing Road Warrior outfits. It’s dramatically inert and the joke isn’t funny enough, but it’s a beautifully executed piece of work. Great Roger Pratt photography on it.

Anyway.

Meaning of Life has enough laughs to leave a positive impression; Jones’s decision not to get ambitious with the material seems to be a correct one. It’s a shame Idle and Cleese–who should be standouts–aren’t.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones; written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Gilliam, Eric Idle, Jones, and Michael Palin; directors of photography, Roger Pratt and Peter Hannan; edited by Julian Doyle; music by John Du Prez; production designer, Harry Lange; produced by John Goldstone; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Graham Chapman (Tony Bennett), John Cleese (Death), Terry Gilliam (Howard Katzenberg), Eric Idle (Angela), Terry Jones (Mrs. Brown), and Michael Palin (Lady Presenter).


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