Tag Archives: Patricia Clarkson

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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Jumanji (1995, Joe Johnston)

Jumanji is a thoroughly decent film, mostly due to good production values and Johnston’s direction.

It’s sort of hard to talk about the film due to the plotting. The film’s not real time, but the present action is still short… or not. In some ways, it’s twenty-six years, in others, it’s a day and a half and, in even others, it’s five minutes. Or three hours and five minutes. It’s not a problem for the film, which is just an amusement. There’s no attempt at any depth, just competent presentation of depth in the moment.

Jumanji doesn’t even work in a way one could take it seriously.

The casting is solid, though Bebe Neuwirth gets the short end of the stick. Adam Hann-Byrd is rather good. Robin Williams is fine, even if the script loses track of how to treat his character after a certain point. David Allen Grier and Bradley Pierce are both good. It’s hard to believe, between Pierce and Kristen Dunst (the kids in the movie), Dunst is the one who still acts professionally.

There’s a nice little James Handy cameo.

The film just has a good feel to it, something James Horner’s music helps.

The special effects are fine. While from the early days of CG, Jumanji would be impossible without it… as opposed to using CG instead of practical effects.

Whenever the film’s ambitious or attempts something, it succeeds. It doesn’t try to do much… but when it does, it does them right.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Johnston; screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh, Greg Taylor and Jim Strain, based on a story by Taylor, Strain and Chris Van Allsburg and on a children’s book by Van Allsburg; director of photography, Thomas E. Ackerman; edited by Robert Dalva; music by James Horner; production designer, James D. Bissell; produced by Scott Kroopf and William Teitler; released by TriStar Pictures.

Starring Robin Williams (Alan Parrish), Bonnie Hunt (Sarah Whittle), Kirsten Dunst (Judy Shepherd), Bradley Pierce (Peter Shepherd), David Alan Grier (Carl Bentley), Bebe Neuwirth (Nora Shepherd), Adam Hann-Byrd (Young Alan), Laura Bell Bundy (Young Sarah), Jonathan Hyde (Sam Parrish), Patricia Clarkson (Carol-Anne Parrish) and James Handy (Exterminator).


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Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008, Woody Allen)

Vicky Cristina Barcelona feels like old Woody Allen. The defining characteristic implying a throwback is the narration… which actually isn’t a throwback to old Woody Allen, but to Jules and Jim or Two English Girls. The film could practically be called Two American Girls, but I think then it’d be a little obvious. The only other major influence–and this one is a little of a stretch–is one shot owing a lot to Blow Up (wind in the trees and all, I always think Blow Up).

But the film’s not really a throwback to 1970s Allen. It’s too different. There’s a definite lack of main character. The film’s attention oscillates between Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson (playing the titular characters) to the point each becomes forgotten while attention is on the other, even if there’s discussion of the character.

Hall’s the film’s closest thing to a main character. Between her uncertainty toward fiancé Chris Messina (in the film’s only comedic performance) and her infatuation with Javier Bardem, Hall gets the film’s best scenes. She’s the only actor who Allen pauses on, making sure her pensive, thoughtful expressions make an impression on the viewer. He does it a couple times I remember; her blinks are that wonderful cinema combination, when the actor and the director achieve something because of one another.

For the first half of the film, Bardem has little to do but be seductive, intelligent and beguiling. He does all three wonderfully, charming both Hall, Johansson and the viewer. He’s a strange character for Allen, as he’s so utterly devoid of cynicism. The film–and Bardem’s role in it–changes quite a bit when Penélope Cruz shows up.

Cruz’s character is an offscreen personality from almost the beginning of the film, so her actual presence is going to have to change things, but somehow–even as events become more sensational–they become less interesting. Johansson’s solid in the film, but she’s second fiddle to Hall here. Comparing the performances, what Johansson does with a big dramatic plot and what Hall does with a quiet one… it’s an incredible difference. Allen seems to notice too, not really giving Johansson any real meat.

And that Boca Burger mentality is what hurts the film. Allen starts to bring it around in the end, getting into real problems for Hall, but then lets the sensationalism back in. It’s too much of an exercise. He’s not trying for anything here, just spinning his wheels–and he spins them incredibly well, but the beginning suggests he’s going to bring it all together in the end. He sort of abandons Johansson at one point, when she’s become just too passive in the action.

Some of the problem is Cruz. She’s excellent in the film (a surprise), but she inhabits her role. The character’s so big before Cruz even appears on screen, once she does and is successful, it’s just too much. Given most of her scenes are with Johansson… the entire film goes adrift for a little while. Until Hall comes back and things are fine… and then Cruz comes back and they aren’t.

It’s a fantastic film–probably the most successful of Allen’s more recent narrative experiments–but his lack of interest in anything but execution is painfully obvious.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Woody Allen; director of photography, Javier Aguirresarobe; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production designer, Alain Bainée; produced by Letty Aronson, Gareth Wiley and Stephen Tenenbaum; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the Weinstein Company.

Starring Javier Bardem (Juan Antonio), Patricia Clarkson (Judy Nash), Penélope Cruz (Maria Elena), Kevin Dunn (Mark Nash), Rebecca Hall (Vicky), Scarlett Johansson (Cristina) and Chris Messina (Doug).


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Good Night, and Good Luck (2005, George Clooney)

George Clooney directs Good Night, and Good Luck with an absolute confidence. It’s Clooney’s second film, but he doesn’t just know how to make a restricted setting story (the film takes place in the CBS building, a bar, and two to three other locations) exciting… he also knows how to make an informative docudrama into an affecting and revealing look at people working together. So, Good Luck is about citizenship and working together. And some great filmmaking.

Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov have their main story–the plot–Murrow and McCarthy, but they add these subplots, some small, some very big. For example, the plight of secretly married couple Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson parallels the film’s main plot. But there’s also Ray Wise’s story (Clooney introduces Wise being filmed in studio, so discreetly, I thought it was a cameo). Or the relationship between Clooney’s Fred Friendly and David Strathairn’s Murrow, which is deceptively (at least as the film starts) deep. Their partnership is what enables the film’s main plot. It’s an incredibly interesting narrative, because the film is so short and… for the most part, most of the characters are only recognizable by their faces, not by names. Clooney cast a lot of good people who do good work, but they’re important to the film because they work with Strathairn and Clooney, not for any other reason (Downey and Clarkson being exceptions).

As for Strathairn’s performance… he brings an inestimable humanity to Murrow. His physical performance is perfect, of course, but there’s this sensitivity, which makes Murrow almost so real he’s fiction.

The film draws some definite parallels between the film’s era and the modern one, when the television industry has turned news in to an even cheaper, even more exploitative reality show (something Murrow warns about early on). But Clooney closes with Eisenhower, reminding modern conservatives Republicans weren’t always evil-minded idiots and, presumably, liberals too.

The use of historical footage should be distracting, but isn’t. Even when, while watching, I noticed modern “news reporters” on television got a lot of their interviewing technique from McCarthy… I’m not sure how Clooney got away with it–some of the footage is cleaner than the rest and it’s all supposed to be on television, but it presumably would have looked better–maybe he made it part of the black and white film agreement… you’re watching Good Night, and Good Luck and it’s in black and white and so you’re going to accept what follows. Somehow, the film’s reality and the news footage works hand in hand, the footage making the other scenes more real.

It’s a significant achievement, not just for a second-time director. Lots of decent directors go whole careers without pulling off anything this assured and there are lots of great ones who only manage to do them sporadically. The film’s exquisite.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Clooney; written by Clooney and Grant Heslov; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by Stephen Mirrione; production designer, Jim Bissell; produced by Heslov; released by Warner Independent Pictures.

Starring David Strathairn (Edward R. Murrow), George Clooney (Fred Friendly), Patricia Clarkson (Shirley Wershba), Robert Downey Jr. (Joe Wershba), Frank Langella (William Paley), Grant Heslov (Don Hewitt), Ray Wise (Don Hollenbeck) and Dianne Reeves (Jazz Singer).


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