Tag Archives: Christopher McDonald

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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SLC Punk! (1998, James Merendino)

SLC Punk! is controlled chaos. Or chaotic control. Director Merendino is incredibly careful about everything–how he uses crane shots to open up the low budgeted film, how he and Esther P. Russell cut scenes, which flashback footage goes where, how protagonist Matthew Lillard’s narration works (hint: it’s in an Austenian sense), how the film fits together. SLC runs just over ninety minutes and the first twenty-five of them are precisely layered flashbacks and flash forwards. Merendino’s meticulous.

But the secret of SLC Punk! isn’t how its not really an extreme comedy or how its Jane Austen with eighties punks, it’s the film’s sincerity. Merendino structures the film–and Lillard’s character and performance–to force an investment and an interest from the viewer. SLC isn’t a passive viewing experience; it isn’t set up to function as one.

The film gets serious once Merendino runs out of fast jokes–not even cheap ones, just fast ones. At the same time, Lillard gets serious too, only since he’s narrating in the past tense, Merendino’s forcing an examination of the previous (comedically played) events. The film’s final flashback, ostensibly promising the great reveal, instead just further shows Merendino’s sincerity and his dedication to it.

Great performances all over–Lillard, Michael A. Goorjian as his best friend and alter ego, then Jason Segel, Adam Pascal, Til Schweiger as their sidekicks. Merendino’s enthusiastic about the actors and in how he showcases them.

SLC Punk! is excellent. Merendino, Lillard and Goorjian do outstanding work.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by James Merendino; director of photography, Greg Littlewood; edited by Esther P. Russell; production designer, Charlotte Malmlöf; produced by Sam Maydew and Peter Ward; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Matthew Lillard (Stevo), Michael A. Goorjian (Bob), Annabeth Gish (Trish), Jennifer Lien (Sandy), Jason Segel (Mike), Adam Pascal (Eddie), Til Schweiger (Mark), James Duval (John the Mod), Devon Sawa (Sean), Summer Phoenix (Brandy) and Christopher McDonald (Stevo’s Dad).


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Quiz Show (1994, Robert Redford)

Quiz Show is a story about pride and envy. The film’s main plot is about the quiz show scandals in the fifties–big media taking the American public for a ride–and I suppose it could be seen as a loss of innocence thing. But it isn’t.

It’s about pride and envy.

John Turturro’s working class Jewish guy doesn’t have much pride (though he’s gloriously proud of it) and he’s got lots of envy. But not so much for the WASPs, but for more successful Jewish guys. So Rob Morrow’s middle class Jewish guy. Morrow’s character has pride and envy; in this case, it’s envy for the WASPs. Like Ralph Fiennes, who’s got not so much pride but envy. In his case, it’s for his dad–Paul Scofield in a wonderful performance.

There’s a lot about class, there’s a lot about masculinity (the women get what’s going on and try to get their husbands to recognize it to disappointment), there’s a lot about the time period. And screenwriter Paul Attanasio brings it all together beautifully. Quiz Show has an incredibly complex structure, something director Redford and editor Stu Linder fully embrace. Even in its stillest moments, the film is always in motion.

Gorgeous Michael Ballhaus photography too.

The leads–Turturro, Morrow and Fiennes–are all excellent. Nice support from David Paymer, Hank Azaria and Allan Rich. Ditto Johann Carlo and Mira Sorvino. Redford’s use of prominent actors and filmmakers in cameo roles works great.

Quiz Show is a phenomenal film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Redford; screenplay by Paul Attanasio, based on a book by Richard N. Goodwin; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Stu Linder; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Jon Hutman; produced by Michael Jacobs, Julian Krainin, Michael Nozik and Redford; released by Hollywood Pictures.

Starring John Turturro (Herbie Stempel), Rob Morrow (Dick Goodwin), Ralph Fiennes (Charles Van Doren), David Paymer (Dan Enright), Christopher McDonald (Jack Barry), Elizabeth Wilson (Dorothy Van Doren), Paul Scofield (Mark Van Doren), Hank Azaria (Albert Freedman), Mira Sorvino (Sandra Goodwin), Johann Carlo (Toby Stempel) and Allan Rich (Robert Kintner).


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Magicians (2000, James Merendino)

Supposedly, Magicians came out on DVD (pan and scanned), then disappeared as the releasing company went under. Merendino shot it Panavision, so there was some painful cropping. It’s still possible to see some of what Merendino was doing, but sometimes I just had to imagine how much more effective it would be. Merendino’s a filmmaker who does more with his money than John Carpenter did back in the late 1970s, which is an incredible feat. Merendino knows how to make things work and if I weren’t aware of that ability, I wouldn’t have been looking for the signs and I wouldn’t have found them.

Much of Magicians is an absurd comedy about a great pick-pocket, played by Fabrizio Bentivoglio, and a lousy magician, played by Til Schweiger. They go on the road to Vegas, learning their act on the way, assisted by trainer Alan Arkin and Claire Forlani. Maybe what won me over (not really, it happened to far in) was the scene where all of them are laughing. It’s obvious the actors are laughing, mostly at Arkin, who’s hilarious. Bentivoglio has the leading man role and he does a great job with it. Merendino loves conversation and Bentivoglio has some great scenes because of that emphasis. As for Claire Forlani… her work in Magicians made me reevaluate my opinion of her. I kept stopping myself, realizing it was really Claire Forlani (she has short hair instead of the regular long–and her acting is good). Only Schweiger is bad. He’s funny at the beginning, but he gets old fast. Even though Magicians is absurd, his handle on the character is just too loose. And his uncanny resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio only makes things worse. The character does have a great scene at the beginning–before it’s revealed he’s a bit of a twit, which Schweiger can’t handle–and one towards the end, when he has to stop acting like a twit.

Merendino’s script is deceptively simple. It’s inventive and intelligent, giving perfect little moments to characters–Arkin in particular. When it gets to the end, after some really funny scenes and some great low budget filmmaking, Magicians has developed into a touching story about friendship. Then, for the close–which is great–it finally becomes about magic. And wonderment. It’s a great close. It’s appalling this film doesn’t have an acceptable DVD release.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by James Merendino; director of photography, Thomas L. Callaway; edited by Esther P. Russell; music by Elmo Weber; produced by Sam Maydew and Peter Ward; released by Pop Art Films.

Starring Til Schweiger (Max), Claire Forlani (Lydia), Fabrizio Bentivoglio (Hugo), Alan Arkin (Milo), Chi McBride (Tom) and Christopher McDonald (Jake).


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