Tag Archives: Gramercy Pictures

King of the Hill (1993, Steven Soderbergh)

Two major things about Soderbergh’s approach to a memoir adaptation. They’re somewhat connected, so I might not manage to separate them out. King of the Hill has no frame, it has no narration. It has no context. It does not feel, at all, like a “true” story because there’s no attempt to classify itself as a true story. It drops the viewer right in, gives he or she a subtitle notating the setting and time and nothing else. Soderbergh creates, at times, a stylistic euphoria–starts right at the beginning doing it even, maybe the third or fourth scene–and the approach makes King of the Hill different. Even though it’s based on a memoir, by never involving “reality,” Soderbergh makes the plot’s conclusion unsure. Anything could happen.

As innocuous as the story might sometimes get–since Jesse Bradford’s protagonist is so self-sufficient it’s hard to remember he’s thirteen–Soderbergh infuses the film with a constant danger. Sometimes the danger is age-appropriate, sometimes it’s a lot bigger. Around the midway point, I had to remind myself Soderbergh was not telling a story about his youth. I had to remind myself Soderbergh wasn’t alive during the film’s time period, it wasn’t based on his childhood–the film envelops the viewer. Soderbergh immediately establishes his characters and then everything else is experienced at Bradford’s pace. Characters enter and leave the story, with the entire story through Bradford’s perspective. The viewer occasionally gets other things, very brief glimpses from other character’s perspectives, but the whole show is Bradford, which might be why he’s never been able to follow it up.

The other performances are excellent too, with Adrien Brody in the film’s flashiest role. Soderbergh’s cinematic storytelling here is accomplished, there’s no other word. He incites the viewer to figure things out by a character’s presence, not to be cute, but because a successful King of the Hill viewer is a participatory viewer. It might by with the film did so terribly. Also good are Cameron Boyd as Bradford’s brother; Amber Benson as his friend–I find I’m not enumerating the adults as much, which is because of the way the film portrays them. It’s difficult to put them, having just watched the film, in an easy to discuss context. Spalding Gray is quite good in his small part as is Kristin Griffith in her two scenes.

The film’s character relationships are complicated and hard to unravel. Soderbergh manages moments of severe gravity with silence from the characters and Cliff Martinez’s delicate score. Martinez and Soderbergh seem to take some of the tone–and the music’s effect on the tone–from Badlands, which is an odd influence for a movie about a kid–King of the Hill is not a kid’s movie at all. It isn’t a feel good movie. It’s a sometimes unsettling film about survival and self-sufficience. Without ever using the word “depression,” Soderbergh has made one of the best films about the Great Depression.

It’s kind of like Maugham with kids (and in America and during the Great Depression).

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed and edited by Steven Soderbergh; screenplay by Soderbergh, based on a memoir by A.E. Hotchner; director of photography, Elliot Davis; music by Cliff Martinez; production designer, Gary Frutkoff; produced by Albert Berger, Barbara Maltby and Ron Yerxa; released by Gramercy Pictures.

Starring Jesse Bradford (Aaron), Jeroen Krabbé (Mr. Kurlander), Lisa Eichhorn (Mrs. Kurlander), Karen Allen (Miss Mathey), Spalding Gray (Mr. Mungo), Elizabeth McGovern (Lydia), Cameron Boyd (Sullivan Kurlander), Adrien Brody (Lester Silverstone), Joe Chrest (Ben), John McConnell (‘Big Butt’ Burns), Amber Benson (Ella McShane), Kristin Griffith (Mrs. McShane), Chris Samples (Billy Thompson), Peggy Freisen (Mrs. Thompson), Katherine Heigl (Christina Sebastian) and John Durbin (Mr. Sandoz).


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A Good Man in Africa (1994, Bruce Beresford)

A Good Man in Africa is about the British practicing a modified form of the age-old British diplomacy in Africa (duh) in modernity. As such, when I saw John Lithgow’s name in the credits, I did not expect him to be playing a Brit. However, Lithgow does play one and he does so quite poorly. Lithgow doesn’t really create a character in Good Man, he just creates a posture. He’s annoying but not really in the film often enough to hurt it. Unfortunately, the film’s made with the same approach. Colin Friels’s philandering, hard-drinking assistant to the diplomat (Lithgow) is not a likable character, certainly not one the audience can identify with. Friels’s performance is likable–and good–but it’s a losing battle. Watching A Good Man in Africa is like watching a long, drawn-out error. It misfires immediately and never recovers, nor makes any attempt to do so.

The film’s based on a novel and the novelist wrote the film. I’m not a fan of such behavior because it usually doesn’t work right. I have no idea if A Good Man in Africa is a good novel, but after seeing the movie, I’ll never know. The film toys with having Friels narrate it, but appears to have inserted that narration as an afterthought. If it were going the whole way through, it might work better. Friels is barely the film’s protagonist, since all of the scenes are about other people.

As for the other people, while Lithgow is easily the worst, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer is pretty awful too. The titular Good Man is actually Sean Connery, who gives a better performance than usual, but again, it’s certainly not anything of note. The film’s most underused resource was Diana Rigg and I spent the last act wishing she and Friels would run off together so I’d at least get to see fifteen minutes of good acting and chemistry.

I only watch Good Man because of Friels and knew, given Bruce Beresford directed it, the film would be severely lacking. Maybe that lack of any expectation dulled me to the film’s more obvious deficiencies. Or maybe they were just too dull to care about.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Bruce Beresford; screenplay by William Boyd, based on his novel; director of photography, Andrezj Bartkowiak; edited by Jim Clark; music by John du Prez; production designer, Herbert Pinter; produced by John Fiedler and Mark Tarlov; released by Gramercy Pictures.

Starring Colin Friels (Leafy), Sean Connery (Murray), John Lithgow (Fanshawe), Diana Rigg (Chloe Fanshawe), Sarah-Jane Fenton (Priscilla Fanshawe), Louis Gossett Jr. (Adekunle), Maynard Eziashi (Friday) and Joanne Whalley (Celia).


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Mallrats (1995, Kevin Smith), the extended version

Of all my youthful indiscretions, I think my affection for Kevin Smith is–today–the most embarrassing, simply because it perplexes me. I watch Mallrats and I don’t get how I could have watched and liked this film multiple times. By 2000 or so, I didn’t. But from 1996 to 1999, I must have watched this film six or seven times and thought it was good. Even the things I thought were good about–things I thought I would still think were good about it (namely, Jason Lee)–they aren’t good. He isn’t good. He’s bad. His acting is bad. All of the acting is bad. Jeremy London is worse than Lee and I am a little surprised Shannen Doherty is so much better than Claire Forlani, but I just can’t believe I sat and watched this movie.

I rented the ten year anniversary edition because it finally has the original cut. On the original DVD, there are deleted scenes and a lot of talk about the longer version, and it has been a while since I’ve Mallrats. I thought maybe I was wrong. No, I didn’t. I thought at the least, I’d laugh. But it’s not funny. Maybe Kevin Smith’s Mallrats style has so saturated modern Hollywood film I can’t appreciate it for the constant… no, I lost the thought it was so silly. Essentially, the longer edition makes the film more about Jeremy London, which is not a good idea, because it means Claire Forlani is in more scenes and Michael Rooker is more scenes. The film finally gets to the mall at the thirty-five minute mark, after the first act, making the title a little perplexing. The additional footage probably makes the film better, because it gets worse when they get to the mall. Smith isn’t in his element anywhere in this film–I kept thinking about Clerks’ tight opening and the lack of one in Mallrats, theatrical or extended versions.

Mallrats is an incredibly influential film–it created the expectations of a significant portion of a filmgoing generation. This film was a big video hit and, though the general “fanboy” public has abandoned him, Smith tapped something the audience desired in Mallrats. The film is not good, the characters are not good–the dialogue is stagy and bad and a high school drama class could do better–but it connected. It’s filled with pop culture references and bad dirty jokes and people (unfortunately, mostly of my age group) wanted this experience. And they didn’t grow out of it because Mallrats isn’t about actual film reference, like Tarantino’s films. It’s about faking it.

I realize Mallrats doesn’t deserve all this vitriol (the audience’s reaction is offensive, not the film itself; the film is just awful), but I really didn’t know how bad a film it truly is… and, of course, I’m only angry at myself because I was a member of said audience.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kevin Smith; director of photography, David Klein; edited by Paul Dixon; music by Ira Newborn; production designer, Dina Lipton; produced by Sean Daniel, James Jacks and Scott Mosier; released by Gramercy Pictures.

Starring Shannen Doherty (Rene Mosier), Jeremy London (T.S. Quint), Jason Lee (Brodie Bruce), Claire Forlani (Brandi Svenning), Ben Affleck (Shannon Hamilton), Joey Lauren Adams (Gwen Turner), Renée Humphrey (Tricia Jones), Jason Mewes (Jay), Ethan Suplee (Willam Black), Stan Lee (Himself), Priscilla Barnes (Miss Ivannah) and Michael Rooker (Mr. Jared Svenning).


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Cold Comfort Farm (1995, John Schlesinger)

Do the Brits have any major film movement? In the 1920s, the Germans had the expressionist movement. In the (what?) 1960s, there was the French New Wave. In addition to contributing more Greenhouse Effect-causing pollutants to the atmosphere, the United States has perfected the over-produced blockbuster. The British, however, have never really had a movement. There are some great (and good) British filmmakers, but the Archers never caused a revolution…

Cold Comfort Farm has no distinct style. It’s inoffensively directed, with a poor narrative structure, and some decent performances. It might be–obviously silly ones aside–Kate Beckinsale’s worst performance, because her character is as flat as an LCD screen. Rufus Sewell (whatever happened to him?) turns up with a similarly depth-less character. On the other hand, Ian McKellen has a lot of fun with his character. I always find it amusing when Ian McKellen’s good, since he’s since become such a ham (thanks, in no small part, to Bryan Singer).

So, while British cinema seems to lack any spectacular definition, Britain itself certainly contains quite a bit. There’s something charming about the British countryside, it’s a very definite setting and very obvious. Batman Begins used a British manor for an American mansion, something quite impossible. See, I’m even using words like “quite” and “definite.” That’s a bit of the problem with Cold Comfort Farm, it tries really damn hard to be charming. Even the theme. I listen to the theme and think, how charming. But that’s because of the theme, not because it’s the Cold Comfort Farm music.

Beckinsale improves (somewhat) throughout the picture, but she’s miscast. There’s no mischievousness, not even the hint of it, and the character needs some. Without it, she’s boring (and wholly unaffected by the momentous changes–though for good–she’s causing in people’s lives).

In the end, Cold Comfort left a defining plot thread undefined, something that gets it brownie points, but not enough to really change my opinion of it. Damn nice music though and British countryside. Shame about their cinematic output.

I realized, during the film, Britain’s best efforts seem to be in television, not film. Makes you wonder what PBS could do if nitwits weren’t trying to kneecap it.

Still, Cold Comfort is one of the last undefined films… Made in 1995, I don’t watch and think about that production date, something hard to do with current film output. Hmm. Maybe not “one of the last,” but certainly a fine example of an undated film.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by John Schlesinger; written by Malcolm Bradbury, based on the novel by Stella Gibbons; director of photography, Chris Seager; edited by Mark Day; music by Robert Lockhart; production designer, Malcolm Thornton; produced by Richard Broke and Antony Root; released by Gramercy Pictures.

Starring Kate Beckinsale (Flora Poste), Joanna Lumley (Mrs. Smiling), Rufus Sewell (Seth), Ian McKellen (Amos Starkadder), Stephen Fry (Mybug), Eileen Atkins (Judith Starkadder), Sheila Burrell (Ada Doom), Freddie Jones (Adam Lambsbreath) and Maria Miles (Elfine).