Tag Archives: Bob Balaban

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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F–K (2010, R.E. Rodgers)

So F–K is a promotional short for the Labyrinth Theater Company in New York. Can you appreciate and enjoy the short without knowing anything about the company?

Maybe.

Yeah, of course you can. Sam Rockwell doing a riff on Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man is going to be funny no matter what and he works well with Leslie Bibb.

The short is split into five different sections, each with the principal trying to figure out where the theater is located. Maybe. Doesn’t really matter, not when you’ve got Christopher Meloni (and Mariska Hargitay) aping for the camera. Hargitay’s just there for the “Law & Order” joke, but Meloni goes all out in comedic wildness.

Nice little stuff from Jesse L. Martin and especially Bob Balaban, who finds himself trying to bargain with a little kid.

F–K’s strange and director Rodgers’s hostile, but it’s one of the better commercials ever.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Edited and directed by R.E. Rodgers; produced and written by Ed Vassallo; director of photography, Rodgers.

Starring Bobby Cannavale (Bobby), Eric Bogosian (Eric), Christopher Meloni (Chris), Mariska Hargitay (Mariska), Sam Rockwell (Sam), Yul Vazquez (Yul), Leslie Bibb (Leslie), Daphne Rubin-Vega (Daphne), Bob Balaban (Bob), Luca Ariel Constanzo (Luca), Jesse L. Martin (Jesse) and Tomoko Miyagi (Tomoko).


Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, Steven Spielberg), the director's cut

This version–now called ‘The Director’s Cut’–originally came out as ‘The Collector’s Edition’ maybe ten years ago (maybe less). The most striking thing about this cut is Dreyfuss’s insanity. In this version, he’s totally nuts… Spielberg edits back in (from the original, excised from the Special Edition) a couple significant scenes. First, showing off Roberts Blossom–one of Dreyfuss’s initial peers–as a complete nut, which is a discreet foreshadowing of when–in the second major addition–Dreyfuss goes completely insane.

One of the significant dilemmas of Close Encounters has always been Roy Neary and his being a bad guy. He goes nuts and drives his family away. In this version, Teri Garr’s put-upon wife is even more put-upon. Where Close Encounters enters in to the unreadable is… well, Dreyfuss isn’t nuts. There isn’t a big reveal at the end when the viewer finds out the UFOs are real and all the pain he’s caused and all the pain he’s suffered are–mildly–justified….

The viewer knows all along Dreyfuss is right and Spielberg manages, in the scenes with the Neary family, to remain impartial. If one stops to think about it, obviously Dreyfuss is a monster. But the film shares his wonder with the viewer and his actions, while indefensible, are completely understandable.

There’s also a lot more ominousness in this version. When Cary Guffey gets taken, it seems a lot scarier, but not for any reasons of addition or subtraction. This echoes at the end, with the silent entrance of the mothership.

The additional scenes give Teri Garr more of an onscreen presence and she’s really great. Melinda Dillon, I probably said it in the Special Edition post, also great. I noticed Truffaut a lot this time too–I don’t think he’s got any extra scenes, but he’s so effective in the last act, it’s a perfect use of him. I’m not sure if Spielberg necessarily got a great performance out of him or just cast him perfectly.

As for Spielberg’s removal of the mothership interior… it really doesn’t change the end result. Close Encounters is on such firm ground, the mothership interior is just a matter of preference….

For example, I’m not actually sure if this cut is better than the special edition.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Steven Spielberg; director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Joe Alves; produced by Julia Phillips and Michael Phillips; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Richard Dreyfuss (Roy Neary), François Truffaut (Claude Lacombe), Teri Garr (Ronnie Neary), Melinda Dillon (Gillian Guiler), Bob Balaban (David Laughlin), J. Patrick McNamara (Project Leader), Warren J. Kemmerling (Wild Bill), Roberts Blossom (Farmer), Philip Dodds (Jean Claude), Cary Guffey (Barry Guiler), Shawn Bishop (Brad Neary), Adrienne Campbell (Sylvia Neary) and Justin Dreyfuss (Toby Neary).


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Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, Steven Spielberg), the special edition

I don’t know where to start with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The jokey open would be something about listing the defects and not having any, but then flipping it and not being able to list everything Spielberg does right because his successes are so difficult to work out, particularly in to an easy-to-read, bullet-pointed list. Spielberg makes strange narrative choices in Close Encounters–to a point of confusion regarding the main storyline of the film… is it Richard Dreyfuss and his personal involvement or is it Francois Truffaut and his official involvement? While Dreyfuss probably has more screen time, quite a bit of that time is spent in expository scenes–introducing the UFOs to the audience, showing the experience of those affected–and then the ending is mostly told from the official point of view. But it never feels funny; Spielberg slaps the two stories together and makes it work–even after, at least for the first two-thirds of the film, it becomes clear we aren’t following Dreyfuss because he’s unique in his experience or even his dedication. Instead, we’re following Dreyfuss because there’s something… I can’t resist… important about his particular experience. It’s something to take a loving family man and remove those components and make him… I don’t know the word. Sympathetic isn’t right, heroic isn’t right. If there’s a word for undeniably correct, that one would be it.

The end of the film–I find it odd it takes place over such a short period of time… the last hour takes place over a day and the first hour probably only a few weeks (something about the readiness of the international response makes it feel like it happens every day)–doesn’t exactly belong somewhere else (it’s a natural conclusion to the story) but there’s an aesthetic beauty to it, a sense of absolute wonderment, missing from the earlier encounter scenes. By the end credits shots of the ship going through space, Spielberg overflows the viewer’s imagination. He shuts it down with too much stimuli, too much possibility–to the point, one can do nothing but sit back and let the film do its work.

Part of–I guess I’ll get to it now–Spielberg’s success, in the 1970s, in his first three films, has to do with his approach to people and how they interact with other people. Sugarland, Jaws, Close Encounters–all of them are visually distinctive in how Spielberg shoots people together at home… People spend time together and, especially in Close Encounters, that time spent is more important to the character than it is to the film. Spielberg shows us people in fantastic situations who are still regular people and it endears them quite significantly. He also has that style to the scenes, deep focus, the composition of the shots, the editing. It’s craftsmanship he seems to have forgotten.

It’s also very big–Close Encounters is very big. The ideas in it are very big and here’s the big change in Spielberg, this film being the best example. Very much like Soderbergh does today, Spielberg used to play to a hypothetical audience–and in Close Encounters, he doesn’t worry about anything. And now all he does is worry….

Have I already said glib in this post? No, it’s the first time. Yay. Close Encounters is Spielberg’s best film and, while watching it, it became acutely obvious how good a filmmaker made this film. At times it reminds of Kane and–nothing specific obviously–I never, even when he’s good or great, tend of Spielberg in those artistic terms… but with Close Encounters, I certainly do.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Steven Spielberg; director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Joe Alves; produced by Julia Phillips and Michael Phillips; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Richard Dreyfuss (Roy Neary), François Truffaut (Claude Lacombe), Teri Garr (Ronnie Neary), Melinda Dillon (Gillian Guiler), Bob Balaban (David Laughlin), J. Patrick McNamara (Project Leader), Warren J. Kemmerling (Wild Bill), Roberts Blossom (Farmer), Philip Dodds (Jean Claude), Cary Guffey (Barry Guiler), Shawn Bishop (Brad Neary), Adrienne Campbell (Sylvia Neary) and Justin Dreyfuss (Toby Neary).


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