Tag Archives: Holly Hunter

Raising Arizona (1987, Joel Coen)

Halfway through Raising Arizona is this breathtaking chase sequence. Until this point in the film, while there’s been a lot of phenomenal direction, it’s all been brief. Raising Arizona starts in summary, with lead Nicolas Cage narrating, and it doesn’t start slowing down the narrative pace until just before the chase sequence. But then the chase happens and it’s amazing and Arizona seems poised to just keep going with that precise, outrageous filmmaking.

Then it doesn’t. Instead it gets lost in its supporting cast for a while before getting back on track, which is too bad. But there had been warning signs–like the film never really giving Holly Hunter reasonable character motivation, instead letting Cage’s narration–and charm–sell their romance. Though, at the halfway point, it certainly doesn’t seem like Hunter and Cage are going to get the narrative shaft for supporting cast members John Goodman and William Forsythe. Yet they do.

It’s during Goodman and Forsythe’s tedious time in the spotlight one has time to reflect on just how few of its promises the film has fulfilled.

The starting narration is long. Arizona runs about ninety minutes (without end credits) and it’s got a long, narrated opening summary sequence, then the lengthy chase sequence right in the middle. And then a substantial “epilogue” but more wrap-up.

Cage is front and center, literally–he’s getting his mug shot taken–right at the start. Hunter is taking his mug shot. He robs convenience stores (without bullets so it’s not armed robbery). She’s a cop. They fall in love. Without her saying very much. It’s all from Cage’s perspective, which is great. He’s a lovable, well-meaning recidivist. Right from the start, Cage’s performance is amazing. His narration and his regular performance. It’s all amazing.

No one else is amazing. There are some other excellent performances, some quite good ones, no bad ones, but nothing compares to Cage’s. So it’s really too bad the Coen Brothers’ script gives him so little to do in the second half of the film. Better than Hunter, of course, who doesn’t really get to show any personality until the prelude to the chase sequence–and then barely anything the rest of the film. And that epilogue demotes her importance, which she’s sort of been clawing to get.

Cage and Hunter get married. In the narrated summary. Cage has been in and out of prison, but he settles down once they’re married. Hunter wants kids. Only she can’t. It’s not a story arc for her. It’s a plot detail in Cage’s story. Hunter becomes scenery for a while until they hear about some quintuplets and decide to kidnap one. This decision isn’t discussed in any scenes, it’s all covered in Cage’s narration. Because apparently the Coen Brothers couldn’t figure out a way to get Hunter to go from cop to kidnapper in scene.

Cage–and the film–can cover it. It’s shocking how much it can cover, which just makes it even more shocking when it no longer can cover. Even though Goodman and Forsythe give fine performances, it’s stunning how much lost the film gets in the weeds with them.

See, once they kidnap a baby–from unpainted furniture king Trey Wilson (who’s fantastic) and his wife, Lynne Kitei (who gets a scene and a quarter)–Goodman and Forsythe break out of jail and visit old buddy Cage. They need a place to lie low, unaware there’s a bounty hunter (Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb) after them.

Pretty soon Cobb sees the news about the kidnapped baby and decides to go after it too.

Then there’s a throwaway subplot involving Frances McDormand and Sam McMurray as a couple Hunter wants to be friends with. It’s a contrived, connective subplot, just there to move things around and to be funny. There’s some gorgeous photography from Barry Sonnenfeld during that sequence; the photography’s always good, always great, but the couples picnic sequence is about the only time Sonnenfeld gets to shoot exteriors during the day. It’s also a place where Hunter could get some material.

She doesn’t. Instead, the Coen Brothers focus on McMurray’s dipshit, who’s Cage’s boss; that detail comes out of the blue, since the only person Cage is ever working with is M. Emmet Walsh in a two scene cameo.

Eventually everyone wants the baby. The script uses it as punchline, not actual character motivation. It’s during that weedy period in the runtime when it doesn’t seem like Arizona is ever going to get back on track.

It does, finally, because it puts Cage and Hunter together in scenes and as a team. Despite the film being all about their whirlwind, glorious romance, they don’t get to establish actual chemistry–between the actors, not chemistry created through editing–until the third act. Way too late.

But then there’s this great action showdown in the third act, with a small but excellent chase scene, and director Coen, cinematographer, Sonnenfeld, and editor Michael R. Miller work some magic. Not as magical as the chase sequence, but magic enough to find the movie in the weeds and get it out onto the road again.

There’s some great writing. But most of it is in the first act. Wilson ends up with better scenes than anyone else in the second half. The movie doesn’t just sacrifice Hunter for Goodman and Forsythe, it eventually sacrifices Cage.

Great music from Carter Burwell. The whole thing is technically marvelous. It just doesn’t have anywhere near enough plot for the story it says it’s going to be telling. Even if the Goodman and Forsythe stuff were good, there’s not enough of it.

Raising Arizona has got plenty of problems, but it’s still a fairly thrilling success. You just have to wait through a lot of second half of the second act lag. But the filmmakers do come through. It just doesn’t make any sense why they don’t for a while.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Coen; written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; director of photography, Barry Sonnenfeld; edited by Michael R. Miller; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Jane Musky; produced by Ethan Coen; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Nicolas Cage (H.I. McDunnough), Holly Hunter (Ed), John Goodman (Gale), William Forsythe (Evelle), Trey Wilson (Nathan Arizona Sr.), Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb (Leonard Smalls), Sam McMurray (Glen), Frances McDormand (Dot), Lynne Kitei (Florence Arizona), and T.J. Kuhn (Nathan Junior).


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Home for the Holidays (1995, Jodie Foster)

For the first thirty or so minutes, Home for the Holidays is exactly the film its trailer presented. It’s a genial family comedy with a recognizable cast, a mix of standard casting choices like Charles Durning (Dad), semi-standards like Anne Bancroft (Mom), and unknown ones like Geraldine Chaplin (crazy aunt). Even when Robert Downey Jr. (gay brother) shows up, it’s still a recognizable comedy. We’re following Holly Hunter around on her unpleasant due to familial eccentricities Thanksgiving. Then David Strathairn shows up for a one-scene cameo and Home for the Holidays becomes something else entirely. The scene’s affecting in a significant way and, here’s another aspect of the film, Jodie Foster knows it. I’m not sure there’s ever been such a polished sophomore directorial effort than this one. Foster shoots that scene with Strathairn different and she has to shoot it different, because it is different. Then I realized, Foster changes her approach all throughout Holidays, totally in tune with the content. Flipping past the film over the length, so long as one kept forgetting Holly Hunter, a person could think it was a different film. It’s a very particular film.

I’d seen it once before, about eight years ago, at the height of my institutionalized film snobbery (working with a bunch of film school students and graduates at a snobby video store), recommended by someone who didn’t buy into the snobbery–actually, I don’t think she recommended it, just mentioned it–and I thought it was a great film. I probably even thought it was great for the same reasons I do now, which–given the time lapse–is a little surprising (but also agreeable, since I was a little afraid during the opening twenty it’d be decent but unspectacular). But I’d forgotten it, so I was with Foster through the film–when she introduced section cards, I was a little weary, but by the third, she turns them into prompts for the viewer to think about the film he or she is watching.

And then, when the film gets to the actual Thanksgiving dinner–Geraldine Chaplin has her big scene and it changes Home for the Holidays again… Foster uses the same style–presenting the viewer (and the characters) with something they expect to be amusing, but then changing the viewer’s perspective of the film and the characters’ perspective of themselves. Then, pretty soon after dinner’s over, Dylan McDermott takes over. I’ve seen McDermott in very little and Holidays is early in his high profile career buildup, but Foster gets an amazing performance out of him. Unbelievable, really–his character is impossible, but Foster and McDermott pull it off. I’m not sure how much W.D. Richter’s script contributed, because there’s one scene where it really looks like they (Hunter, McDermott and Foster) played a scene different from the way it’d be written. But, whatever… Foster has a lot of odd homages in here, to films a family comedy probably shouldn’t reference (I can’t remember because I didn’t make any notes, but along the lines of Welles and Ford–with some Woody Allen). The McDermott stuff plays like a Howard Hawks comedy, only there’s no space for the viewer to acclimate, so he or she just gets caught up in it. And once it’s going, it’s fantastic stuff.

Watching the clock as it got near the end, I kept wondering how Foster was going to wrap it all up. Her choice is amazing; predictable, but amazing. She conducts her characters out of a genial comedy and into something else. It’s something a little new even. While some of it is familiar territory, her nurturing of the characters really pays off at the end.

It’s a wonderful film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jodie Foster; written by W.D. Richter, based on a short story by Chris Radant; director of photography, Lajos Koltai; edited by Lynzee Klingman; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Andrew McAlpine; produced by Peggy Rajski and Foster; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Holly Hunter (Claudia Larson), Robert Downey Jr. (Tommy Larson), Anne Bancroft (Adele Larson), Charles Durning (Henry Larson), Dylan McDermott (Leo Fish), Geraldine Chaplin (Aunt Glady), Steve Guttenberg (Walter Wedman), Cynthia Stevenson (Joanne Wedman), Claire Danes (Kitt) and David Strathairn (Russell Terziak).


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