Category Archives: 1997

Lawn Dogs (1997, John Duigan)

There’s a lot going on in Lawn Dogs. Lots of good things, lots of strange things, lots of bad things; the worst is probably housewife Kathleen Quinlan’s lover molesting her daughter, Mischa Barton. The film doesn’t want to deal with it. Lawn Dogs is lots of visual splendor, courtesy director Duigan and cinematographer Elliot Davis–set in a affluent Kentucky subdivision–and the film uses that visual splendor and the film’s general quirkiness to pivot away from ever dealing with the more difficult elements. On one hand, the story needs it to maintain its lyrical quality. On the other, it means there’s only so far the film can get.

Because even though it’s from ten year-old Barton’s perspective, it’s filtered. Barton knows what’s going on with mom Quinlan and the late teenage lover, David Barry Gray, but never shows how that knowledge affects her. She gets around to telling her parents–Christopher McDonald is the dad–about it, only to recant because Gray’s father is more affluent than McDonald and McDonald’s got political ambitions; Barton then recants. For a moment, Quinlan is about to become more than a precisely performed caricature and then Lawn Dogs drops that idea. McDonald only gets some depth at the very end, so it’s exactly disappointing but it’s a definite decision Duigan and writer Naomi Wallace are making with the narrative distance. These people are pushed back. Barton’s closer, Sam Rockwell–as the neighborhood lawn mower and Barton’s secret buddy (Rockwell’s twenty-one)–is closer. But McDonald and Quinlan? They’re so far back and so two dimensional and played for such dark humor, they don’t even cast shadows.

At the start of the film, Barton–who’s recovering from two open heart surgeries and being a social pariah before the family moved back to Kentucky for McDonald’s political ambition–happens across Rockwell’s trailer. He runs her off, she keeps coming back. Eventually he relents and allows himself to be befriended. The film is split, mostly, between Barton and Rockwell. While Barton gets a lot of time but not a lot of insight (she’s ten after all and living partially in a fairytale of her own mental construction), Rockwell gets a little less time but there’s the insight. It’s subtle, but it’s clear. Wallace’s script makes sure–without exposition–Rockwell’s character is clear. The most efficient aspects come when it’s how the rich people treat Rockwell, the subtle ways they humiliate him and, in some cases, objectify him. And his poverty. There’s a lot about class in Lawn Dogs, even if Barton’s too young to really understand it and Rockwell’s not going to talk about it. It’s quietly devastating; he wants to protect her from the damage she does with her privilege. She’s ten, after all.

Bruce McGill is the subdivision rent-a-cop. He’s worked his way up; not enough to live in the subdivision, but enough to crap all over Rockwell every chance he gets. McGill’s got the third best part in the film. He’s just pretending to be a caricature so he can fit in with the rich people.

The film hints at a timeline–Barton’s got her last heart doctor checkup–but doesn’t stick to it. It’s about she and Rockwell’s friendship and how the discovery of it destroys lives. Along the way, there’s a bit of fun, a lot about how living with crappy parents McDonald and Quinlan weighs on Barton (even if she can’t express it), and then some about Rockwell. There’s this vignette, completely separate from the rest of the film, where they visit his parents–Beth Grant and Tom Aldredge–in a mobile home park.

From the first shot of the park, it’s clear this lower working class existence is far more rewarding than the sterile perfection of the subdivision. Kids playing, for instance. In the subdivision, there’s only this one other kid–Miles Meehan–who’s younger than Barton and an already accomplished sociopath. The interlude with Grant and Aldredge, which deepens Rockwell’s back story without actually informing his character at all, is fantastic stuff. It just doesn’t much matter to the rest of Lawn Dogs because even if Barton gets to see Rockwell’s soul laid bare… she can’t really understand it. She’s ten.

One of the film’s greatest successes–of the actors, the direction, and especially the script–is never to make Rockwell and Barton’s friendship creepy. Rockwell’s character is aware of its inappropriateness, but he’s filled with (a previously unknown ability to capacity for) compassion for Barton. Meanwhile Barton has cast Rockwell in her mental fairytale, though his role keeps changing. Though the fairytale thing is really only first and third act. It doesn’t keep up through the second, which is too bad. At least in Barton’s understanding of her life through the fairytale’s lens, there’s some effort to show her understanding.

The acting from the leads is great. Rockwell’s better, obviously, because some of Barton’s performance is just about being a naive kid. It doesn’t always need a lot. Duigan and editor Humphrey Dixon edit the performances to maximum effect. It’s not so much Barton is wise beyond her years than Rockwell isn’t wise enough for his own. They’re wonderful together.

Good music from Trevor Jones; he toggles ably the cockeyed modern fairytale, the yuppie condemnation, the rural poverty, and the working class redemption. Again, there’s a lot going on in Lawn Dogs and–at the very least–Rockwell and writer Wallace (and McGill) get it. Even if Duigan wants to avoid it by doing some gorgeous composition with cinematographer Davis. The film’s gorgeous and quirky and intentionally distracted from itself.

The other supporting performances–Eric Mabius as Gray’s friend and a rich boy with an illicit crush on Rockwell, as well as Angie Harmon as a rich girl having an illicit affair with Rockwell–are good. Gray’s the weakest performance in the film, but also the thinest part. He’s just a dangerous predator.

McGill is really good. He gets overshadowed, sure–and rightly, Barton and Rockwell are great–but he’s really good.

Lawn Dogs is an accomplishment. Just could’ve been more of one if Duigan and Wallace wanted to deal with the tougher issues they raise instead of avoid them.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Duigan; written by Naomi Wallace; director of photography, Elliot Davis; edited by Humphrey Dixon; music by Trevor Jones; production designer, John Myhre; produced by Duncan Kenworthy; released by The Rank Organisation.

Starring Mischa Barton (Devon Stockard), Sam Rockwell (Trent Burns), Christopher McDonald (Mr. Stockard), Kathleen Quinlan (Mrs. Stockard), Bruce McGill (Nash), Eric Mabius (Sean), David Barry Gray (Brett), Angie Harmon (Pam), Beth Grant (Mrs. Burns), and Tom Aldredge (Mr. Burns).


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Cop Land (1997, James Mangold)

Cop Land either has a lot of story going on and not enough content or a lot of content going on and not enough story. Also you could do variations of those statements with “plot.” Writer and director Mangold toggles Cop Land between two plot lines. First is lead Sylvester Stallone. Second is this big police corruption and cover-up story with Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Robert Patrick, and Michael Rapaport. And some other guys. It’s the bigger story. Ray Liotta floats between, on his own thing. Almost everyone in Cop Land has their own story going and Mangold’s just checking in on it as background every once in a while. It creates this feeling of depth, even though there hasn’t actually been any plot development. The actors help.

But Mangold doesn’t have the same approach to narrative between the plot lines. Stallone’s in this character study, De Niro and Keitel are in this detached procedural. Stallone’s story could be a procedural, it would make sense for it to be a procedural–even De Niro tells him it ought to be a procedural–but Mangold keeps it a character study. All the way to the problematic ending.

Because as impressive as Mangold gets in Cop Land–and the film’s superbly acted, directed, written, photographed–but Mangold can’t bring it all together. He starts showing his inability to commingle his plot lines with Annabella Sciorra’s increased presence in the film. She’s good and she should have a good part. As teenagers, Stallone saved her, going partially deaf in the process. He could never become a cop (his dream) and Sciorra ends up marrying a shitbag cop (Peter Berg–who’s so good playing a shitbag) who’s terrible to her. Mangold’s plot presents him with some opportunity for Sciorra’s character to have a good arc, but he skips it. It’s a distraction and he wants to stay focused on something else.

That problematic finish? Lead Stallone becomes a distraction and Mangold wants to focus on something else. It’s a painful misstep too, with Mangold just coming off the third act action sequence–the only real action sequence in the film–and it’s awesome. So Mangold’s done drama, procedural, character study, action, and he’s perfectly segued between the different tones while simultaneously cohering them. Cop Land is building. Then all of a sudden Mangold loses the ability to segue. And to cohere. Maybe because Mangold reveal Liotta as his own major subplot somewhere near the end of second act (after doing everything he could to reduce Liotta from his first act presence). It’s a narrative pothole.

Though, given the film opens with De Niro narrating the ground situation, it’s impressive Mangold’s able to get the film through ninety plus minutes without the seams showing. The opening narration is compelling and the Howard Shore music for it is great, but it’s completely different from everything else in the picture.

Even when De Niro returns to the narration.

Maybe Mangold’s just bad at the summary storytelling though audio device. He also botches using newsradio commentary to move things along or set them up.

Cop Land is a little story in a big world. Mangold has got a great handle on the little story but not the big world. Though the Stallone arrives in New York City scene is kind of great. Stallone, Mangold, cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards, Shore. It just works. Because Stallone lumbers.

The film’s full of flashy performances. De Niro, Liotta, Berg, Patrick, Rapaport, they all get to be flashy. Dynamic. Mangold gives them great scenes and the actors deliver. All of them consistently except Berg. Berg’s too absent in the first act for all the subplots he gets to affect in the second.

But Keitel and Stallone are never flashy. Stallone because it’s his character. His character is anti-flash. His character is a drunken sheriff who goes around town in his flipflops opening parking meters for quarters to play pinball. Keitel it’s a combination of performance and part. Keitel only gets a couple moments to himself in the film and they’re real short. Mangold juxtaposes Stallone and Keitel in the story but not how he tells that story. It’s a weird thing to avoid, but Mangold avoids a lot.

For example, Mangold strongly implies no one in this town of cops (and cops’ wives, and cops’ children) respects the local law enforcement. It gives Stallone this Will Kane moment, but Mangold’s never established how it’s possible. How the town could truly function. And then Cop Land has all this toxic masculinity, racism, and complicity swirling around the plot and Mangold keeps eyes fixed forward. When a subplot or character starts going too much in those directions… bye bye subplot, bye bye character. Even though Mangold makes sure to write a good scene or get a great performance out of it.

Mangold fumbles Cop Land’s finish. He doesn’t know how to scale the narrative distance. Even if he did, there are some other significant pitfalls. But it’s almost great. Cop Land is almost great.

The acting is all good. De Niro is able to handle the Pacino-esque ranges in volume. Stallone self-effaces well. Maybe too much since Keitel’s a tad detached. Liotta takes an overly complicated role with too little development and gets some great material.

Much of Howard Shore’s score is excellent. When it’s not excellent, even when it’s predictable, it’s competent. Excellent photography from Edwards. Lester Cohen’s production design is good, even better than Mangold’s shots of it.

Cop Land comes real close; real, real close.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by James Mangold; director of photography, Eric Alan Edwards; edited by Craig McKay; music by Howard Shore; production designer, Lester Cohen; produced by Cary Woods, Cathy Konrad and Ezra Swerdlow; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (Freddy Heflin), Ray Liotta (Gary Figgis), Harvey Keitel (Ray Donlan), Robert De Niro (Moe Tilden), Michael Rapaport (Murray Babitch), Annabella Sciorra (Liz Randone), Robert Patrick (Jack Rucker), Arthur J. Nascarella (Frank Lagonda), Peter Berg (Joey Randone), Janeane Garofalo (Deputy Cindy Betts), Noah Emmerich (Deputy Bill Geisler), Malik Yoba (Detective Carson), Cathy Moriarty (Rose Donlan), John Spencer (Leo Crasky), and Frank Vincent (PDA President Lassaro).


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Absolute Power (1997, Clint Eastwood)

Absolute Power has a number of narrative issues. Well, less narrative issues and more narrative slights. As the film enters the third act, director Eastwood and screenwriter William Goldman decide the audience has gotten enough out of the movie and it’s time to wrap things up. It’s a shame because the film goes into the third act at its high point.

The first thirty minutes of the movie have Eastwood playing an old man cat burglar who sees something he shouldn’t. There’s a little character establishment montage during the opening credits for Eastwood–he likes to sketch, he doesn’t know how to work a VCR, he’s solitary but still takes care of himself–then it’s into the break-in sequence, which leads to a really tough murder sequence. It goes on and on, getting worse and worse.

Then there’s a cover-up sequence, where Eastwood really shows off all cinematographer Jack N. Green is going to do with Absolute Power. Even with its issues, the film’s beautifully made, beautifully acted. Green’s photography, with its occasional soft focus, is stunning. Absolute Power’s entertaining because of the actors, but Green helps out a lot with presenting their performances. Because eventually everyone’s fighting for time.

You know, a better defined present action and subplots probably would’ve helped. Because everyone’s just present. Eastwood and Laura Linney, as his daughter, get some hints at his weak parenting, but it’s not like Linney’s got anything to do but be around for Eastwood and his thriller storyline. Same goes for cop Ed Harris. Well, eventually he gets to flirt with Linney a little and all of a sudden, it’s like Eastwood’s goal for Absolute Power is just for everyone to enjoy themselves. There’s so much charm in the scenes between Harris and Linney–and Harris and Eastwood–narrative slights don’t really matter.

But it’s also about ability. The other half of the film has Secret Service agents scrambling to cover up a Presidential indiscretion and some of these scenes aren’t the best. Goldman’s got to do a bunch of exposition, but not too much for anyone to ask logic questions. The acting gets it through–Judy Davis, Dennis Haysbert, Scott Glenn, Gene Hackman. All of them are phenomenal, but all of them come at their parts differently. And most of their scenes are together; Haysbert just waits. And Eastwood loves showing Haysbert’s patience. He’s got fewer lines than Glenn–as another Secret Service agent–but he makes more an impression. He’s terrifying. Glenn’s good, but sympathetic. Davis and Hackman both get to go wild; no one plays menace better than Hackman and it’s almost like Davis’s playing protege. It’s very helpful having that acting depth since there’s nothing but action or actions for them in the script.

E.G. Marshall’s good in a smaller part as a wealthy mover and shaker. He gets some of the film’s worst lines but Marshall just makes them work. Even in the third act, when Absolute Power is racing downhill to get finished as soon as it can, Marshall is patient in his performance. His deliberateness makes all the difference. Or, enough difference to keep things afloat until Eastwood can get to the incredibly gentle finish.

Awesome editing from Joel Cox. The thriller sequences are phenomenally cut. And Lennie Niehaus’s score is good. It does quite a bit of work throughout the film, though it can’t hold up the third act. Nothing can. It’s just too much all at once.

Eastwood, as an actor, gets some good scenes and then some fun ones. He and Linney are fantastic together–maybe the cutest thing about the film is how similar Linney and Eastwood seem after the film spends time with them. When it comes time for ominous line deliveries, they give them in the same way. Eastwood initially gets away with it because he’s Clint Eastwood, but by the end, they get away with it because she’s his kid and he’s her dad, after all.

Harris is fun. He plays great with his partner, Penny Johnson Jerald, who isn’t in it enough. Though almost no one is in Absolute Power enough. Not Jerald, not Davis, not Hackman, not Marshall. Especially not with how much story Goldman and Eastwood are telling. Again, they manage to get away with it, but it’s a rush. Goldman’s script is too spare, especially given Eastwood’s preference in the family drama over the thrills.

Absolute Power has that adaptation curse–too much content but not enough story; still, it’s masterfully produced, with rich performances.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Clint Eastwood; screenplay by William Goldman, based on the novel by David Baldacci; director of photography, Jack N. Green; edited by Joel Cox; music by Lennie Niehaus; production designer, Henry Bumstead; produced by Eastwood and Karen S. Spiegel; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Clint Eastwood (Luther Whitney), Ed Harris (Seth Frank), Laura Linney (Kate Whitney), Scott Glenn (Bill Burton), Dennis Haysbert (Tim Collin), Judy Davis (Gloria Russell), E.G. Marshall (Walter Sullivan), Melora Hardin (Christy Sullivan), Penny Johnson Jerald (Laura Simon), and Gene Hackman as the President of the United States.


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Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth (1997, Anno Hideaki, Masayuki and Tsurumaki Kazuya)

Just over the first half of Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth is all right. It’s a compilation of episodes from the “Neon Genesis Evangelion” television show, expertly edited by Miki Sachiko. There’s very little exposition, with all the backstory on the giant monster fighting–but not really giant monsters, kind of giant cyborgs–coming in as the first half progresses. It’s far from perfect, but it’s all right. It moves. And Miki tries to give it a narrative.

Miki gets the credit–along with the director of the first half, Masayuki–because the rest of Death (being the first half of the film) is a bit of a gross mess otherwise. Anno Hideaki and Satsukawa Akio’s script is all about these three kids, two girls, one boy, charged with piloting the titular Evangelion. They’re giant cyborg mechs fighting Angels, which aren’t just called Angels, they’re apparently humanity’s ancestors. Just reformed as giant monsters. Again, there’s no exposition, there’s no time for it. I’m sure the actual show has the entire backstory. But it wouldn’t help things, not get out of the gross.

The boy’s a little bit of a pervert. His dad has some creepy relationship with one of the girls, who the boy also lusts after; she’s some kind of clone or something. The third girl gets nothing to do in the first half except to imply drama without actually causing it (Miki’s got twenty-four episodes to cut together after all). In the second half, she gets more to do as far as action, but she also gets to get perved on while unconscious by the boy.

Also, all the adult women around these kids are grossly characterized too. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen something so misogynist with so much lip service paid to missing mothers. And all that lip service is from the female characters. Dudes could care less. The boy’s got perving to do, plus he’s not vicious enough so his dad’s got to help him kill.

Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth is also effective, at least in the first half, when it’s violent. Masayuki’s a fine director.

Now, the second half. The second half, the Rebirth part, is only about thirty minutes. Thirty crappy minutes. Thirty poorly directed, poorly edited minutes. Even with the problematic conclusion to the first part–oh, right, the boy’s also got a serious crush on the wrong boy, which is unrelated to why he molests a girl in the first scene of the second part–the first part has some amazing narrative efficiency thanks to Miki’s editing and is occasionally stunning. Fantastic use of music, for example. And Masayuiki’s a fine director.

Tsurumaki Kazuya directs the second part. Tsurumaki isn’t a fine director. Tsurumaki is a bad director. Especially after the first part.

Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth succeeds at disappointing, which is something since it doesn’t exactly start off promising much.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Anno Hideaki, Masayuki and Tsurumaki Kazuya; written by Anno and Satsukawa Akio; directors of photography, Shirai Hisao and Kuroda Yōichi; edited by Miki Sachiko; music by Sagisu Shiro; production designer, Okama; produced by Kadokawa Tsuguhiko; released by Toei Company.

Starring Ogata Megumi (Ikari Shinji), Hayashibara Megumi (Ayanami Rei), Miyamura Yûko (Sôryû Asuka Langley), Mitsuishi Kotono (Katsuragi Misato) and Tachiki Fumihiko (Ikari Gendô).


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