Tag Archives: Lois Smith

Tumbleweeds (1999, Gavin O’Connor)

Despite excellent lead performances, Tumbleweeds is almost entirely inert–dramatically speaking. Janet McTeer is a thirtysomething single mom with bad taste in men who drags tween daughter Kimberly J. Brown all around the country after her latest romance goes bad. The romances never go too bad because McTeer has a preternatural ability to stay away from physically abusive partners. For example, the film starts with McTeer and (uncredited) beau Noah Emmerich getting into–oh, yeah, McTeer moves in with every guy and marries many of them–but they’re getting into a big fight where it seems like Emmerich is about to hit her, but never does. He’s just an angry, break everything drunk. Meanwhile Brown is preparing her wordly possessions for she and McTeer’s imminent departure.

They’re apparently always in lousy situations, but never dangerous ones, which ends up contributing to the eventual lack of dramatic impact. If director O’Connor were capable of a lyrical type narrative, it’d be fine. He’s not. But more on that deficiency in a bit.

So after McTeer and Brown leave Emmerich punching his kitchen appliances and watching TV, Tumbleweeds becomes a road movie. McTeer wants to go to Arizona (they’re from the South, all over); Brown doesn’t. Eventually they agree on San Diego. Well, McTeer eventually agrees with Brown. It’s Brown’s idea. They have some misadventures–but nothing too dangerous or dire–before getting there. They don’t get to San Diego until about halfway through the film. The first half is a meandering road movie, the second half has none of the same stylistic choices. By stylistic choices I guess I mean O’Connor’s proclivity for occasional shaky camerawork to show… well, to show nothing, really. Except to diss Dan Stoloff’s otherwise perfectly competent photography.

Once they arrive in San Diego–actually a smaller city near San Diego, but on the water–Brown gets enrolled in school (at just the right moment because it seems like McTeer could care less about it until that point) and makes friends and McTeer gets a new job. In comes the supporting cast. There’s Ashley Buccille as Brown’s friend from drama class (and Cody McMains as the annoying boy who likes her) while McTeer starts working for weird (but not too weird) creep (but harmlessly) Michael J. Pollard and makes friends with coworker Laurel Holloman. Pretty soon McTeer has a kismet moment with a new dude–director O’Connor, whose blasé performance basically relegates Tumbleweeds to that dramatic inertia–much to Brown’s disapproval.

McTeer moves them in with O’Connor, with Brown knowingly anticipating the relationship’s eventual failure. Meanwhile she’s trying out for Romeo and Juliet at school, much to soon-to-be-ex-bestie Buccille’s chagrin (there can be only one Juliet, after all), especially since McTeer’s afore unmentioned coworker Jay O. Sanders coaches Brown on her performance. Because he’s just the type of great guy McTeer would never go for.

Drama does not ensue.

The script, by O’Connor and Angela Shelton, is anti-melodramatic but also entirely unrealistic in its cockeyed reality. McTeer, despite working menial jobs, is never wanting for money. Both she and O’Connor go through too short unemployment arcs; apparently everyone’s got a lot of rainy day savings in Tumbleweeds. They have to have them, because otherwise things might actually get a little intense or dangerous and there’s no intensity or danger in Tumbleweeds. It’s gritty… ish, because low budget, and never because of narrative. There’s some “gritty” dialogue–Holloman’s lengthy description of coffee enemas is exceptionally pointless–but the film avoids all its confrontational moments. Besides the opening one where Baumbach decides he’ll be a verbally abusive drunken bastard but he’s got his limits. Tumbleweeds is a poser when it comes to the dark realities of humanity.

Luckily, the performances are mostly phenomenal. McTeer, Brown, and Sanders are all amazing. Though Sanders’s material is mostly pat. And outside the character relationship stuff with McTeer and Brown they don’t get much either. All the important narrative developments happen off-screen (once it becomes clear O’Connor, as actor, is never going to be too abusive or too dangerous; it kind of works since his performance is just as shallow as his character). Pollard’s fine in an extended cameo. Holloman is good with a nothing role. Lois Smith shows up for a bit. She gets even less of a role than Pollard. Kids Buccille and McMains are fine. Again, since important narrative developments are discussed in exposition, they don’t need to be any better.

If it weren’t for McTeer and Brown and their performances, Tumbleweeds would fizzle (Sanders is gravy). But they’re great, so it doesn’t. The script’s just not there, O’Connor (both as actor and director) isn’t there. Sure, the movie’s low budget, but… if O’Connor were a better director (and writer) it wouldn’t matter. The film’s got zero ambitions. Thank goodness the cast has some.

The six to nine endings don’t help things either.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Gavin O’Connor; screenplay by O’Connor and Angela Shelton, based on a story by Shelton; director of photography, Dan Stoloff; edited by John Gilroy; music by David Mansfield; production designer, Bryce Holtshousen; produced by Greg O’Connor; released by Fine Line Features.

Starring Janet McTeer (Mary Jo Walker), Kimberly J. Brown (Ava Walker), Gavin O’Connor (Jack Ranson), Jay O. Sanders (Dan Miller), Laurel Holloman (Laurie Pendleton), Michael J. Pollard (Mr. Cummings), Ashley Buccille (Zoe Broussard), Cody McMains (Adam Riley), and Lois Smith (Ginger).


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Black Widow (1987, Bob Rafelson)

Black Widow is an odd film. Ronald Bass’s script starts being about Debra Winger as a Justice Department analyst who can’t get her male colleagues to take her seriously when she discovers a woman (Theresa Russell) killing her rich husbands. The film never discusses Russell’s motive, though one can assume they’re awful guys since every guy in Black Widow is a sexist jerk. Even the nicer guys are still sexist jerks. Or at least mild perverts.

Rafelson and Bass juxtapose all Winger’s opposition with Russell seducing a new husband–Nicol Williamson. Williamson’s fantastic, by the way; easily the best performance in the film.

But then once Russell discovers Winger is after her, the movie moves to Hawaii where the two women have a bonding movie together. They see the sights, have some vaguely homoerotic scenes together. The trip to Hawaii doesn’t serve the film at all, just the cast and crew who got a paid vacation.

And in Hawaii, Winger falls for this perfect Indochinese millionaire, played by Sami Frey (who looks way too young to be the older gentleman he’s portraying). He’s a great guy though, nothing like the pigs she encountered earlier. Must be the accent.

Rafelson’s direction is acceptable. Good photography from Conrad L. Hall, truly great editing from John Bloom.

Both Russell and Winger give fine technical performances, but they can’t overcome the script. Terry O’Quinn, D.W. Moffett and Diane Ladd excel in small parts.

Black Widow‘s tedious and shockingly predictable. It’s downhill from the start.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Bob Rafelson; written by Ronald Bass; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by John Bloom; music by Michael Small; production designer, Gene Callahan; produced by Harold Schneider; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Debra Winger (Alexandra), Theresa Russell (Catharine), Sami Frey (Paul), Dennis Hopper (Ben), Nicol Williamson (William), Terry O’Quinn (Bruce), Lois Smith (Sara), D.W. Moffett (Michael), Leo Rossi (Detective Ricci), Mary Woronov (Shelley), Rutanya Alda (Irene), James Hong (Shin) and Diane Ladd (Etta).


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Five Easy Pieces (1970, Bob Rafelson)

About half way into Five Easy Pieces, the film really hasn’t given any clue as to what it’s going to be. It’s an incredibly complex character study, both in its approach to the narrative and in terms of Jack Nicholson’s protagonist. The beginning of the film, set in the oil fields of Southern California, ends up having to do very little with the story. It serves an easy purpose–to introduce Nicholson and establish his relationship with girlfriend Karen Black–but Five Easy Pieces hardly follows an epical course. The film could have just as easily started with Nicholson driving to Los Angeles to see sister Lois Smith.

The second half of the film, set on an island off the Washington coast, resembles the opening in terms of scene construction–Five Easy Pieces has short, concise scenes. For example, Nicholson’s devastating monologue–explaining himself to his stroke-impaired father–is not particularly long. I think there are maybe six edits in all. But it–along with the scene immediately preceding it–make Five Easy Pieces. After seventy-some minutes of hints at Nicholson, the scene finally reveals enough about the character for the film to be stoppable.

Five Easy Pieces moves on a momentum–it moves on long fades between scenes, whether it’s Nicholson hopping off a moving truck while the highway where he got on the back of the truck is still visible on the bottom half of the screen or it’s John P. Ryan’s nurse grinning wide for Smith (we don’t get to hear what Ryan says to her, because it’s just for her–the film frequently reserves things for the characters). I suppose it has three acts–I suppose I could even identify where they come in the running time–but it isn’t beholden to them. The film, from the first or second scene, moves where Nicholson takes it.

Nicholson’s Bobby Dupea is not a likable character. He’s a jerk, but a complex one. His relationship with Black is probably the film’s most complicated; it involves class differences, expectations and protectiveness. His relationship with Susan Anspach is similarly intricate. It’s the angle of entry to the character–even though the character’s emotions are never verbalized–it’s where the viewer can finally begin to understand something about Nicholson. It offers the first illumination of the character, a long time after first encountering him.

The film’s momentum and gradual pace do present one significant problem. The sequence with Helena Kallaniotes’s lengthy monologue, played for humorous effect–Nicholson’s famous chicken salad sandwich scene is in the middle–is a disaster. It’s long and goofy, ending with Kallaniotes looking the viewer straight in the eye. It doesn’t belong in this film or any other. It’s a transition between the two halves of the film. For a long time, it seems like the film can’t really recover from the spill. But then it does.

Nicholson’s great. Black’s great. Anspach is great. Smith’s great. Ralph Waite’s awesome as Nicholson’s brother, implying a character of enough depth to deserve his own examination.

Five Easy Pieces is a depressing piece of work, so depressing it’s almost hostile.

I can’t forget Rafelson. I haven’t seen Five Easy Pieces in a long time and, for whatever reason, I didn’t expect Rafelson to be a visual director. His composition is fantastic, the way he moves the camera, the way people move in his shots. But I think my favorite shot has to be the one where the viewer gets to see how much Smith misses Nicholson. It’s lovely.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bob Rafelson; screenplay by Carole Eastman, based on a story by Rafelson and Eastman; director of photography, László Kovács; edited by Christopher Holmes and Gerald Shepard; produced by Rafelson and Richard Wechsler; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jack Nicholson (Robert Eroica Dupea), Karen Black (Rayette Dipesto), Billy Green Bush (Elton), Fannie Flagg (Stoney), Sally Struthers (Betty), Marlena MacGuire (Twinky), Richard Stahl (Recording Engineer), Lois Smith (Partita Dupea), Helena Kallianiotes (Palm Apodaca), Toni Basil (Terry Grouse), Lorna Thayer (Waitress), Susan Anspach (Catherine Van Oost), Ralph Waite (Carl Fidelio Dupea), William Challee (Nicholas Dupea), John P. Ryan (Spicer) and Irene Dailey (Samia Glavia).


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