Category Archives: 1996

Greetings from Africa (1996, Cheryl Dunye)

In Greetings from Africa writer, director, and star Dunye mixes formats. Her first person comments to the camera are black and white video. The dramatized story is color film. Very, very colorful film. Dunye and cinematographer Sarah Cawley have some affected, formalist shots–even though Dunye’s the only one giving first person narration, Nora Breen (as Dunye’s romantic interest) gets some emotive and stylized close-ups. But then there are the more realistic sequences, where the sets are fully adorned–both the first person video shots and the stylized sequences with Breen and Dunye flirting in private have mostly blank walls. Even when Dunye and Breen have scenes in regular sets (Dunye’s apartment’s bathroom and kitchen), the composition emphasizes the actors, not the scenery.

The short runs about eight minutes, with Dunye recounting her time spent with Breen. They meet (off screen, but with the some of the audio played over, in some of Greetings finest editing), hang out a bit, then Dunye discovers Breen has some secrets.

There’s the scene in the kitchen, which has multiple conversations overlaid in voiceover, all with Dunye and Crawley’s stylized composition and colors and with Joan Caplin’s fantastic editing. Greetings is short, but full of content. Between Dunye’s first person exposition expanding it and contextualizing it, there’s also the technical stylizing in scenes to make it bigger. It’s great.

Greetings is mostly comedic; well, it’s not entirely anything, but it’s more comedic than anything else. Dunye’s got a wry sense of humor, not just in her performance, but in the dialogue and plotting of the short. She’ll cut away from a scene for maximum comedic impact. The short’s exquisitely made.

Dunye gives the best performance (there are three other actors) thanks to her silent expressions as she takes in the events, as well as her recounting of them for the first person. With the video to film and film to video changes, there’s a visual cue to differentiate between Dunye the narrator and Dunye the protagonist. Neither is unreliable or so much contrary as Dunye establishes a different narrative distance. It’s very cool.

Breen’s also good, though she really only gets a few scenes and they’re short ones. She’s playing an enigmatic character but not enigmatically. Again, Greetings excels in its subtle disconnects.

There’s a lot of subtlety to the short overall–it plays very much like a culmination of two of Dunye’s previous shorts. Being familiar with them probably makes the quiet jokes funnier, but seeing them isn’t necessary. The film’s more strong enough on its own.

The editing and cinematography are phenomenal. Perfect score by Glorified Magnified and Rebecca Coupe Franks–and perfectly cut to the action. Greetings from Africa is confident and boisterous and confident in its boisterousness. Dunye, her cast, and her crew, all do excellent work.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Cheryl Dunye; director of photography, Sarah Cawley; edited by Joan Caplin; music by Glorified Magnified and Rebecca Coupe Franks; produced by Dunye, Mary Jane Skalski, and Karen Yaeger.

Starring Nora Breen (L), Cheryl Dunye (Cheryl), Jocelyn Taylor (Dee), and Jacqueline Woodson (The Girlfriend).


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Dear Diary (1996, David Frankel)

Dear Diary was originally a TV pilot, which didn’t get picked up, then got (slightly) re-edited into a short. It’s impossible to imagine it as a weekly show, just because Diary does so little to establish what would be its regular cast.

It opens with star Bebe Neuwirth writing about her day in her diary. She narrates the whole film, with her musings about what she encounters–usually about people she meets, sometimes about herself, sometimes memories, or a lot of concepts (golf, photography)–visualized. If it’s people in the cast, they’re in the musings. If it’s an idea or a memory, it’s stock footage. On video. But Diary is shot on film. So it’s constantly visually jarring. Director Frankel is constantly moving the camera after cuts. It’ll tilt to focus on the actor, it’ll tilt away. It’s not effective. And it’s a problem for the first act.

The first act introduces Neuwirth and her family. They’re New York yuppies. She’s a magazine editor, husband Brian Kerwin is an attorney, they’ve got a couple kids who don’t matter except to remind Neuwirth she’s forty. Kerwin doesn’t figure into the plot at all. He’s an accessory, albeit one with more going on than the kids.

Neuwirth goes to work, where she ends up quitting almost immediately after her boss, Bruce Altman, gets introduced. Then she’s just got a free day; that free day is where Diary starts getting a lot better. She goes lunch golfing, where she meets avid golfer and department store security guard Mike Starr. They hang out for long enough to see her old college friend, Haviland Morris, rip off a dress. So Neuwirth tracks down Morris, meeting her husband (Ronald Guttman) eventually, and he knows Altman, which ties it all together with Neuwirth losing her job. Or quitting. That opening scene didn’t play well because Frankel’s not good at directing dramatic or expository scenes.

So Neuwirth’s narration is all-important. And it’s great. And her performance, even as problematic as the first act gets–there are hiccups in the Morris section too–but her performance is always fantastic. You just have to pretend there’s enough character. The diary entry she’s writing aloud is nowhere near as effective as the film postulates.

The third act ties it all together, not just Neuwirth’s days’ events, but also the film in general. It works because its well-acted. It works because of Neuwirth.

Though it’s Starr who saves the thing when it’s still getting through the rockier stuff. Altman’s good, Guttman’s funny (it’s a very small part), Kerwin seems fine. Morris is way too affected, but Dear Diary is way too affected so it fits. Enough.

Given Frankel’s direction and the general production concepts–the stock video footage is a disaster (why not just shoot the whole thing on video)–Dear Diary should be a lot less successful. As for the writing (by Frankel)… it’s fine. But it’s a sitcom. An okay sitcom. So you’ve got an okay sitcom script directed goofy (or worse) and a great lead performance.

Neuwirth makes Diary happen. However, last thing, the diary she’s writing seems to be very thin. Is it a new diary? Doesn’t matter. I guess.

But it does matter. Frankel’s way too loose on detail.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by David Frankel; director of photography, Maryse Alberti; edited by Michael Berenbaum; music by Wendy Blackstone; production designer, Ginger Tougas; produced by Barry Jossen; released by DreamWorks Pictures.

Starring Bebe Neuwirth (Annie), Brian Kerwin (Tom), Bruce Altman (Griffin), Mike Starr (Fritz), Haviland Morris (Christie), and Ronald Guttman (Erik).


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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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