Tag Archives: Kevin Costner

The Untouchables (1987, Brian De Palma)

There are few constants in The Untouchables. Leading man Kevin Costner comes in after nemesis Robert De Niro (as Al Capone) opens the movie; only the Chicago setting and Ennio Morricone’s grandiose, bombastic, omnipresent score are unabated. Director De Palma embraces the film’s various phases, sometimes through Stephen H. Burum’s photography, sometimes just through how much he lets the actors chew at the scenery. In his deftest move (with the actors, anyway), the only ones De Palma never lets get chewy are Costner and Sean Connery. With Connery, it’s a wonderful disconnect from what could be a very showy, chewy role. With Costner, it’s more because David Mamet’s screenplay has him so absurdly earnest, the part doesn’t have the teeth for it.

Costner’s the protagonist–and when Untouchables fully embraces itself as an action picture in the last third, it’s Costner leading the charge–but Connery and De Niro get the best parts. Connery’s an aged, failed, albeit mostly honest, beat cop who can’t help but bond with earnest treasury agent Eliot Ness (Costner). Even when De Palma, Burum, and Morricone turn up the melodrama on Connery, he stays reserved. His is the most honest part in Mamet’s script, whether in his counseling of Costner and the rest of the team (Charles Martin Smith and Andy Garcia) or butting heads with cop pal Richard Bradford. De Niro, on the other hand, plays Capone like Robert De Niro playing Al Capone. It’s an exaggerated performance in an exaggerated film, only De Palma doesn’t direct the scenes for De Niro’s performance so much as around it.

The Untouchables is weird that way. It all comes together, but isn’t fluid outside that Morricone score. And Chicago, of course. It makes wonderful use of its locations. The score and setting glue the consecutive pieces of the film together, which is particularly helpful since Mamet repeats himself over and over when it comes to exposition. Most of Smith’s part–outside his introduction, action sequences, and occasional cute moments–is saying the same things, over and over, about getting Capone on his taxes. And he talks about it in his first scene.

Mamet and De Palma are also real bad about Costner’s family life; after introducing Patricia Clarkson and doing a little establishing, she’s pretty much offscreen to the point it’s not even clear she’s pregnant. The pregnancy only becomes a plot detail after she gives. While she’s in the movie throughout–she’s how Mamet and De Palma introduce Costner in fact–she doesn’t have any lines.

Actually, besides Clarkson, there might only be three other speaking roles for female actors. And each of them only get one scene. Untouchables is all about the boys. They all talk about how nice it is to be married. It’s one of Mamet’s main recurring dialogue motifs; De Palma doesn’t seem to put much stock in it though. Costner and company, in their battle for good against De Niro and his goons, are separate from the goings-on of the regular world.

All of the acting is fine, some of it is better. De Palma seems to know he can get away with exaggerated performances because nothing’s going to be louder than that Morricone music. Or main goon Billy Drago’s white suit.

Now, while Morricone’s score is grandiose and melodramatic, it’s still got a lot of nuance and sincere emotional impact. Costner, Connery, Garcia, and Smith immediately establish themselves as a team. De Palma doesn’t spend a lot of time just relaxing with the characters, but there’s some of it and a sense of camaraderie permeates. It’s in stark contrast to De Niro, who exists to terrorize, whether it be regular people or his own flunkies.

In the first two thirds of the picture, De Palma’s more concerned with the drama. There’s some action, but he’s not focusing on it as much as where it occurs or how it perturbs the plot. In the last third, however, De Palma’s all about the action. Yes, how its affecting Costner–and Costner’s character development–is a thing, but character is secondary to style. And it’s some masterful style. The Untouchables is solid until it all of a sudden becomes exceptional for a while. De Palma, Burum, Morricone, and editors Gerald B. Greenberg and Bill Pankow do some fantastic work finishing up the film.

It’s a fine film, succeeding when it almost shouldn’t–Costner’s earnestness ought to be too much, it’s not; De Niro’s excess ought to be too much, it’s not. Morricone’s score ought to be too much. It’s not. Instead, it’s essential in making The Untouchables work.

It and that Chicago location shooting, of course.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Brian De Palma; screenplay by David Mamet, suggested by the book by Oscar Fraley and Eliot Ness; director of photography, Stephen H. Burum; edited by Gerald B. Greenberg and Bill Pankow; music by Ennio Morricone; produced by Art Linson; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Kevin Costner (Ness), Sean Connery (Malone), Charles Martin Smith (Wallace), Andy Garcia (Stone), Robert De Niro (Capone), Richard Bradford (Dorsett), Patricia Clarkson (Catherine), and Billy Drago (Nitti).


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Hidden Figures (2016, Theodore Melfi)

In the first scene of Hidden Figures, the film makes it immediately clear there’s going to be quite a bit of self-awareness. The film is based on the true story of three black women who were instrumental to NASA’s–and the space program’s–success. They’re working at NASA in the early sixties, during segregation, doing harder jobs better than the white guys working at NASA. And there’s an awareness. Janelle Monáe, in the flashiest lead role, gets the least to do, but she does get tasked with offering commentary on the situations at hand.

Director Melfi, who co-wrote the screenplay with Allison Schroeder, depends a lot on his cast. Nothing in his direction gets any of the scenes done. For example, Melfi underplays it with Taraji P. Henson, who’s the closest thing the film’s got to a protagonist (but the film doesn’t want to have one, which gets to be a problem in the third act). While Monáe, albeit outside work, gets to have a developed relationship with Aldis Hodge (as her less than supportive husband) and second-billed Octavia Spencer gets to have this workplace unpleasantness with Kirsten Dunst, Henson’s got supportive boss Kevin Costner, who she never gets to have a moment with. She’s got wormy supervisor Jim Parsons, who she never gets to have a moment with. There are fill-in moments, but none suggesting Parsons and Costner are people and not caricatures.

It’d be fine if they were caricatures, maybe even appropriate (though Costner’s not–he gets a movie star scene in the film), but if they are caricatures, giving them their little unspoken courtesies to Henson is even more problematic.

Hidden Figures weathers those problems with some very reliable materials–the history is on the film’s side and all three lead performances are great. While Monáe gets to be showy for most of the film, only having to move aside towards the end, when it tries to become a special effects extravaganza thriller just to find a finish, and Spencer’s part is underwritten but convinces the viewer it isn’t, Henson gets the big stuff. And the script, even though she’s got a romance going on outside her saving Costner and Parsons’s butts with math, doesn’t like letting Henson do anything. Monáe does things, Spencer does things, Henson quietly does the math. And she’s exceptional doing the math. Melfi’s best direction is with Henson, simply because he’s just letting the camera watch her performance too.

Technically, the film’s solid without being exceptional. Mandy Walker’s photography is fine, but Melfi’s not ambitious. Maybe the score gets a little much at the end, when Melfi’s tackling the special effects extravaganza with absolutely no personality. Despite some gorgeous production design (courtesy Wynn Thomas), Hidden Figures is oddly absent mise-en-scène.

The ambition is instead with the film itself, presenting these three women completely aware of their exploitation, completely aware of their constraints, and excelling regardless. The sad part of Henson not getting resolution is how well Spencer and Monáe make out with it. Spencer and Dunst’s arc is an uncomfortable, angering one. But it’s a mature way of handling it. The script’s got a narrative arc for that subplot. For Henson? Well, it’s got the Friendship 7.

Not to rag on Melfi too much more, but there’s a difference between acknowledging other films’ handling of the same material without just giving up and pretending to be Apollo 13 for fifteen minutes. It’s his lack of personality. Even Costner’s got some personality, even if it’s nonsensically only for Parsons’s benefit, as they have a moment together.

Hidden Figures is a movie fully aware white guys don’t have to be the leads but it’s the white guys who get that learning moment together. And let’s not even touch on the problematic nature of superhero John Glenn (Glen Powell is fine, it’s just a bland part).

But once you get through the problems and appreciate the film’s accomplishments–and those lead performances–it’s clear Hidden Figures’s success isn’t contingent on a flawless narrative structure. It’s historical, after all, and a positive “real life” moment is hard to resist, but it does distract from its characters. Because even if what was happening in reality was important, in Hidden Figures, it’s Henson, Spencer, and Monáe who are important and deserve the time.

Melfi just doesn’t know how to build tension. Thank goodness he’s got actors who know how to essay it however.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Theodore Melfi; screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Melfi, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly; director of photography, Mandy Walker; edited by Peter Teschner; music by Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, and Benjamin Wallfisch; production designer, Wynn Thomas; produced by Peter Chernin, Donna Gigliotti, Melfi, Jenno Topping, and Williams; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Taraji P. Henson (Katherine Goble), Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughan), Janelle Monáe (Mary Jackson), Kevin Costner (Al Harrison), Kirsten Dunst (Mrs. Mitchell), Jim Parsons (Paul Stafford), Mahershala Ali (Colonel Jim Johnson), Aldis Hodge (Levi Jackson), and Glen Powell (John Glenn).


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The Postman (1997, Kevin Costner)

Where The Postman succeeds, besides with the performances, most of its technical aspects, is with director Costner’s ability to find each character’s emotional reality in a scene. He achieves a sort of alchemist’s miracle, but not with lead into gold, but with saccharine into sublime. With one unfortunate exception, every emotional moment in the film hits thanks to Costner’s direction of the actors. And Stephen F. Windon’s gorgeous cinematography, of course.

The Postman’s post-apocalyptic future never gets a thorough explanation. From the tidbits, it sounds a lot like white supremacists come to power and ruin the United States and possibly the whole world. The latter part is somewhat unclear. What also doesn’t get an explanation is the film’s basic thesis–the importance of communication between people. It’s in the film instead; the emotional impact of that communication is what Costner showcases. There’s also quite a bit–usually involving Costner’s sidekick Larenz Tate–about the young versus the old. It’s a wrecked, hopeless world, one where Costner’s protagonist–of course he stars in it as well–really doesn’t care about the world. It’s all very sincerely inspiring, especially since there’s such a fantastic contrast between Tate and his two mentors, Costner and Daniel von Bargen.

So there’s the whole communication thing, there’s the whole young vs. old thing, there’s also the whole army of white supremacists (led by a phenomenal Will Patton) and then there’s also the very, very complicated romance. Costner’s love interest, Olivia Williams, plays a major role in the second act and then gets shoved aside in the third. Worse, her character is the one the script fails completely. After building an incredibly complex character, the solution to her character arc is the film draining her character of any content. She’s still good, but it’s extremely unfortunate.

Also unfortunate, in general, is the third act. It’s where special effects come in, it’s where there’s too much summary, it’s where the pragmatic voiceovers come in (Peter Boyle’s editing is strong, but he can’t make third act montages work, which is partially composer James Newton Howard’s fault too). The movie’s about Costner’s character and his reluctant self-discovery, but it’s about a lot more too. Some of the third act acknowledges the rest and, sadly, the finale doesn’t.

Tate’s great, Williams’s great when her role’s well-written and fine when it’s not, James Russo’s great as one of Patton’s officers, von Bargen’s great, Giovanni Ribsi’s really good in a small part. And Costner’s really good. Even though he’s The Postman, he doesn’t hog the spotlight. Given the finale, maybe he should have. But he can tell he’s got a lot of excellent actors hitting all the right marks and he gives them their time.

The Postman’s not a great film. It’s a rather good one with countless great moments. With a better third act, a better score (maybe even still from Howard, but just better), it might have been. Great production design from Ida Random too. It’s an impressive attempt from Costner.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Kevin Costner; screenplay by Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by David Brin; director of photography, Stephen F. Windon; edited by Peter Boyle; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Ida Random; produced by Costner, Steve Tisch and Jim Wilson; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Kevin Costner (The Postman), Will Patton (General Bethlehem), Larenz Tate (Ford Lincoln Mercury), Olivia Williams (Abby), James Russo (Idaho), Daniel von Bargen (Sheriff Briscoe), Scott Bairstow (Luke), Giovanni Ribisi (Bandit 20), Roberta Maxwell (Irene March), Joe Santos (Colonel Getty), Peggy Lipton (Ellen March), Ron McLarty (Old George), Rex Linn (Mercer), Todd Allen (Gibbs), Brian Anthony Wilson (Woody), Shawn Hatosy (Billy), Charles Esten (Michael), Ryan Hurst (Eddie March) and Tom Petty (The Once Famous Man).


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A Perfect World (1993, Clint Eastwood)

A Perfect World runs almost two hours and twenty minutes (it does with end credits). The last act of the film is a seventeen or so minute showdown in real time. Until that point in the film, John Lee Hancock’s script flirts with occasional sequences in real time, but there’s a lot of summary, a lot of missed time. The present action of the film is a couple days–Kevin Costner has broken out of jail, ends up with an eight year-old boy as a hostage (T.J. Lowther), and is trying to get out of Texas. Clint Eastwood, acting, plays the Texas Ranger after him. There’s a great attention to detail, particularly for the time period, and with the filmmaking; A Perfect World is a great example of a film being good while still boring.

Hancock’s script desperately wants to compare and contrast the various characters–Eastwood had run ins with younger Costner, Costner had a bad dad, Lowther has a bad dad, it goes on and on. Laura Dern is around to be sexually threatened–the film takes place in 1963, after all–and to counsel Eastwood. Unfortunately, most of that counseling comes when Eastwood’s Rangers are literally broken down off the highway.

Meanwhile, Costner and Lowther have a rather touching adventure. There’s great period music, rich performances from just about anyone–even evil escaped convict Keith Szarabajka is pretty good and he’s not doing much of anything. Leo Burmester doesn’t get enough to do, however. Once things come together for the inevitable showdown, which Eastwood and Hancock don’t set up well enough–one would think Eastwood’s chasing Costner across a county, not the state–there get to be hints of what A Perfect World could have done. It just takes too long to get there and not through interesting enough adventures.

Costner’s too much of an enigma to be the lead, Lowther could be but he isn’t. Same goes for Dern (or Eastwood even). It isn’t a matter of Hancock’s script being all over the place, it’s about the script not being there enough and Eastwood being able to cover it as a director. Jack N. Green’s photography is gorgeous, Joel Cox and Ron Spang’s editing is spry; A Perfect World is a spectacularly well-made, often spectacularly acted film, just not spectacular overall. But it’s still really darn good.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Clint Eastwood; written by John Lee Hancock; director of photography, Jack N. Green; edited by Joel Cox and Ron Spang; music by Lennie Niehaus; production designer, Henry Bumstead; produced by Eastwood, Mark Johnson and David Valdes; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Kevin Costner (Butch), T.J. Lowther (Phillip), Clint Eastwood (Red Garnett), Laura Dern (Sally Gerber), Keith Szarabajka (Terry Pugh), Bradley Whitford (Bobby Lee), Leo Burmester (Tom Adler) and Jennifer Griffin (Gladys Perry).


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