Tag Archives: Danny Elfman

To Die For (1995, Gus Van Sant)

To Die For’s got one of those effortlessly smooth but obviously intricate narrative structures. Screenwriter Buck Henry is adapting a novel, which author Joyce Maynard structured with many different first person accounts. Van Sant and Henry and editor Curtiss Clayton keep the sense of different perspectives—including some interview sessions where someone is obviously making a documentary, maybe not even necessarily the same documentary between interviewees—but the film’s never actually first person. There’s always a narrative distance. Because To Die For only shows so much of its characters. They’re all still mysteries at the end. The film’s got a very definite, very dark sense of humor and it’s never clear just how much Van Sant and Henry are bending reality.

For example, Tim Hopper and Michael Rispoli’s almost entirely dialogue-free police detectives. They’re absurdly intense, emphasis on the absurd. Only Van Sant never plays them for laughs. They cut through the film, their absurd unreality somehow realer than what’s been going on in the film.

To Die For is about cable access weatherperson Nicole Kidman seducing a teenage boy (Joaquin Phoenix) to kill her husband (Matt Dillon). The first act of the movie covers the basic setup and then how Kidman and Dillon got together and how their families clash. Dillon’s Italian, Kidman’s a WASP. It’s quite wonderfully never clear what attracted Kidman to Dillon. Apparently she really did “go wild” for him, but then he got in the way of her career. In addition to her nightly weather duties, Kidman’s making a documentary about local teenagers, including Phoenix. Once Dillon decides it’s time for Kidman to start popping out babies—he gave her a year—well, Kidman starts having sex (apparently a lot of sex, which isn’t initially clear and adds a bunch of layers to things in hindsight) with Phoenix, the end plan being getting Phoenix to kill Dillon.

The film almost entirely shows Kidman’s planning the murder from Phoenix and Alison Folland’s perspectives. Folland is one of the other teenagers in the documentary. Kidman’s documentary, not the pseudo-documentary narrative device. Casey Affleck is the third kid. Folland just wants a friend, Phoenix is in love, Affleck is an ass. They’re all poor, all neglected or abused, all dumb. Affleck gets assigned the project (by Henry, who cameos as their school teacher), but Folland and Phoenix sign up. They’re the only two in the class who don’t see Kidman is a little too much. There’s something clearly off about her.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, that off is she’s an undiagnosed sociopath, something no one suspects—including her—because her parents have spoiled her for so long. Their pampering of Kidman hid it, which the film momentarily and brilliantly addresses when Kidman freaks out dad Kurtwood Smith, who until then seems like it’s completely aware of her peculiar personality. Kidman’s obsessed with wanting to be a newscaster, which motivates every action until she realizes she doesn’t have to be a newscaster to be famous. It’s another of the film’s awesome little character development moments, when Van Sant and Henry reveal they’ve been discreetly layering in an arc, using the pseudo-documentary structure to give it some extra kick. Sometimes for humor (not laughs, humor), sometimes just because.

There are seven concurrent narrative layers. They all take place sometime after the events. There’s Illeana Douglas (as Dillon’s sister who always knew Kidman was bad news); she’s being interview for a documentary. There’s Phoenix in prison. There’s Folland not in prison. Then there’s the parents on a daytime talk show—just the straight talk show footage—Smith and Holland Taylor as Kidman’s parents, Dan Hedaya and Maria Tucci as Dillon’s. Susan Traylor plays Kidman’s sister, who never has anything to say but always has this knowing look. There’s Wayne Knight as Kidman’s boss at the TV station. Then there are the flashbacks. And, finally, there’s Kidman narrating to the camera.

Only she’s not confessing so her material is very different. The reality she presents is very different from what we see transpire. Maybe it’s never clear with Taylor, but Smith seems to know Kidman’s guilty.

Listing the best performances in the film is basically just like listing the cast. Kidman and Phoenix are both phenomenal. And even though they have a bunch of scenes together and Kidman’s manipulating him and Phoenix is bewitched, their character arcs are entirely separate and so are their performances. They don’t have “chemistry” because it’s not possible for them to have it in those conditions. Folland’s great. Douglas is great. Knight’s great. Smith’s great. Affleck, Dillon, Hedaya, Taylor, Tucci; they’re all good. They just can’t compare. They don’t get the material, though there’s always this implicit material. Like Traylor’s looks, whatever they mean.

Good photography from Eric Alan Edwards, good production design from Missy Stewart, perfectly matched Danny Elfman score (it’s a constant, emotive, supportive but never ambitious score). To Die For’s technicals excel. Everything about it excels, especially Kidman, especially Phoenix, especially Van Sant, and especially Henry.

It’s gang busters.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Gus Van Sant; screenplay by Buck Henry, based on the novel by Joyce Maynard; director of photography, Eric Alan Edwards; edited by Curtiss Clayton; production designer, Missy Stewart; music by Danny Elfman; produced by Laura Ziskin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Nicole Kidman (Suzanne Stone), Joaquin Phoenix (Jimmy Emmett), Alison Folland (Lydia Mertz), Casey Affleck (Russel Hines), Illeana Douglas (Janice Maretto), Wayne Knight (Ed Grant), Kurtwood Smith (Earl Stone), Holland Taylor (Carol Stone), Dan Hedaya (Joe Maretto), Maria Tucci (Angela Maretto), Susan Traylor (Faye Stone), Tim Hopper (Mike Warden), Michael Rispoli (Ben DeLuca), Gerry Quigley (George), Buck Henry (Mr. H. Finlaysson), and Matt Dillon (Larry Maretto).


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Darkman (1990, Sam Raimi)

The last twenty or so minutes of Darkman are when director Raimi finally lets loose. He’s been building to it, hinting at how wacky the movie’s going to get, but it doesn’t all come together until the end. And the end is when Darkman has the most standard action sequences. There are big set pieces. Before, it’s all very constrained. It all looks great–probably better than those last twenty minutes, when composite shots kind of do in Raimi’s imagination–but it’s limited.

The end is exciting, imaginative madness.

Darkman’s problem throughout is the script, but more because the movie’s too short for the story it needs to tell than anything the five screenwriters do wrong. Until the end of the second act, the movie hops and skips through its present action. There are way too many MacGuffins, way too many contrivances; Raimi’s fidgety and he creates momentum and Darkman needs it for those script lulls. Almost nothing in the middle of the movie actually matters by the end. The movie’s killing time before the set pieces.

More so the beginning of the second act than the end of it, but still… it’s too short.

So Liam Neeson is a scientist who is working on fake skin for burn victims. It disintegrates after ninety-nine minutes. Unless it’s in the dark, which you’d think might have something to do with the title, Darkman, because after Neeson is horribly burned and the doctors cut off his nerve receptors so he can’t feel pain (or any touch sensation) and he becomes super-strong, he needs the fake skin to exact vengeance. But he never uses it for extended periods of time in the dark.

He apparently uses the dark thing for storage purposes, but even the storage thing is just a sight gag.

Neeson’s girlfriend, Frances McDormand, is a lawyer who comes across a document bad guy Larry Drake wants. And he kills Neeson for it. Or so he thinks. Drake and his band of ultra-violent, but darkly comical goons blow up Neeson’s lab. His lab is also his apartment, which seems like a zoning problem, but whatever.

Added to the convolution is Colin Friels as McDormand’s… client? It’s unclear the professional relationship, but after Neeson “dies,” Friels puts the moves on McDormand. Though mostly offscreen apparently. Because McDormand disappears once Neeson starts his vengeance mission. Most of that mission is just killing off Drake’s goons. It seems like there might have been a plan in some cut scenes or a different draft of the script. It’s okay, eventually, because once McDormand comes back, Neeson’s character arc is more about how he’s going crazy from not having any touch sensation. And inventively and graphically killing the bad guys.

The visuals on Neeson losing his self-control are these fantastic montage sequences. There’s some montage to summarize his attempts at making his fake skin work too, but it’s function, not fervent. The madness montages are awesome. Inexplicably the last one, when Neeson needs to power up his adrenalin (he also has uncontrollable adrenalin for super-Darkman strength), is super short. It’s restrained, while everything else in the finale is outrageous. Raimi’s able to get away with a lot of bad composite shots just because the action’s so excessive. Not that montage, however.

But Neeson’s not just making fake skin faces of himself, he’s doing it of the bad guys to fool the other bad guys. So while Neeson’s performance is getting loopier and loopier, it only plays out when he’s opposite McDormand, which really isn’t much. They have three scenes together after she finds out he’s alive. Two of them really short. Otherwise, it’s Drake pretending he’s Neeson pretending his Drake or Nicholas Worth pretending he’s Neeson pretending he’s Nicholas Worth. There’s actually not a lot of the impersonation so Raimi never really figures out how to do them. The movie’s too short.

The movie dawdles through its first half, finally picking up in the second, and then getting really good in the finale. Only it’s too late. It’s not too little–there’s some awesome stuff in the third act–but it’s definitely too late.

Neeson’s good. He needs about ten more minutes to play the character after the “recovery” arc completes. Instead he basically gets a scene; it’s too bad, because his performance gets much more interesting as it goes along. McDormand’s fine. Her arc is similarly underwhelming. She does get a great visual cue for development in the first act, which Raimi sadly drops. The film’s not confident enough with his extravagances. Or more like the studio isn’t confident enough with his extravagances.

Drake’s good. He’s maybe in the movie too much. Friels’s isn’t in it enough, especially not after he gets to let loose. Friels and Neeson, who only have a scene together, both find ways to match the film’s peculiar intensities.

The goons are all fine. Though Rafael H. Robledo is in the film the most and has the least to do. Like, he’s just a goon. He’s not weird like the rest of them. He’s just got a scar and a ponytail.

Bill Pope’s photography, composites aside, is excellent. So is the editing–from Bud S. Smith and David Stiven.

Danny Elfman’s score is fine. It’s basically his Batman score from the year before, but it’s fine. It’s effective without being distinctive.

Darkman is seventy exceptionally competent, enthusiastic minutes before twenty minutes of sublime madness. It’s a shame Raimi couldn’t get the finale’s intensity through the whole thing. There are plenty of real, practical reasons he couldn’t, but he does hint at that intensity to come, so it’s still a damned shame.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Raimi; screenplay by Chuck Pfarrer, Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi, Daniel Goldin, and Joshua Goldin, based on a story by Sam Raimi; director of photography, Bill Pope; edited by Bud S. Smith and David Stiven; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Randy Ser; produced by Rob Tapert; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Liam Neeson (Peyton Westlake), Frances McDormand (Julie Hastings), Larry Drake (Robert G. Durant), Colin Friels (Louis Strack Jr.), Rafael H. Robledo (Rudy Guzman), Dan Bell (Smiley), Nicholas Worth (Pauly), Dan Hicks (Skip), Ted Raimi (Rick), Nelson Mashita (Yakitito), and Jenny Agutter (doctor).


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Summer School (1987, Carl Reiner)

There’s an almost magical competency to Summer School. It starts with the opening titles, which are expertly edited to showcase the eventual primary cast members. Not the adults–outside lead Mark Harmon–rather the students. There’s no audible dialogue, just a rock song playing, but there’s enough performance from the actors to give personality to their characters before they get introduced. It’s a magical competency because it’s not just Bud Molin’s editing or Reiner’s direction of the actors or Jeff Franklin’s screenplay–it’s unclear whose idea it was to go with this efficient introduction–but it prepares the viewer for what’s to come. It encourages sympathy to this cast of characters, something the film builds on for quite a while.

Molin’s editing is strong throughout the film, so I guess I’ll talk about he and Reiner first. There’s no gloss to Summer School. Reiner’s most complicated sequence, outside a gore scene where he relies heavily on the effects and Molin, is probably a fender bender. And most of it’s off screen. Instead, Reiner just showcases the actors. None of them are particularly great, but everyone’s likable. Even when their performances are a little thin–admittedly, Richard Steven Horvitz and Fabiana Udenio don’t exactly have the deepest characters–they’re still extremely affable, which is partly due to Franklin’s screenplay.

Summer School has five or six distinct sections. It follows a traditional three act narrative, but Franklin splits those acts. There’s the opening introduction to Harmon, where his gym teacher gets stuck teaching a remedial English class, where he meets Kirstie Alley, where he meets the class of misfits. That section segues into the goofball comedy aspect of the film, where they have madcap misadventures, before moving into the second act where things start to get a little more serious academically. As things get serious academically, then the screenplay treats the students more seriously personally. The film could have a completely natural structure–a six week summer school session with an exam at the end, but it isn’t until late into the second act when the exam becomes important to the narrative. It’s extremely well-plotted and Reiner has a handle on how to pace it all out.

Harmon’s more likable than good. He’s charming and endearing and really spry. It’s impossible to imagine the film without such a physical lead, even though that physicality isn’t necessary to the part. It’s an enthusiasm. Alley’s good as his love interest. She doesn’t have a lot to do but they have enough chemistry to get it through. Robin Thomas is a fantastic vice principal villain (and Alley’s boyfriend).

Of the students, Kelly Jo Minter and Shawnee Smith probably give the best performances. Courtney Thorne-Smith gets the most to do and she’s adequate. No one gets exactly enough because there’s not room in the film for it; they just need to be funny and likable. Dean Cameron and Gary Riley, for example, are funnier than they are good. Patrick Labyorteaux’s sturdy, ditto Ken Olandt.

There are some third act problems when Thomas becomes less of a goof villain and more of a threat, but the film brings it together for the finish. There’s also a strong Danny Elfman score.

Summer School doesn’t worry about being smart, it’s just smartly constructed.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Carl Reiner; screenplay by Jeff Franklin, based on a story by Stuart Birnbaum, David Dashev and Franklin; director of photography, David M. Walsh; edited by Bud Molin; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, David L. Snyder; produced by Franklin, George Shapiro and Howard West; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Mark Harmon (Freddy Shoop), Kirstie Alley (Robin Bishop), Robin Thomas (Gills), Patrick Labyorteaux (Kevin Winchester), Courtney Thorne-Smith (Pam House), Dean Cameron (Francis ‘Chainsaw’ Gremp), Gary Riley (Dave Frazier), Kelly Jo Minter (Denise Green), Ken Olandt (Larry Kazamias), Shawnee Smith (Rhonda Altobello), Richard Steven Horvitz (Alan Eakian), Fabiana Udenio (Anna-Maria Mazarelli), Duane Davis (Jerome Watkins) and Francis X. McCarthy (Principal Kelban).


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Batman Returns (1992, Tim Burton)

Batman Returns is one of those films I always hope will end a little differently. Tim Burton gets such wonderful performances out of Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer, their penultimate scene always has this glimmer of a different outcome. There’s so much energy between the two actors, such rich characters, it’s tragically unfair they don’t make it.

Keaton and Pfeiffer–actually, more Pfeiffer and Keaton–take up a quarter of Returns’s glorious mess. Burton and screenwriter Daniel Waters don’t have a natural way to tie all of the film’s plots together and they don’t bother trying to find one. Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is the connective tissue, in a lot of ways, to the villains, Christopher Walken and Danny DeVito. Keaton’s Batman just gets thrown in the mix from time to time. Trying to imagine a plot chart for Batman Returns… I think of spaghetti.

But, like I said, Burton doesn’t try to fix that problem. He just makes it the best spaghetti he can. For every plot problem, there’s some amazing visual or wonderful little moment or maybe just DeVito. DeVito’s performance is spellbinding. He creates a villain who’s without humanity and the lack is part of his performance’s appeal. It’s funny.

Great performances, wonderful music from Danny Elfman, beautiful Stefan Czapsky photography, Bo Welch’s amazing production design.

Burton creates a space for these grotesque, complicated, beautiful characters to play with one another. He loves them and doesn’t care if the viewer doesn’t.

Batman Returns is a singular motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Tim Burton; screenplay by Daniel Waters, based on a story by Waters and Sam Hamm and characters created by Bob Kane; director of photography, Stefan Czapsky; edited by Chris Lebenzon; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Bo Welch; produced by Burton and Denise Di Novi; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Michael Keaton (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Danny DeVito (Penguin / Oswald Cobblepot), Michelle Pfeiffer (Catwoman / Selina Kyle), Christopher Walken (Max Shreck), Michael Gough (Alfred Pennyworth), Pat Hingle (Commissioner James Gordon), Michael Murphy (The Mayor), Vincent Schiavelli (Organ Grinder), Andrew Bryniarski (Chip Shreck) and Cristi Conaway (Ice Princess).


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