Tag Archives: Stephen Baldwin

The Beast (1988, Kevin Reynolds)

The Beast has a lot going for it, so its failure to connect–which is wholly director Reynolds’s fault–is a bit of a disappointment. The second half of the film has an accelerated pace. While the whole thing takes place over a couple days, the second half is an odd combination of summary and real time. Reynolds can’t pull it off. Peter Boyle’s fine editing can’t hide it either.

And some of the problems are writer William Mastrosimone’s fault. After establishing this wonderful antagonism between George Dzundza (as a Russian tank commander in Afghanistan who starts to lose it) and Jason Patric (his sane, and humanist, subordinate), Mastrosimone fails at establishing the camaraderie between Patric and Steven Bauer (as a Mujahideen). Patric and Bauer are both good enough to create said camaraderie and Reynolds certainly tries to engage it. But then acting and directing aren’t enough and the relationship needs the script and Mastrosimone’s too busy playing Patric’s dimwitted fellow tankers, played by Stephen Baldwin and Don Harvey, for laughs. It’s strange, especially since the first half of the film is able to balance it all out.

All of the acting in The Beast is strong. Dzundza gets the flashiest role, but Patric’s great, Bauer’s surprisingly strong (especially since once he and Patric cross paths, he takes a backseat in all his scenes). Baldwin, Harvey (especially Harvey). The supporting cast–Erick Avari, Shoshi Marciano, Kabir Bedi–all real good. When The Beast peaks and starts to slide in the third act, it isn’t the fault of the actors.

Reynolds shoots either close-ups or long shots. Whenever he does a medium shot, it’s a surprise; he’s composing for the eventual home video, pan and scan release, which is simultaneously unfortunate and also the only way he could have done The Beast. The desolate backdrops and the close-ups of the tank’s moving parts set to Mark Isham’s minimalist score work towards a certain transcendence.

Except, of course, Douglas Milsome’s photography is shockingly flat. Coupled with Reynolds’s impatience, the film’s visual sensibilities works counter to Isham’s score and the acting tone.

The Beast makes an intense impression throughout, but not much of one as the end credits begin to roll. It’s very close to being successful.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Kevin Reynolds; screenplay by William Mastrosimone, based on his play; director of photography, Douglas Milsome; edited by Peter Boyle; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Kuli Sander; produced by John Fiedler; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jason Patric (Koverchenko), George Dzundza (Daskal), Steven Bauer (Taj), Stephen Baldwin (Golikov), Don Harvey (Kaminski), Erick Avari (Samad), Kabir Bedi (Akbar), Shoshi Marciano (Sherina) and Chaim Girafi (Moustafa).


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The Usual Suspects (1995, Bryan Singer)

Seeing as how The Usual Suspects popularized the major twist ending–that contrivance having now plagued American cinema for the last dozen years–it’s interesting to see it again. I haven’t seen the film in years (probably ten, at least nine), but I remember the last time I watched it, I thought about what was true and what probably wasn’t. Most twist ending (or late revelation and eureka moment endings)–it’s stunning how Shyamalan stole his standard part and parcel from Singer’s approach here–have clues, easter eggs, whatever. The Usual Suspects has a couple, but given the narrative’s layering, it’s impossible to know what’s true and what isn’t. So The Usual Suspects becomes the crash test dummy for whether a twist ending narrative can survive after countless viewings (well, not countless… I’m almost positive this viewing was my fourth).

And it can. At least, The Usual Suspects can.

There’s that beautiful combination of script and direction here, there’s Kevin Pollak’s jokes and Giancarlo Esposito’s hat. There’s the film’s roaming protagonist (Gabriel Bryne, Chazz Palminteri and Kevin Spacey all wear the hat). Singer’s composition is precise, each shot–in no small part due to cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel–has a unpretentious gravitas. The Usual Suspects‘s greatest achievement is Singer’s direction. He makes the film interesting to watch no matter what the content may be, which is where the script becomes so important.

There are “clues” throughout the film as to the twist ending, but the clues are only for to spin the viewer’s wheels (there’s no truth in any of them), making the relationship between the film and the viewer analogous to the relationship between Spacey and Palminteri. Storyteller and listener. Taken on its own, The Usual Suspects would suggest the possibilities for films with twist endings, the freedoms they can have, their advantages over traditional narratives. Unfortunately, even with good films with twist endings, no one’s really had the same success (Singer certainly did not with his subsequent feature, Apt Pupil).

Christopher McQuarrie’s script, which is so lauded for putting in the clues, is far more successful in its successful use of narration on a modern film and dialogue. McQuarrie’s dialogue is at times both stylized and not, with the title softening the informed viewer to it. Actually, the thing about the title in relation to the film is Humphrey Bogart could have, at different points in his career, played every one of the five main characters.

The long-term effect of The Usual Suspects, besides kicking off the big twist ending (and the handling of the revelation) phenomenon, is the actors. While Stephen Baldwin never did anything good again (his fine performance here is nothing but a–willful–imitation of brother Alec) and Suspects is one of Gabriel Byrne’s finest hours in his hit and miss career, it did introduce popular audiences to Kevin Spacey and everyone to Benicio Del Toro. Spacey immediately took off while Del Toro had to make it through a some bad pictures. Spacey’s excellent, not yet even aware he’d someday have a best actor rote; his delivery of McQuarrie’s narration is what makes it work. He has the hardest job, because he has to sell the twist ending’s revelation throughout. He has to make it seem possible. Kevin Pollak turns in the second strongest performance (after Spacey).

The Usual Suspects is about to turn thirteen (a few days before I turn thirty) and, while I can lament how Singer went nowhere artistically (the possessive use of his credit in the titles is strangely spectacular), it’s not a film to be discounted or dismissed as fanboy fodder. There’s just too much cinematic substance.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bryan Singer; written by Christopher McQuarrie; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by John Ottman; music by Ottman; production designer, Howard Cummings; produced by Michael McDonnell and Singer; released by Gramercy Pictures.

Starring Stephen Baldwin (McManus), Gabriel Byrne (Dean Keaton), Benicio Del Toro (Fenster), Kevin Pollak (Todd Hockney), Kevin Spacey (Verbal Kint), Chazz Palminteri (Dave Kujan, US Customs), Pete Postlethwaite (Kobayashi), Giancarlo Esposito (Jack Baer, FBI), Suzy Amis (Edie Finneran), Dan Hedaya (Sgt. Jeffrey Rabin), Paul Bartel (the smuggler) and Peter Greene (Redfoot).


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