Category Archives: 1996

Waiting for Guffman (1996, Christopher Guest)

Waiting for Guffman is a story of dreams and dreamers. Director (co-writer and star) Guest opens the film with shots of a small American town, Blaine, Missouri. It’s a town with a lot of history and a lot of heart. Sure, it’s all absurd history, but those absurdities just make the heart beat stronger. Guffman is a mockumentary, starting with the town council going on and on about their sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) celebration. It takes Guffman a while before it gets to the actual storyline.

Because there’s all that absurd history and absurd councilpeople to get through.

There’s going to be a play at for the celebration, directed by a flamboyant, artistically inept New York emigrant (Guest), starring a bunch of local dreamers. Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara are the town travel agents, who also regularly star in Guest’s productions. Willard’s a jerk and O’Hara drinks too much. Neither are talented. Parker Posey is another member of the regular troupe. She’s not talented. Eugene Levy (who also co-wrote the film) is a dentist who wants to be an entertainer. He’s not talented. Matt Keeslar works at the family scrapyard–he’s a hunk who Guest enlists to star then fawns over. He’s not talented. Then there’s Bob Balaban as the high school music teacher who thinks he should be in charge of the production and resents Guest.

Everyone is hilarious. Keeslar least, but he’s still really funny. He’s got a reaction part and he never gets to be in on the joke (of Guest fawning over him). Willard, O’Hara, Guest, Levy, Posey, Balaban–they’re all phenomenal. Much of Guffman is adlibbed and you can just see the actors spark these great ideas and run with them as the scenes unfold. It’s awesome.

Guest is probably the best during these scenes; he’s got the most to do–he’s directing the production, after all–though everyone with a lot of material gives him a run for the money. Meaning everyone but Balaban. He’s sort of an extended cameo, which Guest (as director–of the film, not the stage production in the film) uses to great effect.

But then it’s showtime and Guffman switches gears. Now it’s this absurd stage production and the actors are playing their absurd characters playing these absurdly (and now–intentionally–poorly) written parts. The councilpeople return to do the mockumentary interview spots because, presumably, the leads’ characters are too busy performing. The film mostly gets away with the change in tone, with Guest throwing in some backstage character moments for the actors but never quite enough.

The shift changes the film’s energy and knocks the narrative distance out of whack. Even though Guest establishes the mockumentary device and occasionally the actors even acknowledge it in their performances, it’s gone from how the stage production occurs. Without constant hilarity to distract, the mockumentary device’s problems become a lot more apparent.

When the film wraps up in an epilogue, Guest and company go back to trying to make it funny. They mostly succeed, but the pacing of the jokes is different. Guest and editor Andy Blumenthal cut the epilogue with a different pace–they’re trying to get done, trying to get to the right jokes to close out Guffman.

It works, it just doesn’t match the first act. Guffman suffers from being too funny without strict narrative pacing–even absurd pacing–and not funny enough when Guest has to implement it.

Uneven or not, Guffman’s hilarious, well-directed, and phenomenally acted.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Christopher Guest; written by Guest and Eugene Levy; director of photography, Roberto Schaefer; edited by Andy Blumenthal; music by Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer; production designer, Joseph T. Garrity; produced by Karen Murphy; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Christopher Guest (Corky St. Clair), Fred Willard (Ron Albertson), Catherine O’Hara (Sheila Albertson), Parker Posey (Libby Mae Brown), Eugene Levy (Dr. Allan Pearl), Matt Keeslar (Johnny Savage), Lewis Arquette (Clifford Wooley), and Bob Balaban (Lloyd Miller).


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The Phantom (1996, Simon Wincer)

The Phantom has three distinct visual spaces, more or less corresponding to the three acts. First act is in the remote jungle, second act is modern age–New York City–third act is evil villain pirate stronghold. Underground evil villain pirate stronghold. The last half hour of the movie is the cast running around a “slightly better than dinner theatre” pirate set, not a great way to go out.

Because The Phantom does have some excellent actions sequences, usually involving horses, sometimes involving wolves and horses communicating. The Phantom works best when it’s just going with the absurdity. Director Wincer has no sense of humor, which explains James Remar’s performance, but also very little sense with his actors, which explains Kristy Swanson’s. Wincer just wants to do the action, everything else is treading water.

So there are a couple fine action sequences, nicely cut by editors O. Nicholas Brown and Bryan H. Carroll, who don’t really impress at all otherwise. They improve–the first act has some jagged cuts–but they don’t impress other than the two horse sequences.

After the second horse sequence, when it seems like there might not be anything to match in absurdity, Treat Williams finally just becomes utterly consumable by the material and transfixes. Even when the film can’t keep up–either in terms of Wincer or just the special effects budget–Williams just barrels on. He gets The Phantom to the third act; the film then ingloriously dumps him until the last fight.

The terrible last fight on an underground pirate ship. It looks like a theme restaurant. Paul Peters’s production design is always a little questionable in the jungle sequence, but it’s supposed to be too much. The pirate ship isn’t too much, it’s way too little. The New York stuff is all interesting and sometimes successful. The budget gets in the way, but Peters and Wincer try to work it.

The music doesn’t help. Let’s just get the music out of the way. David Newman’s score is shockingly tepid. There’s no more lukewarm music for a dressed-in-purple bodysuit thirties adventurer picture than Newman’s score. It’s not even exciting enough for a movie trailer.

The film does have a good “star” in Billy Zane. Wincer doesn’t really want to use him–The Phantom is the star of the movie. It’s a bad move, hiding what an asset Zane’s likability is going to be, particularly since the only initial time Zane gets out of mask is bickering with ghost dad Patrick McGoohan. But after it becomes clear Swanson is a wash–and before Williams steps up–Zane’s strange, sweet, goof makes it all work. It does start when he’s in costume, however; he flirts with Swanson after rescuing her. Swanson doesn’t give much back, but Zane’s showing off, trying to hold The Phantom together. He’s the hero of the movie not just because of the purple tights.

Catherine Zeta-Jones is great as one of Williams’s cronies. It ends up being a better part than Swanson’s would-be adventurer, partially because Swanson doesn’t have the skills or enthusiasm, but also because Swanson’s part sucks. She starts out playing second-fiddle to crusading newspaper uncle Bill Smitrovich and annoying admirer Jon Tenney. And Smitrovich is badly presented–the script, the direction–but Tenney’s almost all right. He’s cloying but he’s trying hard. Swanson doesn’t take advantage of any of it and Wincer’s not paying attention. He’s not doing thirties screwball, he’s doing thirties serial.

McGoohan’s annoying, but it might not be his fault. Regardless, he’s entirely miscast. John Capodice is good though. Casey Siemaszko’s not. David Proval’s almost good half the time; script gets him good in the end.

The Phantom is a competently executed, poorly conceived mess of a motion picture. Though Williams, Zeta-Jones, and Zane certainly deserve some kudos.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Simon Wincer; screenplay by Jeffrey Boam, based on the comic strip by Lee Falk; director of photography, David Burr; edited by O. Nicholas Brown and Bryan H. Carroll; music by David Newman; production designer, Paul Peters; produced by Robert Evans and Alan Ladd Jr.; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Billy Zane (The Phantom), Kristy Swanson (Diana Palmer), Treat Williams (Xander Drax), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Sala), James Remar (Quill), Jon Tenney (Jimmy Wells), Robert Coleby (Capt. Philip Horton), David Proval (Charlie), Bill Smitrovich (Uncle Dave Palmer), Patrick McGoohan (Phantom’s Dad), and John Capodice (Al the Cabby).


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She’s the One (1996, Edward Burns)

She’s the One has a fantastic first act. Some of the banter doesn’t connect, but all of the performances are strong and when the banter does connect, it makes up for the rest. Director, writer, and star Burns relies a little too much on “gentle” homophobia for the banter between his character and Michael McGlone’s. They’re brothers–John Mahoney (easily giving the film’s best performance) is the dad. Mom never appears. I thought she was deceased, but no, Burns just doesn’t give her an onscreen presence, which is a big problem later on. Anyway, Burns’s reliance on the “sister” jokes for McGlone end up just being foreshadowing for the real problem with the film–Burns and McGlone are lousy leads.

But, wait, still being upbeat about the first act. Maxine Bahns is great as Burns’s new wife. They meet in his cab in the second or third scene and go off to get married. Jennifer Aniston is excellent as McGlone’s suffering wife. She gives the film’s second best performance. But she’s not just suffering because McGlone’s an alpha male jerk, but because he’s carrying on with Cameron Diaz.

Diaz, it turns out, is Burns’s ex-fiancee, who he left after she cheated on him. Eight million stories in New York City, of course it turns out everyone knows each other. Except they don’t, so Burns isn’t even trying to do an interconnected thing. Once the second act hits, Burns fully embraces the “movie about nothing.” Short scenes, usually in long shot, setting up what someone else says and then everyone else talking about it. Maybe if it were intentional, but it seems like Burns is trying to find the story. He never does. She’s the One has roughly thirty minutes of actual content. It runs over ninety minutes.

Along the way, there’s some fine acting from Mahoney and Aniston. Frank Vincent is hilarious as Aniston’s father. McGlone’s a funny jerk. The problem is he’s pretty much the lead, because Burns is exceptionally passive in his performance. He gives himself the shallowest character. Well, it’s between his character and Mahoney’s, but at least Mahoney gets an arc, at least Mahoney gets some agency.

Diaz is bad. She’s got a terrible part, which just gets worse for her along the way, but she’s not good in it. The film requires her to have exceptional chemistry with Burns. She has none. She ought to have some chemistry with McGlone too, since he wants to leave Aniston for her. But nope. Aniston and McGlone, when they’re with other people and not just in their own subplot, are great together. Bahns is best in the first act, then her part goes to crap too.

She’s the One is about Burns and McGlone having to accept some responsibility for themselves and doing whatever it takes to get out of it. Burns, as director, tries as hard as he can do get them out of it too. The women of She’s the One are all universally more interesting than the men; Burns just doesn’t want them to be. So there’s some internalized, “gentle” misogyny going on too.

The last act is a rush to save everything and, thanks to Mahoney and Bahns, Burns is almost able to pull it off. Almost.

Great songs and score from Tom Petty (though it’s usually just for Burns and Bahns, McGlone and Aniston don’t get music). Frank Prinzi’s photography is solid, even if a lot of Burns’s composition is questionable. When he finally gets around to letting characters talk and actors act–i.e. the third act–She’s the One shows some of the promise of the first act.

It’s just too little, too late.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Edward Burns; director of photography, Frank Prinzi; edited by Susan Graef; music by Tom Petty; production designer, William Barclay; produced by Ted Hope, James Schamus, and Burns; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Edward Burns (Mickey Fitzpatrick), Michael McGlone (Francis Fitzpatrick), Maxine Bahns (Hope), Jennifer Aniston (Renee), Cameron Diaz (Heather), John Mahoney (Mr. Fitzpatrick), Leslie Mann (Connie), Malachy McCourt (Tom), Amanda Peet (Molly), Anita Gillette (Carol) and Frank Vincent (Ron).


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Secrets & Lies (1996, Mike Leigh)

From the opening credits, Andrew Dickson’s score sets the tone for Secrets & Lies. It’s going to be severe. I don’t think there’s a light moment in the score–any of the film’s lighter moments, usually involving Timothy Spall’s ability to make people smile (he’s a photographer, so it’s a good ability), are mostly silent. The film’s simultaneously a marvel of acting and filmmaking; Jon Gregory’s editing, director Leigh’s composition, Dick Pope’s photography, they all enable these unbelievable performances from the cast. Leigh’s script (or his concepts for the story) are also essential. The film’s characters are mostly ragged from the start, with the single exception of Marianne Jean-Baptiste (as far as principals go). Jean-Baptiste is a satellite unaware of the other people she’s orbiting and even though Leigh forecasts the film’s structure from the second or third scene, it still comes as a shock when he crashes everything together. The film, which runs almost two and a half hours, has a singular structure and pace.

Little by little, Leigh and the cast build their characters and their characters’ relationships until the showdown. Everything before would be prologue if it weren’t for Jean-Baptiste, who’s the closest thing to a protagonist. She’s the one who inadvertently sets off the present action, even though she’s desperately trying to remain as passive as possible. She’s looking for her birth mother, not knowing anything about the birth mother (Brenda Blethyn in a spellbinding performance) or Blethyn’s family situation.

Top-billing goes to Timothy Spall, which is sort of appropriate–at least given the first act of the film–but once Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste’s story takes over, it’s really not his film anymore. Only it’s going to have to be his film again later, something Leigh has carefully established with the precise narrative. It’s not just how the scenes run together, it’s how Leigh directs each one. How he directs the actors, how he and editor Gregory cut each scene, how Dickson’s music seemingly compels the characters’ behavior. Secrets & Lies never shies away from being serious about its subject, this extended family in inadvertent ruin. Most of the time, with the exception of Jean-Baptiste, Leigh shoots the actors in close-up. The film rises and falls with their expressions and performances. It’s a good thing he gets such great performances out of them, even the most supporting players (for instance, Lesley Manville has a scene and a half and is spectacular).

The main cast–Spall, Jean-Baptiste, Blethyn, Phyllis Logan, Claire Rushbrook–are all wondrous. The amount of emotion Leigh gets each of them to convey, the complexities of those emotions–especially between Blethyn and Rushbrook, as clashing mother and daughter respectively–is something to behold. Logan has her own somewhat detached subplot, which gives her more and more to do as it comes closer to the rest of the narrative. She’s great. It’s impossible to enumerate the performances. Everyone’s just too good.

Secrets & Lies is long without ever being lengthy, weighty without ever being tiring. Leigh masterfully crafts this picture, essentially aided by his actors and his crew. It’s an astounding motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Mike Leigh; director of photography, Dick Pope; edited by Jon Gregory; music by Andrew Dickson; production designer, Alison Chitty; produced by Simon Channing Williams; released by Channel Four Films.

Starring Brenda Blethyn (Cynthia), Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Hortense), Timothy Spall (Maurice), Phyllis Logan (Monica), Claire Rushbrook (Roxanne), Lee Ross (Paul), Elizabeth Berrington (Jane), Michele Austin (Dionne), Ron Cook (Stuart) and Lesley Manville (Social Worker).


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