Home for the Holidays (1995, Jodie Foster)

For the first thirty or so minutes, Home for the Holidays is exactly the film its trailer presented. It’s a genial family comedy with a recognizable cast, a mix of standard casting choices like Charles Durning (Dad), semi-standards like Anne Bancroft (Mom), and unknown ones like Geraldine Chaplin (crazy aunt). Even when Robert Downey Jr. (gay brother) shows up, it’s still a recognizable comedy. We’re following Holly Hunter around on her unpleasant due to familial eccentricities Thanksgiving. Then David Strathairn shows up for a one-scene cameo and Home for the Holidays becomes something else entirely. The scene’s affecting in a significant way and, here’s another aspect of the film, Jodie Foster knows it. I’m not sure there’s ever been such a polished sophomore directorial effort than this one. Foster shoots that scene with Strathairn different and she has to shoot it different, because it is different. Then I realized, Foster changes her approach all throughout Holidays, totally in tune with the content. Flipping past the film over the length, so long as one kept forgetting Holly Hunter, a person could think it was a different film. It’s a very particular film.

I’d seen it once before, about eight years ago, at the height of my institutionalized film snobbery (working with a bunch of film school students and graduates at a snobby video store), recommended by someone who didn’t buy into the snobbery–actually, I don’t think she recommended it, just mentioned it–and I thought it was a great film. I probably even thought it was great for the same reasons I do now, which–given the time lapse–is a little surprising (but also agreeable, since I was a little afraid during the opening twenty it’d be decent but unspectacular). But I’d forgotten it, so I was with Foster through the film–when she introduced section cards, I was a little weary, but by the third, she turns them into prompts for the viewer to think about the film he or she is watching.

And then, when the film gets to the actual Thanksgiving dinner–Geraldine Chaplin has her big scene and it changes Home for the Holidays again… Foster uses the same style–presenting the viewer (and the characters) with something they expect to be amusing, but then changing the viewer’s perspective of the film and the characters’ perspective of themselves. Then, pretty soon after dinner’s over, Dylan McDermott takes over. I’ve seen McDermott in very little and Holidays is early in his high profile career buildup, but Foster gets an amazing performance out of him. Unbelievable, really–his character is impossible, but Foster and McDermott pull it off. I’m not sure how much W.D. Richter’s script contributed, because there’s one scene where it really looks like they (Hunter, McDermott and Foster) played a scene different from the way it’d be written. But, whatever… Foster has a lot of odd homages in here, to films a family comedy probably shouldn’t reference (I can’t remember because I didn’t make any notes, but along the lines of Welles and Ford–with some Woody Allen). The McDermott stuff plays like a Howard Hawks comedy, only there’s no space for the viewer to acclimate, so he or she just gets caught up in it. And once it’s going, it’s fantastic stuff.

Watching the clock as it got near the end, I kept wondering how Foster was going to wrap it all up. Her choice is amazing; predictable, but amazing. She conducts her characters out of a genial comedy and into something else. It’s something a little new even. While some of it is familiar territory, her nurturing of the characters really pays off at the end.

It’s a wonderful film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jodie Foster; written by W.D. Richter, based on a short story by Chris Radant; director of photography, Lajos Koltai; edited by Lynzee Klingman; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Andrew McAlpine; produced by Peggy Rajski and Foster; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Holly Hunter (Claudia Larson), Robert Downey Jr. (Tommy Larson), Anne Bancroft (Adele Larson), Charles Durning (Henry Larson), Dylan McDermott (Leo Fish), Geraldine Chaplin (Aunt Glady), Steve Guttenberg (Walter Wedman), Cynthia Stevenson (Joanne Wedman), Claire Danes (Kitt) and David Strathairn (Russell Terziak).


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The Silent Partner (1978, Daryl Duke)

The Silent Partner starts a little bit better than it turns out in the end, from a filmmaking standpoint. The sound design is so phenomenal in the build-up, I actually made note of it. I usually don’t make notes unless it’s something terrible and I want to make sure to bring it up. I fully expected to keep making that sort of note during the film, but I didn’t. I’m not sure, had Silent Partner kept that meticulous approach, if it would be a better movie, but I would have had a lot more notes.

It’s a weird film for a few reasons. Most visibly because it’s a Canadian film with an American screenwriter (Curtis Hanson), an American lead (Elliott Gould), an English romantic interest (Susannah York), but Canadian bad guys, Christopher Plummer and Céline Lomez. There’s an odd feel to the film, which is nice, especially since Gould’s an exceptionally strange protagonist. Most of the characters are established as being lousy people. Plummer’s bad guy is a complete psychopath, shown with a pervasive violence throughout–and he needs to be, just because Gould’s not exactly sympathetic. Sure, York makes fun of him and his boss is a complete worm, but there’s very little redeeming about Gould. But he’s human and he appeals to the viewer on that level. The Silent Partner very quickly (and masterfully, in that fantastic opening) makes the viewer complicit in, essentially, being a criminal. It does a great job of it, but then the film gradually changes.

Halfway through, Hanson’s script fast forwards a couple weeks or a month, something indeterminate but not too long. It pulls off the transition well and gives the film a fresh start, even bringing in Lomez as the deceptive, but still appealing, second romantic interest. This reset button’s particularly interesting because the film–after spending ten minutes setting up the new situation–returns to the existing conflict with York. In the second half of the film, York really becomes essential–mirroring Lomez’s importance too. Hanson’s script presents all of its principle characters as unhappy people who desperately need a drastic change, investing the viewer with concern–not so much for Gould, because he’s so abrasive–but for the female characters.

Gould’s good in the film, steady and sure, but maybe a little uncomfortable playing such an impenetrable character. He has a couple scenes displaying great weakness and without them, the film wouldn’t work. As his nemesis, Christopher Plummer’s terrifying. The way the film sets him up, wearing some black mesh wifebeater, he just oozes violent creepiness. Again, if he weren’t so dangerous–and there is something about Captain Von Trapp being a sadistic monster–the viewer might not feel for Gould.

I saw The Silent Partner for the first time about ten years ago and it’s finally come out on DVD, a decent release from Lionsgate (of all people). I have the feeling it’ll be even better the next time I see it. There’s something really great about York’s performance and I don’t think I appreciated it enough this time through.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Daryl Duke; screenplay by Curtis Hanson, based on a novel by Anders Bodelson; director of photography, Billy Williams; edited by George Appleby; music by Oscar Peterson; production designer, Trevor Williams; produced by Joel B. Michaels and Stephen Young; released by EMC Film Corporation.

Starring Elliott Gould (Miles Culien), Susannah York (Julie Carver), Christopher Plummer (Harry Reikle), Céline Lomez (Elaine), Michael Kirby (Packard), Ken Pogue (Detective), John Candy (Simonson), Gell Dehms (Louise), Michael Donaghue (Berg), Jack Duffy (Fogelman) and Nancy Simmonds (Girl in sauna).


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Versus (2000, Kitamura Ryuhei), the ultimate version

I’m worried I’m tired. The last time I watched Versus, I gave it one. This time I give it three. There’s a slight difference in the version I watched–this time I watched the “Ultimate Version,” which has about the same running time, but ten minutes of reshot scenes. I guess there were some music changes, which might have to do with the incredible quality bump. It’s such a fantastic experience–Kitamura’s direction is beautiful, the editing–between circling shots and tightly cut fight scenes–wonderful stuff. Versus is a boring kung fu zombie movie, absolutely in love with what the camera can do. As far as self-indulgent projects go, it’s near the best.

For the first hour and change, there’s almost no story beyond the chase through the woods, the zombies, and the little suggestions there’s something else going on. During that hour, Matsuda Kenji rules the movie. He’s broad and funny and easily the film’s most interesting character. The hero, played by Sakaguchi Tak, is reserved, not allowed to show any feeling during the first three quarters of the film. Still, the scenes with him and the girl–Misaka Chieko, who’s good–do work; the rest of the time he’s usually killing zombies, so it’s fine.

Then Sakaki Hideo shows up, as the bad guy, and the film changes completely. Matsuda becomes a liability, an enormous mistake on Kitamura’s part, turning an amusing character into an annoying one, so annoying you feel bad you liked him in the first place. The pace speeds up, the story actually comes into existence–it’s kind of like Highlander, only with a damsel in distress (wait, Highlander had a damsel in distress… a reincarnated damsel in distress). Kitamura runs three story-lines through Versus the whole time, switching when Sakaki appears, letting him take over Matsuda’s story. There’s also the comedic story-line, which follows funny stuff more than a specific character. The comedic stuff, which leaves the main story after the first half hour, is a nice breather. There’s some really good stuff there.

But the second half of Versus is really all about Sakaki. Even when he’s doing something stupid, he’s great. His scene with Misaka, where they talk about being reincarnated or immortal or something, absolutely great. It doesn’t dwell on setting up the goofy story, which the zombies help, but only so much… Maybe all the references (like the Robocop one) distracted me and it bothered me less. I don’t know.

I do know the last fight scene is succulent, self-indulgent and a joy. It’s a long and boring fight scene, beautifully directed. Some of Versus‘s strengths lie in not being able to figure out how Kitamura can make it work the way he does. Some stuff–guys running through the forest–it works for everyone, but his approach to action scenes in this film, no one else ever does anything like he does.

I might just be tired though.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Kitamura Ryuhei; written by Kitamura and Yamaguchi Yudai; director of photography, Furuya Takumi; edited by Kakesu Shuichi; music by Morino Nobuhiko; produced by Nishimura Hideo; released by napalm FiLMS.

Starring Sakaguchi Tak (Prisoner KSC2-303), Sakaki Hideo (The Man), Misaka Chieko (The Girl), Matsuda Kenji (Yakuza Leader with butterfly knife), Arai Yuichiro (Motorcycle-riding yakuza with revolver), Matsumoto Minoru (Crazy yakuza with amulet), Ohba Kazuhito (Yakuza with glasses), Katayama Takehiro (Red-haired assassin), Yoshihara Ayumi (Long-haired female assassin), Masumoto Shoichiro (One-handed cop), Kamiaka Toshiro (Samurai warrior), Tanikado Yukihito (Cop with Barrett), Asai Hoshimi (Short-haired female assassin), Watabe Ryosuke (Yakuza zombie in alligator-skin coat) and Komiya Motonari (Other prisoner).


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The Lookout (2007, Scott Frank)

Watching The Lookout, I never really wondered how Joseph Gordon-Levitt was going to do. I wondered about Jeff Daniels, for instance, since Daniels spent the late 1990s working up his number of excellent performances only to fade from things I watch. Gordon-Levitt… looking over his IMDb, I’m not sure the guy’s ever been bad. He might have even been good on the “Dark Shadows” revival when he was ten. The Lookout presents him with an odd leading man role, the kind actors usually save for Oscar-ready™ movies (oddly, The Lookout‘s from Miramax, king of the Oscar-ready™ movie). He runs the movie–besides the voiceovers, he’s in all but three scenes–and it’s with a really sure hand. Gordon-Levitt’s apparently the child actor with the goods, especially since his character isn’t particularly likable. At a certain point, he’s getting mad at someone for pitying him–and the viewer has been pitying him too, because he’s got a mental condition and it’s hard to identify with him… but he’s also responsible for his particular tragedy. It creates a great situation, keeping the character distant throughout, with the viewer ending the film maybe more unsure of the character than he or she was when it started.

Anyway, the breakout. There’s a breakout performance in The Lookout. I forgot about him because I was going on about Gordon-Levitt. Matthew Goode, who’s got a handful of credits, is fantastic as the bad guy. His character–who’s perfectly awful–might turn out to be honest than Gordon-Levitt’s. Scott Frank, who has done some great stuff, usually adaptations, takes the film noir’s standard deceptions and shrinks them, embedding them in the characters’ relationships from moment to moment. The Lookout‘s success comes from how incredibly emotional the whole thing works out to be.

I had thought it was another adaptation–maybe from something good, just because some of Frank’s choices suggest good source material, but knowing now it wasn’t adapted (it had no opening credits beyond the production companies and a title), it’s obvious. Frank’s in love with four of the characters in The Lookout, four and a half even, and it’s great to see.

I was just thinking this morning–really–about how the wheel doesn’t necessarily need to be reinvented, it just needs to roll as well as possible. The Lookout‘s not a new wheel so much as a nice amalgamation of a couple wheels… it’s sort of a heist slash crime thriller (with a twist–I kept thinking about Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn during the first fifteen or twenty minutes), but it’s really not; it’s a thoughtful character study of an unknowable character, one impervious to examination. Even when he’s doing voiceovers. A good character study always makes the viewer (or reader) wait to get at the character–and here’s where The Lookout‘s borrowing that crime thriller device–but let the viewer get close enough, but not know what he or she is looking at? It’s special.

My only real quibble with The Lookout concerns Frank’s direction. It’s good, not flashy, very matter of fact, but he switches over to a lousy DV for a shoot-out. It’s his cinematographer’s fault, sure, but it’s so obvious, I can’t help but wonder if it was a style thing. It’ll probably look fine on DVD… but it was distracting. Nicely, he follows it with one of Gordon-Levitt’s finest scenes in the film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Scott Frank; director of photography, Alar Kivilo; edited by Jill Savitt; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, David Brisbin; produced by Walter Parkes, Laurence Mark, Roger Birnbaum and Gary Barber; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Chris Pratt), Jeff Daniels (Lewis), Matthew Goode (Gary Spargo), Greg Dunham (Bone), Carla Gugino (Janet), Bruce McGill (Robert Pratt), Isla Fisher (Luvlee Lemons), Alberta Watson (Barbara Pratt) and Alex Borstein (Mrs. Lange).


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