Tag Archives: Miramax Films

The Station Agent (2003, Tom McCarthy)

The Station Agent is not a character study. It does try, at almost exactly the one hour mark (it runs a breezy, but deliberate eighty-nine minutes), to become a character study, but it is not a character study. It is actually a perfect example of how to not make a character study.

Writer-director McCarthy spends the first hour avoiding showing the audience enough about protagonist Peter Dinklage to even hazard an understanding, then gives Dinklage a series of challenges to overcome in the third act. The challenges are mostly hackneyed; if they aren’t hackneyed, McCarthy doesn’t want to stick with them because there’s no character development for Dinklage (onscreen). So instead of achieving something sublime, Station Agent rushes a finish. It’s a long rush–the last third–and an obvious, predictable one.

It’s all thanks to the actors it works out. Dinklage is awesome. If McCarthy weren’t terrified of making the film about him, Dinklage would be even better. There’s the potential for a great role, but McCarthy doesn’t write for it. He wants to keep things genial. Station Agent is a comedy with some melodrama. Most of the comedy comes from Dinklage’s sidekick, Bobby Cannavale.

Dinklage inherits a train station depot. He’s a train enthusiast. He moves across New Jersey to live in the depot. Cannavale runs his recovering father’s food truck–inexplicably stationed in the same remote lot as the depot. It’s got nice scenery, I suppose. Station Agent is a visually precious film. Oliver Bokelberg’s photography–except at night, really–John Paino’s production design, the locations. McCarthy succeeds with a visual result better than his composition.

Anyway, Cannavale wants to be friends because there’s “no one cool in town.” Dinklage doesn’t want to be friends because he doesn’t want to make friends; he lives a solitary life, avoiding social interactions because he has dwarfism. McCarthy’s inability to convey that aspect of Dinklage’s character in the script (and plot) is Station Agent’s big problem. He can’t figure out a way to talk about it.

Dinklage even tells Cannavale–who is so charming and lovable and downright good, they have to become friends–Dinklage even tells him he doesn’t want to talk about it. Because Station Agent doesn’t want to think about it, even though it informs all of Dinklage’s actions.

Again, movie can get away with it because it’s got a good sentiment, great performances, and solid dialogue. It’s fun to watch.

Dinklage and Cannavale find a third Musketeer in Patricia Clarkson. Clarkson’s good, but she gets the shaft as far as a character. She’s separated from husband, painting (weird faces), her toddler son has died. If it weren’t for Clarkson’s nervous distraction, the character would be as caricature on screen as in script. But Clarkson does a lot with the part.

Until McCarthy kicks her out of the movie. Then he kicks Cannavale out of the movie. In their place, he brings in Michelle Williams as a possible love interest for Dinklage. Williams’s good, she and Dinklage have chemistry, but McCarthy chickens out of it.

The Station Agent is a charming, beautifully acted, solidly constructed film. But seeing as how everyone showed up to do some work–even Stephen Trask’s slightly overbearing, omnipresent score excels–it would have been nice if McCarthy had something for them to do after the movie hits the one hour mark.

I mean, it’s not even clear Dinklage gets water and power at the train depot. The one plot thread McCarthy follows up on is to make a plotting thing work. The subplots are all fake; Cannavale’s father is a contrivance, ditto Williams’s home situation, ditto Clarkson’s mourning. Dinklage gets a charming but empty subplot with a fellow train enthusiast, middle schooler Raven Goodwin. Because McCarthy’s scared to do an actual subplot. And, no surprise, Goodwin even gets a fake subplot in an otherwise disposable, yet charming scene.

The Station Agent is good. But it’s frustratingly close to being great; it just needed some development for its characters. Onscreen character development for its cast. Dinklage, Cannavale, and Clarkson are all good. And they all showed up ready to be exceptional. And McCarthy chickens out every single time they can be.

But always in a charming way.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Tom McCarthy; director of photography, Oliver Bokelberg; edited by Tom McArdle; music by Stephen Trask; production designer, John Paino; produced by Robert May, Mary Jane Skalski, and Kathryn Tucker; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Peter Dinklage (Finbar McBride), Bobby Cannavale (Joe Oramas), Patricia Clarkson (Olivia Harris), Michelle Williams (Emily), Raven Goodwin (Cleo), and Paul Benjamin (Henry Styles).


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Cop Land (1997, James Mangold)

Cop Land either has a lot of story going on and not enough content or a lot of content going on and not enough story. Also you could do variations of those statements with “plot.” Writer and director Mangold toggles Cop Land between two plot lines. First is lead Sylvester Stallone. Second is this big police corruption and cover-up story with Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Robert Patrick, and Michael Rapaport. And some other guys. It’s the bigger story. Ray Liotta floats between, on his own thing. Almost everyone in Cop Land has their own story going and Mangold’s just checking in on it as background every once in a while. It creates this feeling of depth, even though there hasn’t actually been any plot development. The actors help.

But Mangold doesn’t have the same approach to narrative between the plot lines. Stallone’s in this character study, De Niro and Keitel are in this detached procedural. Stallone’s story could be a procedural, it would make sense for it to be a procedural–even De Niro tells him it ought to be a procedural–but Mangold keeps it a character study. All the way to the problematic ending.

Because as impressive as Mangold gets in Cop Land–and the film’s superbly acted, directed, written, photographed–but Mangold can’t bring it all together. He starts showing his inability to commingle his plot lines with Annabella Sciorra’s increased presence in the film. She’s good and she should have a good part. As teenagers, Stallone saved her, going partially deaf in the process. He could never become a cop (his dream) and Sciorra ends up marrying a shitbag cop (Peter Berg–who’s so good playing a shitbag) who’s terrible to her. Mangold’s plot presents him with some opportunity for Sciorra’s character to have a good arc, but he skips it. It’s a distraction and he wants to stay focused on something else.

That problematic finish? Lead Stallone becomes a distraction and Mangold wants to focus on something else. It’s a painful misstep too, with Mangold just coming off the third act action sequence–the only real action sequence in the film–and it’s awesome. So Mangold’s done drama, procedural, character study, action, and he’s perfectly segued between the different tones while simultaneously cohering them. Cop Land is building. Then all of a sudden Mangold loses the ability to segue. And to cohere. Maybe because Mangold reveal Liotta as his own major subplot somewhere near the end of second act (after doing everything he could to reduce Liotta from his first act presence). It’s a narrative pothole.

Though, given the film opens with De Niro narrating the ground situation, it’s impressive Mangold’s able to get the film through ninety plus minutes without the seams showing. The opening narration is compelling and the Howard Shore music for it is great, but it’s completely different from everything else in the picture.

Even when De Niro returns to the narration.

Maybe Mangold’s just bad at the summary storytelling though audio device. He also botches using newsradio commentary to move things along or set them up.

Cop Land is a little story in a big world. Mangold has got a great handle on the little story but not the big world. Though the Stallone arrives in New York City scene is kind of great. Stallone, Mangold, cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards, Shore. It just works. Because Stallone lumbers.

The film’s full of flashy performances. De Niro, Liotta, Berg, Patrick, Rapaport, they all get to be flashy. Dynamic. Mangold gives them great scenes and the actors deliver. All of them consistently except Berg. Berg’s too absent in the first act for all the subplots he gets to affect in the second.

But Keitel and Stallone are never flashy. Stallone because it’s his character. His character is anti-flash. His character is a drunken sheriff who goes around town in his flipflops opening parking meters for quarters to play pinball. Keitel it’s a combination of performance and part. Keitel only gets a couple moments to himself in the film and they’re real short. Mangold juxtaposes Stallone and Keitel in the story but not how he tells that story. It’s a weird thing to avoid, but Mangold avoids a lot.

For example, Mangold strongly implies no one in this town of cops (and cops’ wives, and cops’ children) respects the local law enforcement. It gives Stallone this Will Kane moment, but Mangold’s never established how it’s possible. How the town could truly function. And then Cop Land has all this toxic masculinity, racism, and complicity swirling around the plot and Mangold keeps eyes fixed forward. When a subplot or character starts going too much in those directions… bye bye subplot, bye bye character. Even though Mangold makes sure to write a good scene or get a great performance out of it.

Mangold fumbles Cop Land’s finish. He doesn’t know how to scale the narrative distance. Even if he did, there are some other significant pitfalls. But it’s almost great. Cop Land is almost great.

The acting is all good. De Niro is able to handle the Pacino-esque ranges in volume. Stallone self-effaces well. Maybe too much since Keitel’s a tad detached. Liotta takes an overly complicated role with too little development and gets some great material.

Much of Howard Shore’s score is excellent. When it’s not excellent, even when it’s predictable, it’s competent. Excellent photography from Edwards. Lester Cohen’s production design is good, even better than Mangold’s shots of it.

Cop Land comes real close; real, real close.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by James Mangold; director of photography, Eric Alan Edwards; edited by Craig McKay; music by Howard Shore; production designer, Lester Cohen; produced by Cary Woods, Cathy Konrad and Ezra Swerdlow; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (Freddy Heflin), Ray Liotta (Gary Figgis), Harvey Keitel (Ray Donlan), Robert De Niro (Moe Tilden), Michael Rapaport (Murray Babitch), Annabella Sciorra (Liz Randone), Robert Patrick (Jack Rucker), Arthur J. Nascarella (Frank Lagonda), Peter Berg (Joey Randone), Janeane Garofalo (Deputy Cindy Betts), Noah Emmerich (Deputy Bill Geisler), Malik Yoba (Detective Carson), Cathy Moriarty (Rose Donlan), John Spencer (Leo Crasky), and Frank Vincent (PDA President Lassaro).


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Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino)

There’s a lot of great moments in Pulp Fiction. There’s not a lot of great filmmaking–the taxi ride conversation between Bruce Willis and Angela Jones is about as close as director Tarantino gets to it–but there are definitely a lot of great moments. There’s the chemistry between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson. There’s the Christopher Walken monologue, which is hilarious.

It’s also beyond problematic in terms of Tarantino’s force-feeding of racism to the audience; at a certain point, very, very early on, the viewer either has to accept Tarantino’s conceit racist language doesn’t make one a racist or just stop watching the film. Because the real racists are actually literal monsters, something the criminals of Pulp Fiction usually aren’t (at least on screen). Oh, and Tarantino’s wife in the film is black. So his slur-laden monologue–terribly delivered, of course, as Tarantino’s a horrific actor–means he really isn’t racist. It’s just supposed to be funny. You know, agree with him about it.

There’s probably lots written about Tarantino and racism. Lots excusing him, I’m sure. But Pulp Fiction doesn’t want to talk about racism or much else. It’s another stool Tarantino steps on to deliver the film. It’s not about the real world or real people, it’s about Tarantino’s version of “pulp fiction,” which involves magic and so on. Anyway, I’m off topic. A look at the film’s place in mainstreaming “post-racial” racist humor deserves a serious discussion, which I’m going to do here.

Wow, after that lede, how do I get back on track with saying a lot of nice things about the film and Tarantino’s writing….

He gets phenomenal performances from Travolta and Willis. Travolta somewhat more than Willis, even though Willis gets better material to himself. Travolta’s good solo, but nothing compared to when he’s with Jackson and Jackson gets the only real character role in the film. Everyone else plays a caricature or worse, but Jackson gets to stop and look around at the world and figure out how to live in it. He’s amazing, whether he’s delivering Tarantino’s comical expository dialogue, the tough guy threatening, the soul searching; Jackson does it all.

There’s some solid support from Maria de Medeiros as Willis’s girlfriend. The film’s in three sections–Travolta goes on a date with crime boss Ving Rhames’s wife, Uma Thurman in the first, Willis rips off Rhames and is on the run in the second, then the third part is just an amusement chapter for Jackson and Travolta. de Medeiros is barely in the film, doesn’t get to leave a crappy motel room set, yet she still makes more of the character than Thurman makes of hers.

You can say Thurman’s got a well-written role, but you’re wrong. Sorry. Tarantino doesn’t want to ruminate on masculinity, but he gets in the ballpark (Willis as the classic Hollywood hero). The female characters, Thurman in particular, get thin material. You need to think about it. Pulp Fiction is, like I said, rather problematic. It doesn’t help Thurman her wig has to do most of the acting with the way Tarantino directs her. His direction of her talking heads scenes with Travolta is his worst work as a director in the entire film. Like I said, problematic. It’s a good, very problematic motion picture.

Would it be better if cinematographer Andrzej Sekula weren’t really boring? Maybe. Sekula lights the picture to emphasize the performances, which is fine, only it’s not all close-ups or medium shots where it’d be appropriate. The solid, but not startling, editing from Sally Menke helps things a little though. There’s an energy to the film and when it goes slack, Fiction gets a little too long in the tooth. Since it’s three separate chapters, it’s particularly annoying when it goes slack right off with Thurman and Travolta’s date. Willis and Rhames’s story immediately saves the picture. Jackson and Travolta basically coast through on the last one.

Oh, and Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer aren’t good enough. Some of it’s the writing, some of it’s the directing, but quite a bit of it is their performances. It’s a strange misstep too, since Tarantino’s attention to narrative tone is one of the best things about the film.

Pulp Fiction is a solid, often troubling film. Tarantino doesn’t bite off more than he can chew, however–it’s assured, but not ambitious in anything but its length and bravado–because he doesn’t chew off much of anything with it.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Quentin Tarantino; screenplay by Tarantino, based on a story by Tarantino and Roger Avary; director of photography, Andrzej Sekula; edited by Sally Menke; production designer, David Wasco; produced by Lawrence Bender; released by Miramax Films.

Starring John Travolta (Vincent Vega), Samuel L. Jackson (Jules Winnfield), Uma Thurman (Mia Wallace), Bruce Willis (Butch Coolidge), Harvey Keitel (The Wolf), Tim Roth (Pumpkin), Amanda Plummer (Honey Bunny), Maria de Medeiros (Fabienne), Ving Rhames (Marsellus Wallace), Eric Stoltz (Lance), Rosanna Arquette (Jody) and Christopher Walken (Captain Koons).


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Clerks (1994, Kevin Smith)

Clerks operates on intensity. But it’s mostly dialogue and there’s not a lot of action. So director Smith relies on surprises, whether visual, in dialogue, in plot. At its best, Clerks is creative with its constraints. At its worst, Clerks is lead Brian O’Halloran whining (badly, I might add). There’s a lot of whining. Only O’Halloran is supposed to be the viewer’s POV; Smith structures the narrative from this negative place. That POV allows for a lot of the humor–and it gives Jeff Anderson’s sidekick character more implied depth than O’Halloran gets–but it does get annoying at times. As Clerks progresses, Smith gets a lot less inventive and not just with the filmmaking, but with the narrative.

The film ends up being about O’Halloran and his place in the universe. While it does start with O’Halloran, it’s more about his juvenile behavior in his relationship with his girlfriend, Marilyn Ghigliotti in the film’s best performance. O’Halloran isn’t good and Smith doesn’t know how to direct him to be better. The script requires a lot of charm for the part to work and O’Halloran doesn’t have it. He even gets less likable as the movie goes on and he becomes less and less imposing a protagonist.

Maybe if O’Halloran were actually structured to have everything go on around him, but Smith doesn’t set things up well. Clerks is a lot of solid creative impulses running out of steam before they’re anywhere near finished. Same goes for Smith’s script–he’s got some interesting questions but the answers never surpass mediocre.

Anderson’s fantastic, O’Halloran isn’t. There’s amusing support from Jason Mewes, problematic–but earnest–support from Lisa Spoonauer (in the film’s most problematic role).

Great photography from David Klein, great editing (for the most part) from Smith and Scott Mosier.

Clerks goes from better to worse to a little bit better, but having a strong sense of itself for the finale doesn’t make up for all the time it spends floundering.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kevin Smith; director of photography, David Klein; edited and produced by Scott Mosier and Smith; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Brian O’Halloran (Dante Hicks), Jeff Anderson (Randal Graves), Marilyn Ghigliotti (Veronica), Lisa Spoonauer (Caitlin Bree), Jason Mewes (Jay), Kevin Smith (Silent Bob) and Scott Mosier (Willam the Idiot Manchild).


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