Tag Archives: Holland Taylor

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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Perry Mason Returns (1985, Ron Satlof)

The most impressive technical contribution to Perry Mason Returns has to be Dick DeBenedictis’s music. He lifts thriller style music, some horror, some whatever, then applies it to this somewhat bland TV movie. Albert J. Dunk’s photography is too muted and director Satlof, though very capable of setting up sequences, is mediocre (at best) at the talking heads and he doesn’t do the courtroom scene.

It’s Perry Mason Returns. Raymond Burr barely does anything for the first hour of the movie except be a jerk to William Katt for being not being miserable and consoles Barbara Hale. Hale’s on trial for murder. Hence the importance of a well-directed courtroom sequence. But Satlof tanks it. Dean Hargrove’s teleplay isn’t exactly outstanding, but the reveal is fairly solid. Satlof tanks it. The entire finale is a disaster. While Burr stalls in court, Katt has to reason with evil rednecks.

There’s some solid acting–Kerrie Keane, Holland Taylor, James Kidnie. There’s some not so solid acting. It’s a TV movie. Burr and Hale are likable. Katt’s sort of a dork, but Hale seems to like him so why not give him a chance, wasn’t he in Carrie? But Burr and Hale have undeniable chemistry and Burr’s best scenes are his moments with her. He’s the title character and he barely figures into the narrative. It’s the last scene before he finally shows some personality. Satlof’s inept direction of Burr’s scenes hurt Burr’s performance.

It’s a really lazy script though. Katt doesn’t even do the private investigator bit, he just inexplicably annoys cop Paul Hubbard into doing all the work. Katt’s probably got the most screen time in the movie too; it’s boring Glen A. Larson TV show p.i. action. Katt’s maybe likable as a sidekick to patient and older Burr and Hale, not as a lead. He’s not unlikable, but he’s clearly out of his depth. Because dumb writing and bad direction.

Still, it’s a good reveal, the principals are likable, Keane’s good, Taylor’s good. It’s just a poorly directed Perry Mason TV movie, it doesn’t have to do much but divert.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Satlof; teleplay by Dean Hargrove, based on characters created by Erle Stanley Gardner; director of photography, Albert J. Dunk; edited by Edwin F. England and Robert L. Kimble; music by Dick DeBenedictis; produced by Barry Steinberg; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Raymond Burr (Perry Mason), Barbara Hale (Della Street), William Katt (Paul Drake Jr.), Patrick O’Neal (Arthur Gordon), Holland Taylor (Paula Gordon), James Kidnie (Bobby Lynch), Richard Anderson (Ken Braddock), Kerrie Keane (Kathryn Gordon), David McIlwraith (David Gordon), Roberta Weiss (Laura Gordon), Lindsay Merrithew (Chris), Al Freeman Jr. (Lt. Cooper), Paul Hubbard (Sgt. Stratton), Cassie Yates (Barbara Scott), Kathleen Laskey (Luanne) and Charles Macaulay (Judge Whitewood).


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The Jewel of the Nile (1985, Lewis Teague)

If there’s a better example of why not every successful film should have a sequel than The Jewel of the Nile, I can’t think of it.

Nile should be a lot of fun–Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner are still likable, Danny DeVito’s still hilarious… but it soon becomes clear Douglas and Turner are more likable apart. Her character has completely changed, while his changes might just be seen as character development. Might.

Screenwriters Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner don’t really have a story for the duo, so they flop their way into one. There’s a lot of resolution to the previous film’s ending, which seems like a waste of run time. The first twenty minutes of Nile could be done in three lines of good expository dialogue.

The film does have some decent action, thanks to too much money, a fine workman director in Teague and great Jan de Bont photography. The Jack Nitzsche score is iffy, but Peter Boita and Michael Ellis’s editing is sublime. It never gets boring, even when the action scenes are clearly padded out. There’s just too much technical competence.

Nile does rely a lot on racial stereotypes. The filmmakers seem to think they’re being respectful, but it’s still uncomfortably exploitative.

One of the script’s biggest mistakes is to give DeVito his own storyline. He’d have been funnier with Douglas and Turner, who instead accompany Avner Eisenberg. Eisenberg is no DeVito.

It’s also too bad Douglas can’t feign interest. He produced it after all.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Lewis Teague; screenplay by Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner, based on characters created by Diane Thomas; director of photography, Jan de Bont; edited by Peter Boita and Michael Ellis; music by Jack Nitzsche; production designers, Richard Dawking and Terry Knight; produced by Michael Douglas; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Michael Douglas (Jack Colton), Kathleen Turner (Joan Wilder), Danny DeVito (Ralph), Spiros Focás (Omar), Avner Eisenberg (Al-Julhara), Paul David Magid (Tarak), Hamid Fillali (Rachid) and Holland Taylor (Gloria).


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Romancing the Stone (1984, Robert Zemeckis)

So much of Romancing the Stone is perfect, when the film has bumps, they stand out. Even worse, it closes on one of those bumps. The finale is so poorly handled, one has to wonder if it’s the result of a rewrite.

Anyway, on to the glowing stuff.

The film’s a technical marvel. Zemeckis’s Panavision composition juggles the story’s action, its character moments and the beautiful scenery. Plus, he’s got Dean Cundey shooting the film. It’s stunning to watch; there’s not a single unrewarding shot.

But Zemeckis also gets how to integrate the humor. Even when the characters are in danger–for example, when villain Manuel Ojeda is fighting with protagonist Kathleen Turner–Zemeckis finds the right mix to make the threat viable yet comical side situations appropriate.

The same balance works for Danny DeVito and Zach Norman, who are also villains (Norman’s even scary sometimes), but they’re always hilarious. DeVito’s role in the film is just to give the audience something else to enjoy. Stone is big on its amusement value, starting in its first few moments with a good joke.

Turner’s excellent in the lead, though at some point her character arc about coming out of her shell thanks to Michael Douglas’s vaguely criminal, but still swashbuckling expat, falls through. It’s like a scene or three are missing.

Douglas has a lot of fun. DeVito’s hilarious. In small roles, both Alfonso Arau and Holland Taylor are outstanding. Especially Arau.

Plus, Alan Silvestri’s score’s infectious.

Stone‘s a great vacation.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Zemeckis; written by Diane Thomas; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Donn Cambern and Frank Morriss; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Lawrence G. Paull; produced by Michael Douglas; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Michael Douglas (Jack T. Colton), Kathleen Turner (Joan Wilder), Danny DeVito (Ralph), Zack Norman (Ira), Alfonso Arau (Juan), Manuel Ojeda (Zolo), Holland Taylor (Gloria), Mary Ellen Trainor (Elaine) and Eve Smith (Mrs. Irwin).


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