Category Archives: 1996

The Daytrippers (1996, Greg Mottola)

There are two profoundly well-directed scenes in the third act of The Daytrippers, including the last one, so you really want to give what you can of it a pass. Daytrippers is very straightforward, even through the various complexities of the third act, but just because Mottola (who wrote as well as directed) knows what he needs to do with the characters at a given point in the story doesn’t mean he knows how to do it with them. The film spends most of its runtime promising to give Anne Meara and Pat McNamara these great roles but instead reduces them both to caricature. Sure, not the initially implied caricatures—she’s an overbearing Long Island housewife and he’s the hen-pecked husband—but changing from one caricature to another isn’t character development. Because Mottola asks for a lot of leeway on Meara, who’s shown as terrible person throughout and one not even deserving of empathy, implying along the way any woman over a certain age are raving harpies, only to make her even worse than predicted.

It’s a lot.

And then Mottola’s done with her because she’s just a distraction. She’s been distracting the film from Hope Davis, the ostensible lead, for the previous seventy minutes or so and then all of a sudden it’s like… oh, yeah, she’s just MacGuffin. Because we couldn’t get Stanley Tucci for anything but a supporting role. Tucci is Davis’s husband. The film opens with them coming home from Thanksgiving and having an intimate moment. The next day, Tucci goes off to work in the city and Davis discovers what appears to be a love letter on the floor. Presumably fell out of his briefcase. So she heads over to mom Meara’s, where we’ve already met the rest of the cast. We get introduced to Meara and McNamara as they make as much noise as possible to wake other daughter Parker Posey, who’s home from college for the holiday with boyfriend Liev Schreiber. Posey and Schreiber are going into the city and waiting for McNamara to give them a ride to the train.

But then Davis arrives with her problems and, counseling against her calling Tucci, Meara decides McNamara is going to drive everyone into the city. Hence The Daytrippers.

The family has various misadventures getting into the city, their journey set to Schreiber summarizing his novel to the mostly disinterested audience. Watching Posey and Schreiber’s relationship slowly implode over the film as the pressure in the car keeps on ratcheting up is one of Daytrippers’s most deliberate and least successful subplots. Eventually Posey meets author Campbell Scott—Tucci’s a literary agent or something—and he’s everything Schreiber wishes he could be—published, self-confident, smarter. The scene where Scott takes Schreiber’s insipid political philosophy out back and beats it with a stick until it crumbles is something else. The Daytrippers always feels very indie, with John Inwood’s realistic (and gorgeous) photography, Richard Martinez’s score, Mottola’s long takes… but the story’s basically a sitcom episode and a lot of the characterizations are similarly shallow. Even Meara’s performance works more appropriately in that context.

Only Mottola is very clearly not directing a sitcom. He directs against the script, which somehow works, but the script’s still got its problems. And then there’s Schreiber, who’s too tall to be puppy dog and a little bit too absurd. Six foot three, Cambridge-educated, mama’s boy fops who work construction in Michigan require a lot of… something. And neither Mottola or Schreiber know how to do that something.

Davis gets very little to do in the first half of the film—see, they can’t find Tucci so they have to traverse the city through the runtime with the aforementioned adventures, which are have limited budgets and often involve parties or at least social gatherings with food and alcohol present—but then she gets a bunch in the third act. Only not a lot of dialogue, just a lot of long takes of Davis thinking. She’s awesome at them and you wish Mottola had been doing them the whole time because they add up while the stuff he had been focusing on did not.

McNamara’s okay. I was expecting more from him, but he’s solid. Posey’s good. Not a great part overall (which is a big problem), but she’s good. Tucci’s great. Great cameo from Marcia Gay Harden.

The Daytrippers is a well-made picture, with a few moments of inspired brilliance. In the end those moments just make you wish Mottola had figured out how to do them sooner. And more frequently.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Greg Mottola; director of photography, John Inwood; edited by Anne McCabe; music by Richard Martinez; production designer, Bonnie J. Brinkley; costume designer, Barbara Presar; produced by Nancy Tenenbaum and Steven Soderbergh; released by Cinépix Film Properties.

Starring Hope Davis (Eliza Malone D’Amico), Parker Posey (Jo Malone), Liev Schreiber (Carl Petrovic), Anne Meara (Rita Malone), Pat McNamara (Jim Malone), Campbell Scott (Eddie Masler), Andy Brown (Ronnie), Paul Herman (Leon), Marcia Gay Harden (Libby), Marc Grapey (Aaron), Douglas McGrath (Chap), and Stanley Tucci (Louis D’Amico).


Emma (1996, Douglas McGrath)

Emma keeps misplacing things. For a long stretches, it misplaces second-billed Toni Collette (who goes from being the subject of the first half to an afterthought in the most of the second half to just a plot foil in the third act). There’s also lead Gwyneth Paltrow’s painting. The film opens with Paltrow’s paintings of her friends, home, and familiar places, which get used again to identify locations for a bit in the first act, and then the painting becomes a plot point… but then it’s gone, both from the narrative (which could make sense with the plot point if you’re being generous) and the film’s visuals. It’s indicative of Emma’s greatest problem—even greater than Paltrow not really being up to snuff for the lead and often mugging her way through scenes, her costars all doing the double duty of load-bearing and acting—is director McGrath. He’s got some ideas, but he’s rarely consistent with them (outside he and cinematographer Ian Wilson’s astoundingly ill-advised attempt at “natural” lighting), and even if he were… he doesn’t have the chops to pull them off. Not in directing actors (there are some rather oddly bad performances throughout), not in composing shots, and definitely not in establishing a narrative distance. Particularly bad form on the last one, as McGrath adapted the Jane Austen novel himself.

The film’s got two competing narrations, one from Paltrow and one from what we assume is one character but is actually another because getting in a pointless wink is more important than verisimilitude. But the misleading narration—which only works because the supporting cast is so thinly drawn—is just a third act problem. Paltrow’s narration, which kicks off in earnest somewhere in the second half, is from the character’s diary. The diary doesn’t come into play until well after the narration is established and has very little interesting to convey. It’s good writing (so presumably from the source novel) but it doesn’t add anything to the film because the film’s already established itself without needing diary or narration. McGrath’s constantly introducing elements the film’s already shown it can do without. Sometimes they’re competent, sometimes they’re piddling.

Ewan McGregor, for instance, is piddling.

McGregor plays Paltrow’s eventual de facto suitor. So, the film starts with Paltrow just having succeeded in marrying off governess Greta Scacchi to local widow James Cosmo and deciding she’s going to become a matchmaker. Her next subjects? Vicar Alan Cummings (who’s more middling than piddling) and aforementioned second-billed Collette. Now, Collette doesn’t have any money and Cummings is out for a rich dowry only Paltrow thinks love will conquer all. Except the condescending, gently demeaning way Paltrow treats Collette is duplicated in how the film treats her. Collette, and many of the other women in the film, are often used for laughs. Weird since Paltrow getting her eventual comeuppance involves her punching down, you’d think McGrath, adapted the novel, would be able to do something like foreshadowing… but he cannot because he does a poor job of adapting the novel. Seriously; you get done with Emma and don’t even wonder if you should read the novel. Given the film’s from the renewed era of Austen adaptations… it ought to at least encourage readership.

Anyway.

Eventually McGregor shows up as Cosmo’s son and, presumably, Paltrow’s intended. Except he’s playing the part like he’s in a bad Muppet Jane Austen’s Emma and not just because of the hair. In some ways he perfectly compliments Paltrow’s performance; they both mug for the camera, he just does it with more volume, more bluster. Their similarities even potentially become a plot point but not really because of the way McGrath directs the scene, which… is again the biggest problem with the film. McGrath’s well-meaning enough in his direction, just inept with it. And when he does try to show flourish, usually with a silly camera move—one does have to wonder about cinematographer Wilson’s agency—it ends up silly at best.

There are some okay supporting performances: Jeremy Northam’s fine as Paltrow’s male friend, though there’s a way too big performance differential between the two of them and never the right chemistry, Collette’s good, especially given the circumstances, Sophie Thompson’s probably the best, as the woman Paltrow meanest girls. Sacchi’s all right. Cosmo mugs. Denys Hawthorne, as Paltrow’s father, is literal scenery. Juliet Stevenson, as a second half punchline, does a lot better than she should given the part and the direction.

Not great editing from Lesley Walker doesn’t help things. Rachel Portman’s score has its moments but also the ones where it seems more appropriate for an ostentatious adventure picture, which then just introduces the false promise of personality to the filmmaking and what could be, if only McGrath had the chops.

The third act’s particularly disappointing as all it really needs is some narrative sincerity. It doesn’t even need to have Paltrow step up… though I guess it does make some sense how McGrath then takes the movie away from her. It’s like he gives her a vote of no confidence after he’s just made a two hour movie of her.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Douglas McGrath; screenplay by McGrath, based on the novel by Jane Austen; director of photography, Ian Wilson; edited by Lesley Walker; music by Rachel Portman; production designer, Michael Howells; costume designer, Ruth Myers; produced by Patrick Cassavetti and Steven Haft; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma Woodhouse), Toni Collette (Harriet Smith), Alan Cumming (Mr. Elton), Ewan McGregor (Frank Churchill), Jeremy Northam (George Knightley), Greta Scacchi (Mrs. Weston), Juliet Stevenson (Mrs. Elton), Polly Walker (Jane Fairfax), Sophie Thompson (Miss Bates), James Cosmo (Mr. Weston), Denys Hawthorne (Mr. Woodhouse), and Phyllida Law (Mrs. Bates).


Greetings from Africa (1996, Cheryl Dunye)

In Greetings from Africa writer, director, and star Dunye mixes formats. Her first person comments to the camera are black and white video. The dramatized story is color film. Very, very colorful film. Dunye and cinematographer Sarah Cawley have some affected, formalist shots–even though Dunye’s the only one giving first person narration, Nora Breen (as Dunye’s romantic interest) gets some emotive and stylized close-ups. But then there are the more realistic sequences, where the sets are fully adorned–both the first person video shots and the stylized sequences with Breen and Dunye flirting in private have mostly blank walls. Even when Dunye and Breen have scenes in regular sets (Dunye’s apartment’s bathroom and kitchen), the composition emphasizes the actors, not the scenery.

The short runs about eight minutes, with Dunye recounting her time spent with Breen. They meet (off screen, but with the some of the audio played over, in some of Greetings finest editing), hang out a bit, then Dunye discovers Breen has some secrets.

There’s the scene in the kitchen, which has multiple conversations overlaid in voiceover, all with Dunye and Crawley’s stylized composition and colors and with Joan Caplin’s fantastic editing. Greetings is short, but full of content. Between Dunye’s first person exposition expanding it and contextualizing it, there’s also the technical stylizing in scenes to make it bigger. It’s great.

Greetings is mostly comedic; well, it’s not entirely anything, but it’s more comedic than anything else. Dunye’s got a wry sense of humor, not just in her performance, but in the dialogue and plotting of the short. She’ll cut away from a scene for maximum comedic impact. The short’s exquisitely made.

Dunye gives the best performance (there are three other actors) thanks to her silent expressions as she takes in the events, as well as her recounting of them for the first person. With the video to film and film to video changes, there’s a visual cue to differentiate between Dunye the narrator and Dunye the protagonist. Neither is unreliable or so much contrary as Dunye establishes a different narrative distance. It’s very cool.

Breen’s also good, though she really only gets a few scenes and they’re short ones. She’s playing an enigmatic character but not enigmatically. Again, Greetings excels in its subtle disconnects.

There’s a lot of subtlety to the short overall–it plays very much like a culmination of two of Dunye’s previous shorts. Being familiar with them probably makes the quiet jokes funnier, but seeing them isn’t necessary. The film’s more strong enough on its own.

The editing and cinematography are phenomenal. Perfect score by Glorified Magnified and Rebecca Coupe Franks–and perfectly cut to the action. Greetings from Africa is confident and boisterous and confident in its boisterousness. Dunye, her cast, and her crew, all do excellent work.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Cheryl Dunye; director of photography, Sarah Cawley; edited by Joan Caplin; music by Glorified Magnified and Rebecca Coupe Franks; produced by Dunye, Mary Jane Skalski, and Karen Yaeger.

Starring Nora Breen (L), Cheryl Dunye (Cheryl), Jocelyn Taylor (Dee), and Jacqueline Woodson (The Girlfriend).


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Dear Diary (1996, David Frankel)

Dear Diary was originally a TV pilot, which didn’t get picked up, then got (slightly) re-edited into a short. It’s impossible to imagine it as a weekly show, just because Diary does so little to establish what would be its regular cast.

It opens with star Bebe Neuwirth writing about her day in her diary. She narrates the whole film, with her musings about what she encounters–usually about people she meets, sometimes about herself, sometimes memories, or a lot of concepts (golf, photography)–visualized. If it’s people in the cast, they’re in the musings. If it’s an idea or a memory, it’s stock footage. On video. But Diary is shot on film. So it’s constantly visually jarring. Director Frankel is constantly moving the camera after cuts. It’ll tilt to focus on the actor, it’ll tilt away. It’s not effective. And it’s a problem for the first act.

The first act introduces Neuwirth and her family. They’re New York yuppies. She’s a magazine editor, husband Brian Kerwin is an attorney, they’ve got a couple kids who don’t matter except to remind Neuwirth she’s forty. Kerwin doesn’t figure into the plot at all. He’s an accessory, albeit one with more going on than the kids.

Neuwirth goes to work, where she ends up quitting almost immediately after her boss, Bruce Altman, gets introduced. Then she’s just got a free day; that free day is where Diary starts getting a lot better. She goes lunch golfing, where she meets avid golfer and department store security guard Mike Starr. They hang out for long enough to see her old college friend, Haviland Morris, rip off a dress. So Neuwirth tracks down Morris, meeting her husband (Ronald Guttman) eventually, and he knows Altman, which ties it all together with Neuwirth losing her job. Or quitting. That opening scene didn’t play well because Frankel’s not good at directing dramatic or expository scenes.

So Neuwirth’s narration is all-important. And it’s great. And her performance, even as problematic as the first act gets–there are hiccups in the Morris section too–but her performance is always fantastic. You just have to pretend there’s enough character. The diary entry she’s writing aloud is nowhere near as effective as the film postulates.

The third act ties it all together, not just Neuwirth’s days’ events, but also the film in general. It works because its well-acted. It works because of Neuwirth.

Though it’s Starr who saves the thing when it’s still getting through the rockier stuff. Altman’s good, Guttman’s funny (it’s a very small part), Kerwin seems fine. Morris is way too affected, but Dear Diary is way too affected so it fits. Enough.

Given Frankel’s direction and the general production concepts–the stock video footage is a disaster (why not just shoot the whole thing on video)–Dear Diary should be a lot less successful. As for the writing (by Frankel)… it’s fine. But it’s a sitcom. An okay sitcom. So you’ve got an okay sitcom script directed goofy (or worse) and a great lead performance.

Neuwirth makes Diary happen. However, last thing, the diary she’s writing seems to be very thin. Is it a new diary? Doesn’t matter. I guess.

But it does matter. Frankel’s way too loose on detail.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by David Frankel; director of photography, Maryse Alberti; edited by Michael Berenbaum; music by Wendy Blackstone; production designer, Ginger Tougas; produced by Barry Jossen; released by DreamWorks Pictures.

Starring Bebe Neuwirth (Annie), Brian Kerwin (Tom), Bruce Altman (Griffin), Mike Starr (Fritz), Haviland Morris (Christie), and Ronald Guttman (Erik).


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