Category Archives: 1999

The Straight Story (1999, David Lynch)

The Straight Story wants to present its characters as real, but it then exaggerates their reality. They’re better than real. Superior imitations. And it’s the film’s undoing.

Well, and the music. The eschewing of cartoon for caricature and the Angelo Badalamenti score. It is not the music to tell the story of a man born in 1920s Minnesota, who later moves to Iowa at some point and now at seventy-three is driving a riding mower to Wisconsin to see his estranged brother. Badalamenti’s main theme is ostentatious; even if you like it, it’s ostentatious. The movie’s all about how this guy, played by Richard Farnsworth, isn’t ostentatious. How could he be? He gives folksy, somewhat progressive wisdom and always pays his way. He never takes handouts, but he’ll compromise as long as it doesn’t fundamentally break his code. He’s a cowboy, on the steel green horse—well, steel green mule of a John Deere riding mower—he rides.

Straight Story isn’t a character study; its protagonist is never subject, never driving force (no pun intended). Director Lynch and writers John Roach and Mary Sweeney shrug off the idea of Farnsworth’s motivations until the third act when he dumps them in some heartfelt, folksy exposition. Straight Story is based on a true story, yet the film does whatever it can to make its characters seem utterly contained to their scenes. They stop existing when the film, sometimes jarringly, cuts away from them. It’s somewhat appropriate, however, as Sweeney also edited the film. The film has a handful of really rough cuts, not to mention when all of a sudden in the second half it employs frequent fades to black to end scenes. Occasionally the cuts are rough because clearly the actor onscreen didn’t think their scene was over. The movie’s just done showing this good, simple folk being kindly to one another. Point made, time to move on. Though, more often than not—especially in the second half—it’s just cutting to some other good, simple folk being kindly to one another scene.

It’s too bad. There are some occasional really strong moments. There’s a scene where Farnsworth witnesses a car accident and its frantic aftermath. Or when he’s hanging out with fellow old guy Wiley Harker at a bar and they’re having a profound emotional moment talking about World War II. Harker’s monologue is way better than Farnsworth’s and clearly so, which is concerning since Harker’s only in two scenes and Farnsworth is, you know, the movie. But even so, when Lynch and Sweeney bring in a non-diegetic war sounds track, it ruins the actors’ scene. Why would you give the actors this great opportunity then junk it for pedestrian memory sounds. It’s so strange. The Straight Story puts sugar in its own gas tank, time and again.

And then there’s Farnsworth’s daughter, played by Sissy Spacek. She gets a character revelation after her character is basically gone from the movie and it’s just to hammer in how progressive Farnsworth can be compared to, well, the younger generation. Straight Story positions Farnsworth as the world’s greatest grandad, only it’s a secret power and he can only use it on strangers, who hear more about his motivations for the trip than daughter Spacek. Of course, Spacek is—according to Farnsworth—a little slow. Spacek plays the character maybe autistic? Or with a speech impediment. But not slow. Not given the ideas she’s got to talk about in the dialogue she’s got. It’s kind of the most egregious of the film’s problems, just because the movie later uses Spacek just to develop Farnsworth and even then, only in a trite, contrived way. The film never feels less “real” than when Farnsworth is explaining how he’s so real. And manly.

Because he’s a cowboy. He’s a real American hero, which might explain why the movie treats him like an action figure. He moves where the film needs him; never once seems to have agency his own.

Even more distressing is when, in the final scene, a very special guest star outacts the 110 minute sum of Farnsworth’s performance without even speaking.

The film isn’t exactly condescending or patronizing, but it’s got a very definite narrative distance; it displays the events, doesn’t create them; it displays the people, doesn’t give them agency. They don’t develop. At all. And the exposition dumps are always manipulative.

Especially since it’s called The Straight Story.

Farnsworth is okay. It should be the kind of part you can go on and on about, analyzing the performance and whatnot, but you can’t. Because he’s just okay. Partly because Lynch doesn’t have any idea what kind of performance he’s directing. Spacek’s okay too, even if she’s the film’s narrative device doormat. James Cada’s good in one of the supporting roles, which are usually cast based on the actor’s appearance rather than their… acting ability. Or even casting appropriateness.

Good photography from Freddie Francis. Okay direction from Lynch. There are issues. There are peculiar choices when it comes to the ostensible character study stuff. There are weird, frankly silly zoom-ins.

It’s long, its plotting structure stalls, the music is annoying (even after the repeated use of the theme disappears—possibly when those fades to black come in, I wasn’t paying attention)… Straight Story has its sincerities, but never where it needs them.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by David Lynch; written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney; director of photography, Freddie Francis; edited by Sweeney; music by Angelo Badalamenti; production designer, Jack Fisk; produced by Neal Edelstein and Sweeney; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Richard Farnsworth (Alvin), Sissy Spacek (Rose), James Cada (Danny), Wiley Harker (Verlyn), Anastasia Webb (Crystal), and Everett McGill (Tom).


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Tumbleweeds (1999, Gavin O’Connor)

Despite excellent lead performances, Tumbleweeds is almost entirely inert–dramatically speaking. Janet McTeer is a thirtysomething single mom with bad taste in men who drags tween daughter Kimberly J. Brown all around the country after her latest romance goes bad. The romances never go too bad because McTeer has a preternatural ability to stay away from physically abusive partners. For example, the film starts with McTeer and (uncredited) beau Noah Emmerich getting into–oh, yeah, McTeer moves in with every guy and marries many of them–but they’re getting into a big fight where it seems like Emmerich is about to hit her, but never does. He’s just an angry, break everything drunk. Meanwhile Brown is preparing her wordly possessions for she and McTeer’s imminent departure.

They’re apparently always in lousy situations, but never dangerous ones, which ends up contributing to the eventual lack of dramatic impact. If director O’Connor were capable of a lyrical type narrative, it’d be fine. He’s not. But more on that deficiency in a bit.

So after McTeer and Brown leave Emmerich punching his kitchen appliances and watching TV, Tumbleweeds becomes a road movie. McTeer wants to go to Arizona (they’re from the South, all over); Brown doesn’t. Eventually they agree on San Diego. Well, McTeer eventually agrees with Brown. It’s Brown’s idea. They have some misadventures–but nothing too dangerous or dire–before getting there. They don’t get to San Diego until about halfway through the film. The first half is a meandering road movie, the second half has none of the same stylistic choices. By stylistic choices I guess I mean O’Connor’s proclivity for occasional shaky camerawork to show… well, to show nothing, really. Except to diss Dan Stoloff’s otherwise perfectly competent photography.

Once they arrive in San Diego–actually a smaller city near San Diego, but on the water–Brown gets enrolled in school (at just the right moment because it seems like McTeer could care less about it until that point) and makes friends and McTeer gets a new job. In comes the supporting cast. There’s Ashley Buccille as Brown’s friend from drama class (and Cody McMains as the annoying boy who likes her) while McTeer starts working for weird (but not too weird) creep (but harmlessly) Michael J. Pollard and makes friends with coworker Laurel Holloman. Pretty soon McTeer has a kismet moment with a new dude–director O’Connor, whose blasé performance basically relegates Tumbleweeds to that dramatic inertia–much to Brown’s disapproval.

McTeer moves them in with O’Connor, with Brown knowingly anticipating the relationship’s eventual failure. Meanwhile she’s trying out for Romeo and Juliet at school, much to soon-to-be-ex-bestie Buccille’s chagrin (there can be only one Juliet, after all), especially since McTeer’s afore unmentioned coworker Jay O. Sanders coaches Brown on her performance. Because he’s just the type of great guy McTeer would never go for.

Drama does not ensue.

The script, by O’Connor and Angela Shelton, is anti-melodramatic but also entirely unrealistic in its cockeyed reality. McTeer, despite working menial jobs, is never wanting for money. Both she and O’Connor go through too short unemployment arcs; apparently everyone’s got a lot of rainy day savings in Tumbleweeds. They have to have them, because otherwise things might actually get a little intense or dangerous and there’s no intensity or danger in Tumbleweeds. It’s gritty… ish, because low budget, and never because of narrative. There’s some “gritty” dialogue–Holloman’s lengthy description of coffee enemas is exceptionally pointless–but the film avoids all its confrontational moments. Besides the opening one where Baumbach decides he’ll be a verbally abusive drunken bastard but he’s got his limits. Tumbleweeds is a poser when it comes to the dark realities of humanity.

Luckily, the performances are mostly phenomenal. McTeer, Brown, and Sanders are all amazing. Though Sanders’s material is mostly pat. And outside the character relationship stuff with McTeer and Brown they don’t get much either. All the important narrative developments happen off-screen (once it becomes clear O’Connor, as actor, is never going to be too abusive or too dangerous; it kind of works since his performance is just as shallow as his character). Pollard’s fine in an extended cameo. Holloman is good with a nothing role. Lois Smith shows up for a bit. She gets even less of a role than Pollard. Kids Buccille and McMains are fine. Again, since important narrative developments are discussed in exposition, they don’t need to be any better.

If it weren’t for McTeer and Brown and their performances, Tumbleweeds would fizzle (Sanders is gravy). But they’re great, so it doesn’t. The script’s just not there, O’Connor (both as actor and director) isn’t there. Sure, the movie’s low budget, but… if O’Connor were a better director (and writer) it wouldn’t matter. The film’s got zero ambitions. Thank goodness the cast has some.

The six to nine endings don’t help things either.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Gavin O’Connor; screenplay by O’Connor and Angela Shelton, based on a story by Shelton; director of photography, Dan Stoloff; edited by John Gilroy; music by David Mansfield; production designer, Bryce Holtshousen; produced by Greg O’Connor; released by Fine Line Features.

Starring Janet McTeer (Mary Jo Walker), Kimberly J. Brown (Ava Walker), Gavin O’Connor (Jack Ranson), Jay O. Sanders (Dan Miller), Laurel Holloman (Laurie Pendleton), Michael J. Pollard (Mr. Cummings), Ashley Buccille (Zoe Broussard), Cody McMains (Adam Riley), and Lois Smith (Ginger).


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The Winslow Boy (1999, David Mamet)

The Winslow Boy utilizes all the trappings of a stage adaptation without ever being stagy. Director Mamet opens the film with a family entering their home–there’s some muted conversation before they get completely inside, then the introductions begin. So it’s a very play structure too, at least as far as the first and third acts go, but Mamet perfectly matches that structure. The way Mamet paces the film is exquisite. He anticipates story beats with stylistic choices, often infusing Winslow with indeterminate foreboding.

The first act sets up the cast. Nigel Hawthorne is the stern but loving and proud father, Gemma Jones is mother, Rebecca Pidgeon is the oldest, a pre-WWI feminist and suffragette, Matthew Pidgeon is the disappointing middle child, and Guy Edwards is the (much younger) pride of the family. Mamet and his actors deliberately establish their characters, with Mamet moving the narrative focus among them for best result. As the actor establishes their character–the beginning Winslow Boy is sort of a rapid, pre-Christmas ground situation exposition dump; Mamet keeps it moving through dialogue speed, repetition, Barbara Tulliver’s editing, and especially Benoît Delhomme’s photography. Winslow Boy only has the one main location–the family’s house–and Mamet is inventively pragmatic composing shots in it. Again, he emphasizes the actors’ performances, even when it’s an off screen actor.

After the setup, the film jumps ahead four months. There has been some hint of the main plot–young Edwards is expelled from the royal naval academy for thievery, a crime he maintains he didn’t commit–but not how it will play out. Hawthorne fights the expulsion, at great expense to the family and to great publicity. It’s Edwardian England, between wars, and it all causes quite a stir. Enough of one to eventually threaten Rebecca Pigdeon’s love life.

Mamet and the cast have a great deal of fun with Edwardian propriety, with Pidgeon getting the best lines. There’s a thoughtfulness and gentleness in the propriety and how the actors essay it, something the film technically emphases. The music’s different, the photography and composition are more intimate–even when it’s set during a bright day, Mamet and Delhomme find a way to focus just on their subjects. The rest of the world is far away.

About halfway through the film, Winslow Boy introduces Jeremy Northam’s barrister. Winslow is never about the process in getting the expulsion reconsidered, it’s about the effects of that process, both immediate and collateral. Northam’s character lets Mamet take the film into the House of Commons, to hear the debate–otherwise, news of the case is usually shown through expository shots–supportive buttons, political cartoons, branded umbrellas.

Thanks to Mamet’s established repetition device, he’s able to not just get the information across of what’s happening offscreen, but he’s able to give it the necessary context for viewers not well-versed early 20th century British law. Pidgeon and Hawthorne are learning about it too. It’s a great way to make the characters more sympathetic too; it puts characters and viewers at the same point on the learning curve.

The performances are all excellent. Rebecca Pidgeon and Jeremy Northam have a lovely, gentle romantic subplot. They’re both great, though never as good with anyone but each other. Their timing, how Mamet handles their peculiar flirtation, anchors the third act of the film.

First act lead Hawthorne spends the second act in obscured transition. In addition to straining his family to defend Edwards’s honor, he’s got his own aging character arc, which he never gets to play on front burner, and then he’s got to deal with the publicity fallout. So he has these relationship arcs with almost every character. Sometimes just for a quiet joke.

Jones is the film’s unsung glue for the first half. She’s mom, she’s always sympathetic, she’s great with all her costars. Her comic timing is phenomenal. Matthew Pidgeon’s good, Edwards’s good, everyone’s always good and often better. Mamet directs for his actors.

The Winslow Boy is a quiet, gentle, rousing success.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by David Mamet; screenplay by Mamet, based on the play by Terence Rattigan; director of photography, Benoît Delhomme; edited by Barbara Tulliver; music by Alaric Jans; production designer, Gemma Jackson; produced by Sarah Green; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Nigel Hawthorne (Arthur Winslow), Rebecca Pidgeon (Catherine Winslow), Gemma Jones (Grace Winslow), Jeremy Northam (Sir Robert Morton), Guy Edwards (Ronnie Winslow), Matthew Pidgeon (Dickie Winslow), Aden Gillett (John Waterstone), Colin Stinton (Desmond Curry), Sarah Flind (Violet), and Neil North (First Lord).


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But I'm a Cheerleader (1999, Jamie Babbit)

But I’m a Cheerleader is too short. It runs eighty-five minutes, which would be fine if the narrative fit into director Babbit’s affected, aspirationally camp style. But Brian Peterson’s script is front heavy. And Jules Labarthe’s cinematography is too flat. Rachel Kamerman’s production design is loud, but Labarthe shoots it too shallow. He’s also not great at lighting actors between shots. Even if he were, Cecily Rhett wouldn’t be good at cutting those shots.

Cheerleader is utterly sincere, which is great, but Babbit and Peterson don’t take the film through that sincerity as it develops. After a deliberately paced two-thirds, all of a sudden Cheerleader is in a rush to finish. The script has taken a traditional romantic comedy direction–down to a deus ex conclusion so spared down it utterly lacks the needed spectacle. Peterson’s script doesn’t lay the groundwork for it until the second half, which is a whole other problem. The film doesn’t flow well.

It wouldn’t help if Cheerleader accomplished affected camp. It doesn’t need to be camp. It accomplishes something else entirely, this amazing relationship between Natasha Lyonne and Clea DuVall, which turns out to be the point of the script. Only it doesn’t seem like it was always the point of the script, because the original point of the script was Lyonne’s character development; her personal growth arc gives way to traditional rom-com stuff.

Lyonne’s a high school cheerleader who finds herself whisked away to a “brainwash the gay away” camp. Parents Bud Cort and Mink Stole are upset previously prim, proper, and Protestant Lyonne now wants to eat tofu. And then there’s her Melissa Etheridge poster. So they call RuPaul (out of drag and quite funny) to consult. He’s an “ex-gay” who works at the camp (run by Cathy Moriarty).

But Lyonne doesn’t think she’s gay. So there’s character development on that plotline. And there’s development on her plotline with her parents. And there’s development on her plotline with DuVall, the semi-goth rich girl who isn’t trying to get rid of her gay, just learn how to hide it. The last plotline doesn’t just tie into Lyonne’s own sexuality plotline, but also her parents plotline and her life and values in general. In the midst of the affected camp, with Lyonne looking like a sixties cheerleader doll, she and DuVall have these terribly lighted, terribly edited, wonderful moments.

Lyonne’s fine in the lead. She gets better as her character becomes more proactive, but DuVall’s spellbinding. She’s (maybe) the object of Lyonne’s affection and Babbit does a great job presenting her and developing her from Lyonne’s perspective. While it’s not camp or affected and often feels like a different movie, their chemistry makes Cheerleader quite special for a while.

Then comes Peterson’s disastrous third act. It happens gradually too, almost forecasting itself. There’s just no way for Babbit and Peterson to get the film across the finish line in the eighty-five minutes so they grab what they can and wrap it up quick. Peterson throws out distractions in almost every scene–which can be cute, like ex-ex-gays Wesley Mann and Richard Moll bickering–but don’t end up doing anything. It’s filler, because the film’s lost Lyonne’s character development. She’s a protagonist with a stalled arc.

Moriarty’s all right. The script stops giving her anything extra after the first act setup and, given the outrageously pink (and overtly homoerotic) mansion interiors, Moriarty should have a lot extra. Instead, she just has son Eddie Cibrian, who’s a buff temptation for all the gay boys at the camp. There’s a big supporting cast of “campers” and they’re all fine. Melanie Lynskey gets more to do than most, she’s good.

Babbit wants to have the freedoms of affectation while retaining sincerity. Only Cheerleader doesn’t get to sincerity through affectation, it’s something Babbit and Peterson just drop into the affectation and try to make room. It doesn’t work, which is a shame, because DuVall and Lyonne deserve a better film. Babbit seems like she wants to deliver one too.

But I’m a Cheerleader is cute and fun. And sweet. But it could’ve been something much better.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jamie Babbit; screenplay by Brian Peterson, based on a story by Babbit; director of photography, Jules Labarthe; edited by Cecily Rhett; music by Pat Irwin; production designer, Rachel Kamerman; produced by Andrea Sperling and Leanna Creel; released by Lions Gate Entertainment.

Starring Natasha Lyonne (Megan), Clea DuVall (Graham), Cathy Moriarty (Mary Brown), Melanie Lynskey (Hilary), RuPaul (Mike), Bud Cort (Peter), Mink Stole (Nancy), Dante Basco (Dolph), and Eddie Cibrian (Rock).


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