Category Archives: 1999

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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The Thirteenth Floor (1999, Josef Rusnak)

It’d be hard to call The Thirteenth Floor a missed opportunity because that statement suggests there was some promise to it. There’s no promise anywhere near Thirteenth Floor. But it does have some gorgeous set decoration and, presumably, production design from Kirk M. Petruccelli. The presumably qualifier because even though Petruccelli does excellent work on the 1930s and 1990s (the present day has some of the same art deco themes), there’s terrible second unit stuff of modern day L.A. and it just breaks the tone. If that decision was Petruccelli’s and not director Rusnak’s, it’s on him. It’s terrible and breaks the visual tone of the film every time there’s an establishing shot of the city. There’s nothing to enjoy in the film, save the occasionally interesting bit of design. Even if Rusnak and cinematographer Wedigo von Schultzendorff usually screw it up.

The film’s got a lousy script–real, real lousy–by director Rusnak and Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez. Rusnak can’t direct the actors either. They’re all bad, though Vincent D’Onofrio does betray having some ability at one point or another. No one else does. Not even poor Dennis Haysbert, who I was hoping would be a surprisingly great performance. He’s not; he’s really bad, just like most everyone else. Craig Bierko’s the lead. He’s awful. Gretchen Mol’s his love interest. She’s just bad, not awful. Armin Mueller-Stahl is a little better than Mol, only because the plotting. It’s bad plotting, but it still sames Mueller-Stahl some face. No one else gets anywhere near as lucky.

It’s a dumb movie with dumb ideas in a bad script. It’s a poorly acted, poorly directed dumb movie. Any competency is rare–basically just the score’s not bad. If it were a different movie, Harald Kloser would be doing a perfectly acceptable score. It just can’t do what Floor needs its score to do, which is cover plot holes or performance holes. Worse, Kloser seems to get it–only he can improve the film’s quality; it’s impossible. Rusnak is just too bad at his job of directing this film. The Thirteenth Floor is terrible.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Josef Rusnak; screenplay by Rusnak and Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez, based on a novel by Daniel F. Galouye; director of photography, Wedigo von Schultzendorff; edited by Henry Richardson; music by Harald Kloser; production designer, Kirk M. Petruccelli; produced by Roland Emmerich, Ute Emmerich and Marco Weber; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Craig Bierko (Douglas Hall), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Hannon Fuller), Gretchen Mol (Jane Fuller), Vincent D’Onofrio (Jason Whitney), Dennis Haysbert (Detective Larry McBain), Steven Schub (Detective Zev Bernstein) and Jeremy Roberts (Tom Jones).


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Three Kings (1999, David O. Russell)

Three Kings ought to appeal to every one of my liberal affections–director Russell very seriously wants to look at the Gulf War and how it failed the people it should have been protecting. Over and over, Russell goes out of his way to make the American soldiers take responsibility. Not for the war itself, but for their personal involvement with it and the Iraqis. Not just Iraqi civilians, but the army too. It’s very deliberate and precisely executed. It’s just not enough to drive the entire film; nothing in Three Kings is compelling enough overall.

Political statement aside, there’s a lot of other distinct elements to the film. There’s the writing–Russell’s script is quite funny–lots of inane and mundane details. But it’s also rather responsible, at least while Russell’s establishing the ground situation. Russell sets up an excellent tone and structure to the characters and their relationships. Even though some of the film takes place on an army base, it always feels very small. Maybe because Russell has title overlays identifying the main characters. With amusing commentary, of course.

Then there’s the style. Three Kings is very stylized; high contrast Newton Thomas Sigel photography, very quick cuts, some very slow cuts, some slow motion. Russell directs his actors for this exaggerated style, but with only marginal success. Ice Cube and George Clooney, for instance, have nothing parts. Russell gives all the character material to Mark Wahlberg and Spike Jonze. Neither of them is bad, though Jonze can’t handle the transition between being an uneducated racist redneck to a soulful world traveller. He doesn’t really need to do much after that change because Russell’s moved on to focusing on Wahlberg. Wahlberg’s all right for the first act, but has this big subplot to himself and he can’t hack it. So Jonze and Wahlberg getting the most outlandish direction makes sense. They need the most cover.

By the third act, however, Russell has given in to the comedy a little much. He has Nora Dunn and Jamie Kennedy for the comic relief but he takes it even further. It starts to get absurd, which–were Three Kings more successful–should raise some issues about Russell’s political statements.

Great supporting performances. Cliff Curtis, Dunn, Saïd Taghmaoui, Mykelti Williamson, Holt McCallany. Kennedy’s annoying and probably should signal Russell’s eventual tone problems, but he’s good with Dunn. Williamson is awesome opposite Clooney. Then ppor Taghmaoui has to carry Wahlberg in their important (and informative) showdowns.

Decent music from Carter Burwell. Robert K. Lambert’s editing is probably exactly what Russell wanted, though some of the cuts aren’t graceful enough. Three Kings takes place in all of us, Russell demands the audience engage. Three Kings needs more script busywork and far less technical busywork. It also needs a director more concerned about his actors.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by David O. Russell; screenplay by Russell, based on a story by John Ridley; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by Robert K. Lambert; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Catherine Hardwicke; produced by Charles Roven, Paul Junger Witt and Edward McDonnell; released by Warner Bros.

Starring George Clooney (Archie Gates), Mark Wahlberg (Troy Barlow), Ice Cube (Chief Elgin), Spike Jonze (Conrad Vig), Cliff Curtis (Amir Abdulah), Nora Dunn (Adriana Cruz), Jamie Kennedy (Walter Wogaman), Saïd Taghmaoui (Captain Said), Mykelti Williamson (Colonel Horn), Holt McCallany (Captain Van Meter) and Judy Greer (Cathy Daitch).


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