Category Archives: 1994

The Ref (1994, Ted Demme)

Every once in a while, The Ref lets you forget it’s just a comedy vehicle for stand-up comic Denis Leary and so doesn’t need to actually be a good drama and just lets you enjoy the acting. Demme’s direction is simultaneously detached, thoughtful, and sincere. He and editor Jeffrey Wolf craft these wonderful comedic scenes. Sure, they’re usually some mixture of smart and crass and good old shock vulgar, but they’re good. They’re funny. The Ref starts as a straight-faced spoof of a hostage drama. Lovable master thief Denis Leary takes viciously fighting and profoundly unhappily married Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey hostage. On Christmas Eve. Eventually their extended family shows up and the film culminates in Leary, who’s spent the movie refereeing the fighting couple—refereeing, The Ref, a little punny but, you know, fine. Makes you think about sports not the movie actually being a Bergman spoof.

It’s not. I wish it were, but it’s not. It’s a mainstream comedy with just the right amount of jokes at people and with people, once you get over the nastiness between Spacey and Davis. The opening scene is them in marriage counseling—an uncredited BD Wong plays the overwhelmed counselor who’s just there for the eventual movie trailer… and to normalize their behavior. Their exceptionally mean comments to each other. Hateful, spiteful, so on and so forth. The film’s giving us permission to laugh at Spacey and Davis trying to manipulate and hurt one another. It comes right after an Americana intro to the rich, idyllic suburb where the action takes place. We meet the friendly, personable cops, the children looking in the window at Christmas decorations, on and on. There are a lot of disparate pieces to The Ref, like Raymond J. Barry as the weary police chief with the department of lovably dumb cops, the It’s a Wonderful Life anecdote scene with a bunch of those lovably dumb cops, or J.K. Simmons as a blackmailed military school administrator. The movie makes them all fit. Sometimes with help from composer David A. Stewart, but always thanks to Demme and editor Wolf. The Ref’s got a great flow.

So then too is credit due screenwriters Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss; Weiss has a story credit but LaGravenese is top-billed so there’s a story, I’m sure. Maybe it explains why the melodramatic writing for Spacey and Davis—because Spacey and Davis need meat, they need something they can devour. They both get various solo scenes throughout where they get to let loose. Showcases, really. Because in addition to having a lot of funny scenes, The Ref is about watching Davis and Spacey do these character examinations of what would otherwise just be caricatures. They’ve got to be funny being dramatically mean and hateful to each other, while building the foundation to support the performances when the roles finally get stripped to the bone and laid bare for melodramatic purposes. While in what’s basically a sitcom situation involving Leary pretending to be their marriage counselor while he waits for his getaway boat to be ready. See, Spacey’s got an evil mom (Glynis Johns, who’s inexplicably British) and remember it’s Christmas Eve so it’s going to be Johns, apparently Spacey’s moron brother Adam LeFevre—nothing’s more unrealistic in the film than LeFevre and Spacey being brothers; they don’t exchange any lines; it’s like the film wanted to avoid it. LeFevre’s monosyllabic and lives in fear of wife Christine Baranski, who’s nasty to their kids—Phillip Nicoll and Ellie Raab but in a stuck-up White lady sort of way. Yeah… sitcom is the way to describe The Ref, actually.

Anyway.

Then there’s Spacey and Davis’s son, Robert J. Steinmiller Jr., who’s fine. The movie doesn’t ask too much of him and Demme directs him well. He’s a burgeoning criminal mastermind, a sophomore shipped off to military academy. He’s a plot foil more than a major supporting player—basically the film demotes him in the second act because it’s not fun watching Spacey and Davis berate each other in front of Steinmiller, which isn’t a great situation.

The filmmakers do what they can but there’s an inherent unevenness to The Ref. It feigns being different things—wry hostage spoof, hateful family Christmas movie—without ever trying to actually be those things. It’s comfortable just relying on Davis, Spacey, and Leary to get it through.

Because Leary’s the emcee. The film hints at giving him some stand-up rants throughout but soon makes it clear it’ll never interrupts the action for them. It’s a Leary vehicle but not a base one. He’s excellent. Not clearly profoundly talented like Davis and Spacey—which, note, is much different than their performances being profound—but excellent in the part. He’s very good at making room from his more talented, second and third-billed costars.

The Ref’s good.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ted Demme; screenplay by Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss, based on a story by Weiss; director of photography, Adam Kimmel; edited by Jeffrey Wolf; music by David A. Stewart; production designer, Dan Davis; costume designer, Judianna Makovsky; produced by Ron Bozman, LaGravenese, and Jeffrey Weiss; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Denis Leary (Gus), Judy Davis (Caroline), Kevin Spacey (Lloyd), Robert J. Steinmiller Jr. (Jesse), Richard Bright (Murray), Raymond J. Barry (Huff), Glynis Johns (Rose), Christine Baranski (Connie), Adam LeFevre (Gary), Phillip Nicoll (John), Ellie Raab (Mary), Bill Raymond (George), John Scurti (Steve), Jim Turner (Phil), Robert Ridgely (Bob Burley), J.K. Simmons (Siskel), Rutanya Alda (Linda), and BD Wong (Dr. Wong).


Nobody’s Fool (1994, Robert Benton)

Nobody’s Fool takes place during a particularly busy December for protagonist Paul Newman. He’s got a lot going on all at once, but mostly the reappearance of son Dylan Walsh and family. They’re in town at the beginning for Thanksgiving, but Walsh’s marriage is in a troubled state—we’re never privy to the exact details, as Walsh remains something of a mystery throughout—and eventually wife Catherine Dent leaves (taking the astoundingly annoying younger son Carl J. Matusovich, leaving older, shy son Alexander Goodwin with Walsh). So Newman, who walked out on Walsh before he turned one, all of a sudden finds himself playing grandfather. Even more surprising… he likes it.

The film also never gets into the specifics of Newman’s failed coupling with (uncredited) Elizabeth Wilson, but Wilson doesn’t fit into Newman’s lifestyle. Even though her husband, Richard Mawe, thinks Newman’s a riot. We get to see more of Mawe and Newman than Wilson and Newman, which seems a little strange until you realize how little that history means to Newman. He’s a child growing older at sixty, still treading water on life, daydreaming about escaping to paradises with boss’s wife, Melanie Griffith. Griffith’s married to jackass Bruce Willis, who spends his night out with other women and his days running his inherited construction company if not into the ground then a lot closer to it than it ought to be. The film opens with Newman trying to sue Willis on a worker’s comp claim and Willis wiggling his way out. Though it doesn’t help Newman’s lawyer, Gene Saks, seems to view the case as a way to keep busy more than a potential success. While the inciting incident of the film is Walsh and family showing up, Newman’s in a new place now thanks to his bum knee. His steady, sturdy life has a major kink in it now—especially since with the lawsuit he can’t really be working for Willis any more and Willis is the only game in town.

Willis and Newman’s relationship in the film is probably its most interesting, because Newman can’t stand Willis but he’s also constantly disappointed in him. He’s never hopeful for him, because—even though Newman’s genial—he doesn’t seem to accept optimism as a rational life outlook. Even small things. Newman’s a medieval serf whose life is mostly unchanging, through entropy is breaking down some of the things around him. Particularly his truck. Whereas Willis is secure enough not to worry about change or the lack of it. Willis takes everything for granted in a detached, positive way, Newman takes everything for granted in a negative way. Yet Newman’s protective of Willis, even as Willis holds power over Newman. Not to mention Newman can’t stand Willis for cheating on Griffith.

Nobody’s Fool isn’t trying to be subtle. It’s a very deliberate character study of Newman, watching him interact with the various folks in his life, like landlady Jessica Tandy or now jealous of Walsh sidekick Pruitt Taylor Vince. Oh, and of course zealous idiot cop Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman and Newman are hilarious in the film. Director Benton goes for laughs all the time. He goes for smiles a lot of the time and laughs all of the time. Newman’s always got something to say, usually the wrong thing, which is a tried and true comedy formula. Nobody’s Fool packages it a little differently—Newman doesn’t just give a strong lead performance, he makes Nobody’s Fool feel very serious, even as it stays genial, even as it goes for laughs. Newman anchors it.

Good performances from everyone. Newman in particular, Vince—Josef Sommer’s awesome as Tandy’s creep bank guy who Newman wants to punch out but can never find the right opportunity. Great supporting cast too—Jay Patterson, Alice Drummond, Margo Martindale. Ellen Chenoweth’s casting is excellent. Walsh is fine but could be better. He needs to be at least as good as Willis and he’s not. Grandson Goodwin is fine, even if he does disappear for a long stretch from second act to third. Nobody’s Fool has that limited present action—Thanksgiving to Christmas—but Benton never relies on it, instead establishing an easy going pace, never rushing things even though logically these events are occurring in what must be rapid succession. Especially with Griffith’s martial troubles; she’s going through a whole lot but we only see her during her respites where she gets to pal around with Newman.

What ends up happening is the supporting cast can’t compete with the film’s momentum—if they’re hands off, like Willis (who’s in the film a lot but treated like a cameo) or Tandy, it works. In fact Tandy’s subplot with son Sommer gets some scenes without Newman; no one else does. But if they’re more directly involved with Newman—so Vince, Walsh, Griffith—it feels like there’s something missing. Not so much with Vince, who’s a combination of comic relief and gentle heart, but definitely with Walsh and Griffith. Especially Walsh. Griffith’s got a more functional part in the story, whereas Walsh is basically the inciting incident personified. His presence kicks off Newman’s self-discovery. Or is at least the final straw to kick it off.

Excellent production—great photography from John Bailey and production design from David Gropman—and sure-footed direction from Benton. Lovely, omnipresent score from Howard Shore does a lot of the heavy lifting. If Newman’s not doing it, the music’s doing it. But it’s all very safe, like Benton’s goal really is to show how deadbeat dads would maybe be a lot worse if they’d stuck around and they’re worth a second chance once they hit sixty. Newman’s able to get a lot of mileage out of the part, but he’s staying on the track, just racking up laps.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Benton; screenplay by Benton, based on the novel by Richard Russo; director of photography, John Bailey; edited by John Bloom; music by Howard Shore; production designer, David Gropman; produced by Scott Rudin and Arlene Donovan; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Sully), Jessica Tandy (Miss Beryl), Bruce Willis (Carl), Melanie Griffith (Toby), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Rub), Dylan Walsh (Peter), Alexander Goodwin (Will), Gene Saks (Wirf), Josef Sommer (Clive Jr.), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Officer Raymer), Philip Bosco (Judge Flatt), Catherine Dent (Charlotte), Carl J. Matusovich (Wacker), Jay Patterson (Jocko), Jerry Mayer (Ollie), Margo Martindale (Birdy), Angelica Page (Ruby), Elizabeth Wilson (Vera), Richard Mawe (Ralph), and Alice Drummond (Hattie).


Crooklyn (1994, Spike Lee)

Crooklyn is a series of memories. They’re mostly the main character’s memories—and if they’re not, they’re definitely from her perception. The memories start in the spring and go through the summer. Director Lee and his cowriters—and siblings (Crooklyn is semi-autobiographical) Joie Lee and Cinqué Lee frequently change the pace of the memories. Some are long scenes with a lot of action, some are shorter transitional scenes, memorable for their placement in the narrative and their location. The Lee siblings are very comfortable with the film’s narrative distance and changing it; they nimbly move between characters during the first half or so then turn around and slow down to focus on the protagonist. When they speed up again, there’s still the same tighter focus, but a lot more going on and at a different pace.

Zelda Harris is the protagonist. She’s nine years old; the only daughter of schoolteacher Alfre Woodward and successful working musician but not successful composer Delroy Lindo. She has four brothers. Carlton Williams plays the oldest, presumably Spike. He’s a jerk. He also gets the most material to do because he’s the oldest and he and Harris have a whole character arc going on through the movie but it’s one of the quietest subplots, because there’s not much room for laughs. Because Crooklyn has a lot of laughs. Woodward’s intense and the kids are stinkers. And Lindo not really being any help is one of the louder subplots. The masculinity isn’t terribly toxic, but it’s far from good. It leads to some big fights and tense discussions between Woodward and Lindo, which feature some phenomenal acting from the pair. Harris usually gets involved too, since her brothers are too busy being boys. The brothers being boys often contributes to a lot of the humor, which the script never uses to alleviate the drama. The two can coexist, but ones not a solution for the other.

As the film goes on—it starts towards the end of a school year, with Harris dreading the possibility of leaving Brooklyn to visit Southern relations over the summer. There are no scenes at the school. The film either takes place on the block, in the house, or down South. Until the third act, anyway. Third act is a completely different—appropriately—story for locations. But as the film goes on, the Lees take their time establishing the ground situation, establishing the characters, establishing the relationships. Exposition dumps are rare, usually only when they need to give context for an earlier detail, usually from Woodward, who is very fallible, she’s just not fallible about dumb things. She’s never sainted in the film, but she’s closer than anyone else to being a saint. The script doesn’t shy away from children’s cruelty or stupidity (not even Harris’s). It also is very careful in how it portrays Lindo, who takes the longest to get established. It’s a great script.

When summer finally arrives—in the second half of the film—and Harris goes down South to visit aunt and uncle Frances Foster and Norman Matlock and, more, cousin Patriece Nelson, Harris gets to really run the movie for a while. She gets to experience the strangeness of her relations and the South, but not to be aware of how that experience is going to perturb her character development.

Because she’s nine.

When the summer vacation is over, there’s a different Harris, but there’s also a very different situation waiting for her back at home. The script changes the pacing of the memories. Some events get missed, some events have more weight, and we’re watching Harris exist through them and experience them but have no idea what’s happening to her. Crooklyn isn’t a kids movie per se… but it’s also not not a kids movie. The film’s always from a kid’s eye-level, let’s say, and then it turns out that eye-level just perfectly matches Harris’s. It’s a really great script.

Performances—Harris, Woodward, and Lindo are the whole show. There are some really good supporting performances (Isaiah Washington’s performance as a Vietnam vet deserves its own movie). But it’s all about Harris, Woodward, and Lindo. As for whether Harris has better scenes with Woodward or Lindo on her own… it’s probably Lindo, just because how the character development arc goes. But there are still some fabulous ones between Woodward and Harris. Harris knows Lindo’s not exactly the most responsible adult. So lots of gristle for scenes.

Technically, Crooklyn’s near flawless. Great photography from Arthur Jafa, even better editing from Barry Alexander Brown, which is made even more effective thanks to the awesome Terrence Blanchard score. Wynn Thomas’s production design is awesome too. Especially when Harris goes down South and Lee stretches the screen to show it as otherworldly (distorted and televised). The production design is almost more important during that section, since the audience has to see and understand what Harris is seeing because she might not really understand it.

The stretching is director Lee’s most extreme style choice. He’s got a dream sequence, which fits into the film’s existing stylistic flourishes—Spike Lee appears a neighborhood glue-sniffer and jerk, so he gives himself most of the flash. It fits, given how his stand-in, Williams, treats Harris. Meanwhile, Joie Lee–Harris being her stand-in—shows up as a slightly overbearing aunt. Uncredited. Third screenwriter Cinqué Lee doesn’t cameo.

I haven’t even gotten to the soundtrack, which maybe was produced by Alex Steyermark. The use of seventies songs is exquisite, both in the narrative—as a detail—or as non-diegetic accompaniment of the scenes. It’s awesome.

Crookyln’s awesome. Harris, Woodward, Linda, and Lees Spike, Joie, and Cinqué make something special.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Spike Lee; screenplay by Joie Lee, Spike Lee, and Cinqué Lee, based on a story by Joie Lee; director of photography, Arthur Jafa; edited by Barry Alexander Brown; music by Terence Blanchard; production designer, Wynn Thomas; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Zelda Harris (Troy), Alfre Woodard (Carolyn), Delroy Lindo (Woody), Carlton Williams (Clinton), Sharif Rashed (Wendell), Tse-Mach Washington (Joseph), Christopher Knowings (Nate), José Zúñiga (Tommy La La), Isaiah Washington (Vic), David Patrick Kelly (Tony Eyes), Patriece Nelson (Viola), Frances Foster (Aunt Song), Norman Matlock (Uncle Clem), Vondie Curtis-Hall (Uncle Brown), Spike Lee (Snuffy), N. Jeremi Duru (Right Hand Man), Ivelka Reyes (Jessica), and Joie Lee (Aunt Maxine).


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Chungking Express (1994, Wong Kar-Wai)

Chungking Express has two parts. First part is lonely young plainclothes cop Kaneshiro Takeshi counting down the days to his birthday, which is also thirty days since his girlfriend of five years dumped him. Simultaneously, sort of middle person drug trafficker Brigitte Lin loses her latest batch of mules (once they’re loaded up with the coke in luggage and person and at the airport, they run off when she’s buying the tickets). If Lin can’t find them, her creep boss (Thom Baker) will have her killed. Director Wong opens the film with stylized slow motion action; Kaneshiro running through the crowded Hong Kong streets after a suspect or something, almost bumping into Lin (who’s in a blonde wig, raincoat, and sunglasses—at night—all movie). Kaneshiro, narrating, explains he’s just come so close to Lin without meeting her and in two days, he’ll be in love with her. So presumably Express is going to be that story. And it is that story. Until it turns out Lin and Kaneshiro’s violent, melancholy romance is just a warm-up. A mood prologue.

The second part is Faye Wong and Tony Chiu-Wai Leung. Leung is a different cop, a little older, and in uniform. Wong works at the counter-only restaurant where Leung gets his coffee. And where Kaneshiro also gets his coffee. But there’s no crossover. Director Wong really did just do a warm-up. Because even though Kaneshiro is the narrator at the beginning, eventually Lin gets some. And her narration is the best in the film. She’s been a complete mystery—sort of unsympathetic but funny as she bosses her mules around, but still sympathetic because Baker’s clearly got some weird thing going on with her, which she might not even know about. You get to know her from her actions and behavior, not narration like Kaneshiro. When Lin does get the narration and makes a revealing statement or two, they send these shockwaves through the rest of the first story. She doesn’t get much narration and even though Kaneshiro gets a bunch, he becomes secondary. It’s clearly Lin’s story. Even though she never goes to the restaurant so has no crossover with kindly owner Chen Jinquan.

Chen gives romantic advice to Kaneshiro, who spends most of his time in the film at the restaurant waiting for his ex-girlfriend to call him. He has this great subplot about expired pineapple. He’s a complete sad sack and comically naive in his narration. Meanwhile, Lin’s sometimes mercurially merciless. There’s this fantastic contrast between their two stories. Wong has some of the same styles—the slow motion action sequences all work the same—but there’s some other visual distinction. Chungking Express is an exemplar of how narrative distance and style can work together while going at very different speeds. It’s awesome.

If Wong wanted, it could be neo-noir. But instead it’s a deliberate drama with Lin and Kaneshiro sometimes meeting in their orbits and how it affects them.

Back to Faye Wong and Tony Leung. Director and writer Wong gives them this third act story with the narrative distance changing to transition things along. It starts as an echo of the first story. Lovelorn cop, wise owner. Only this time there’s Faye Wong. She starts as a foil then becomes the protagonist. Not just of the story, but of the film. Director Wong went through the first part so we could see Faye Wong’s story, which almost entirely without narration as she starts stalking Leung. Comically and lovably, but definitely stalking. Director Wong always keeps this really light mood to Faye Wong hanging out in Leung’s apartment and messing with his stuff. He never breaks from the film’s sharp visual focus. While Express is a film about quiet, sometimes private moments between people, Wong uses the enormity of the city—artificially muffled, but still sharp-as the stage for those moments. That style—infused with bubbly—just further spotlights the film on Faye Wong. It’s jarring when director Wong changes the pace for the third act.

The first story takes place over two and a half days. There’s even a clock involved; the dates of the present action matter to the story and characters. Well, to Kaneshiro anyway. The second story is very loose in pacing, but also extremely precise. Director Wong only wants to give so much of the story at each point in the story. It’s a relaxed pacing, much different from the first story, much different from the beginning of the second story itself. Wong slows things down and lets the film enjoy itself. Faye Wong and Tony Leung are both really charming in the film. The first story is the neo-noir romance, the second half is the romantic comedy, and they’re almost exactly the same, stylistically. But without Faye Wong narrating even through her longer scenes. There’s more time without narration. A lot more. And there’s an entirely different sense of danger. It’s a wryly comedic one, done in a style where there’s no wry comedy. Because more than anything else—even a spectacular vehicle for Faye Wong—it’s this sad sack romantic drama about these two cops who can’t get over their heartache. And they don’t understand how their potential romances exist away from them. In very, very different ways, but it’s a definite echo. It’s a beautifully constructed narrative, beautifully edited as it plays out on screen narrative. Director Wong and his crew do… I don’t know, I’m running low on positive adjectives. The film’s technically breathtaking.

Great photography from Christopher Doyle and Lau Wai-keung. Great editing from William Chang, Kai Kit-Wai, and Kwong Chi-Leung. The film wouldn’t work without them. Or the music. Frankie Chan and Roel A. García’s score is awesome. The use of popular music is awesome. And essential. It’s magnificent.

Wong’s the best performance, then Leung, then Lin, then Kaneshiro. Kaneshiro’s still great. Chen’s perfect as the restaurant owner. Valerie Chow’s good as Leung’s ex-girlfriend because Leung’s so much the second story protagonist for a while he gets flashbacks. For a movie where Leung’s always walking around in tighty-whiteys, there are also some lovely romantic scenes. Director Wong and the crew bring the sexy for the salad days flashbacks, bringing yet another style into the film, which Wong still keeps once Faye Wong takes over, even though the narrative content has changed.

So astoundingly good. Chungking Express is astoundingly good. I’m livid at myself for not seeing it sooner.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai; directors of photography, Christopher Doyle and Lau Wai-Keung; edited by William Chang, Kai Kit-Wai, and Kwong Chi-Leung; music by Frankie Chan and Roel A. García; production designer, Chang; produced by Jeffrey Lau and Chan Yi-kan for Jet Tone Production.

Starring Brigitte Lin (Blonde), Kaneshiro Takeshi (Zhiwu), Faye Wong (Faye), Tony Chiu-Wai Leung (Cop 663), Chen Jinquan (Manager of ‘Midnight Express’), Valerie Chow (Air Hostess), Thom Baker (Drug Dealer), and Zhen Liang (May).


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