Tag Archives: John Williams

JFK (1991, Oliver Stone)

JFK is a protracted experience. It runs over three hours, it has no real narrative structure–the film opens with the Kennedy assassination and an introduction to the principal characters (and some of the possible conspirators, always played quite well by a guest star), then jumps ahead three years where it starts chronicling lead Kevin Costner’s investigation into the assassination. He’s the New Orleans District Attorney (there’s a reason for him to get involved–presumably true, JFK is based on the real life DA) and the film does culminate in a trial, but it’s not a courtroom thriller and it’s not a mystery. It’s a lecture. Director Stone delivers the lecture through endless–yet always well-acted–expository dialogue, beautifully filmed flashback scenes (cinematographer Robert Richardson does breathtaking work) and then lead Costner. Stone’s not good at the courtroom stuff. It’s about an hour of Costner talking. Costner does really well in it, but it’s just too much. Overall, JFK is just too much.

There’s lots of good acting, lots of great acting. Even Joe Pesci’s weird portrayal of one of the possible conspirators–Stone doesn’t assign much malice to the “villains” because he doesn’t want to get too bogged down in actual politics. JFK is simultaneously for the informed and the ignorant. Stone nods at respecting the informed, but he doesn’t care about the ignorant at all. There’s nothing but exposition in the film and never any to get the viewer into the ground situation. It ought to come with a viewer’s guide explaining the historical authenticity of each assassination detail. So while Pesci is a little much, he’s a wonderful contrast to too serious Costner.

The great acting comes from bigger name guest stars like Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Oldman. The parts are sort of thin–caricatures again–but the actors figure out a reality to the scene and their character in it. It’s Stone’s direction. These people aren’t people, they’re subjects to be examined. The good acting is from the big name players in cameo parts–Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ed Asner, Donald Sutherland and John Candy don’t have great parts, but there’s some humanity to them because they’re supposedly real people so there’s some implied backstory. Stone leans a lot on what the viewer should be understanding. It’s annoying. Then there are some great smaller parts. The “regular” folk, like Jay O. Sanders, Laurie Metcalf, Michael Rooker, Wayne Knight. Rooker and Sanders both get a lot of material–Metcalf and Wayne Knight do not. Stone doesn’t give these actors real roles, just great scenes opposite Costner and each other. They’re on exposition duty. Stone clearly appreciates having such a good supporting cast.

The film follows the following general structure. 1963 assassination sadness, fast forward to 1966 for Costner to start his investigation. Then big final courtroom sequence. It’s well-acted but not a good courtroom sequence. And the film’s already shaky as the narrative drops guest star opportunities and filling in with Costner’s marital problems, which does give Sissy Spacek something to do as the wife, just makes it drag more. Costner might be playing a real person, but he’s doing it through caricature.

JFK sort of works out. Also has a rather outstanding John Williams score.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Oliver Stone; screenplay by Stone and Zachary Sklar, based on books by Jim Garrison and Jim Marrs; director of photography, Robert Richardson; edited by Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia; music by John Williams; production designer, Victor Kempster; produced by A. Kitman Ho; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Kevin Costner (Jim Garrison), Tommy Lee Jones (Clay Shaw), Kevin Bacon (Willie O’Keefe), Gary Oldman (Lee Harvey Oswald), Sissy Spacek (Liz Garrison), Joe Pesci (David Ferrie), Michael Rooker (Bill Broussard), Jay O. Sanders (Lou Ivon), Laurie Metcalf (Susie Cox), Wayne Knight (Numa Bertel), Brian Doyle-Murray (Jack Ruby), Beata Pozniak Daniels (Marina Oswald), Edward Asner (Guy Bannister), Jack Lemmon (Jack Martin), Walter Matthau (Senator Long), John Candy (Dean Andrews), Sally Kirkland (Rose Cheramie), Vincent D’Onofrio (Bill Newman) and Donald Sutherland (X).


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Return of the Jedi (1983, Richard Marquand)

Nothing really works out in Return of the Jedi. Even the opening, which is about as good as it can be with director Marquand’s inability to direct the actors and do the special effects, doesn’t exactly work out. Jedi’s problems keep bumping into each other, knocking over the good stuff.

What good stuff? Jabba the Hutt. The Jabba the Hutt puppet is truly amazing. Carrie Fisher. For the first hour of the movie, Fisher gets a whole bunch to do and she’s great at it. Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas’s script doesn’t have much good about it–at its best, it’s just barely competent–but it does structure a good role for Fisher. And she nails it, even with Marquand’s lame direction. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t have anything for her to do once the Ewoks show up.

Are the Ewoks good? The walking, adorable warrior teddy bears?

The costumes are good. But then, all of Jedi’s special effects are well-designed. The special effects sequences are often cut terribly and Alan Hume’s photography leaves a lot to be desired, but the visual concepts are strong. One desperately wants to cut Jedi some slack, just because it seems like things should be working. They just aren’t. Not even John Williams’s score. He has his moments, but there’s no overarching feel to the score. And it’s even bad at times.

As far as the actors go… besides Fisher, the best performances is probably Billy Dee Williams. Williams has a pointless role and he works at it anyway. Harrison Ford has a really weak opening and then is just supposed to charm his way through most of the film. Even when there is a possible good moment, Jedi doesn’t deliver.

And Mark Hamill’s bad. It’s not his fault, but he’s not good. He’s better than Ian McDiarmid though.

Jedi works hard without trying anything. It’s a real disappointment, especially for Hamill, Ford and Fisher. They deserved a lot better.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Marquand; screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas, based on a story by Lucas; director of photography, Alan Hume; edited by Sean Barton, Marcia Lucas and Duwayne Dunham; music by John Williams; production designer, Norman Reynolds; produced by Howard G. Kazanjian; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), David Prowse (Darth Vader), Kenny Baker (R2-D2), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) and Frank Oz (Yoda).


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The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Irvin Kershner)

The most amazing aspect of The Empire Strikes Back is its effortlessness. The film is clearly exceptionally complex–the three story lines have different sets, different actors, different tones, not to mention entirely different special effects requirements–not to mention Frank Oz’s Yoda–but it all appears effortless. Director Kershner is infinitely confident, infinitely assured. He simultaneously manipulates the actors while trusting their abilities entirely.

A lot of Empire’s success is due to Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay. The relationship between Mark Hamill and Oz, the one between Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher–not to mention the beautiful acknowledgement of the first film–the little character moments, acknowledging the time they spend together, Anthony Daniels getting to acknowledge the “unreality” of the film, every little thing is so good. There’s a beautiful flow to the film.

And John Williams is responsible for a lot of that flow. Kershner, Williams, cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, editor Paul Hirsch, production designer Norman Reynolds. Those five people are responsible for Empire’s lush, emotive style. It’s a treat. It’s meant to be a treat. These five people get to flex their abilities. They get to show off. But they don’t, because it’s even better to produce something magnificent. Empire is, hands down, my favorite example of a well-produced film. So I guess Gary Kurtz is the most responsible.

Anyway. Williams. Williams and the music. It’s entirely possible between Williams, Suschitzky and Hirsch, no one could give a bad performance in the film. There’s no way to test the theory, unfortunately, because all of the actors are phenomenal. The script–and Kershner–acknowledge the cast’s chemistry and different styles and molds Empire around them. What’s most strange is when Billy Dee Williams arrives, he fits in with them perfectly. Of course, perfect is the only word to describe the film’s performances.

I’m at a bit of a loss as how to close. I thought about talking about how Brackett and Kasdan borrow a lot of plotting techniques from Westerns, but Kershner doesn’t, which actually makes for a more interesting discussion but not a closing.

The Empire Strikes Back is sort of a humanist, escapist picture. Kershner and the rest of the crew–I mean, come on, the special effects are astounding and the way Kershner builds to bigger, then smaller, sequences is breathtaking–they do an amazing job. Everyone does. It’s singular.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Irvin Kershner; screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, based on a story by George Lucas; director of photography, Peter Suschitzky; edited by Paul Hirsch; music by John Williams; production designer, Norman Reynolds; produced by Gary Kurtz; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), David Prowse (Darth Vader), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Kenny Baker (R2-D2) and Frank Oz (Yoda).


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Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002, George Lucas)

Attack of the Clones is bad. The beginning almost seems all right, with Ewan McGregor and new addition (and astoundingly terrible actor) Hayden Christensen on a mission. It plays like a thirty minute TV pilot slapped on the front of an otherwise tedious Star Wars entry. This time around, director Lucas is so lazy, he doesn’t even bother clearing out the discarded red herrings. They all just hang around, daring the viewer to stare into one and plunge into the abyss.

Lucas’s vision for the film is cheap and manipulative. Not just playing on viewer expectation, but on feigned sympathy. Lucas manipulates the viewer into accepting the cheapest, most exploitative narrative twists. Even though the film’s awful–the acting’s awful, the writing’s awful, David Tattersall’s photography’s awful, John Williams’s music is awful–Lucas’s vision for Clones is a success. He’s pandering. Lucas is acknowledging he’s no longer a defining vision in blockbuster movie-making (regardless of ILM’s involvement) and he’s showing he can do the same thing as all the other guys are doing.

Right down to Natalie Portman having her midriff exposed after a vicious attack from a giant bug. Strangely, Portman’s medical condition is never questioned. There’s no plot points about the giant bug talons injuring Portman or an infection. It’s just a ploy to get her suggestively clad.

It’s desperate. But it’s acceptable. It’s the new norm, the one Lucas didn’t do anything to create. But he can mimic it, he can mimic other styles–Lucas’s ability to adapt established film narrative approaches to new, entirely different material has always been one of his more uncanny skills. But there’s not a thing he cares about in the film. If it isn’t some new effects shot, it’s a direct response to some critical dig at the previous film in the series.

It’s petty. Lucas isn’t insane. He can tell Christensen is bad and has absolutely no chemistry with Portman, partially because he’s a stalker and a jerk. Lucas doesn’t like Christensen’s character and gives him nothing likable in return. Still, even though the script fails Christensen, he’s still an awful actor. Portman gets a lot of sympathy, just for what Lucas puts her through with Clones.

McGregor does better than his costars, but he still isn’t any good. Lucas is so particularly bad at directing his actors against the digital cast. Especially Sam Jackson, whose scenes with Yoda make one wonder if Lucas even told him where to look.

Temuera Morrison is bad too. Ditto Christopher Lee.

No one’s good in Clones. Lucas and co-screenwriter Jonathan Hales don’t even give Anthony Daniels anything to do it. Lucas has no enthusiasm for anything in the film. It’d be funny if the film weren’t so long.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by George Lucas; screenplay by Lucas and Jonathan Hales, based on a story by Lucas; director of photography, David Tattersall; edited by Ben Burtt; music by John Williams; production designer, Gavin Bocquet; produced by Rick McCallum; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Natalie Portman (Padmé), Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker), Frank Oz (Yoda), Ian McDiarmid (Supreme Chancellor Palpatine), Pernilla August (Shmi Skywalker), Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks), Oliver Ford Davies (Sio Bibble), Temuera Morrison (Jango Fett), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Silas Carson (Viceroy Nute Gunray), Kenny Baker (R2-D2) with Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu) and Christopher Lee (Count Dooku).


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