Tag Archives: Touchstone Pictures

A Civil Action (1998, Steven Zaillian)

A Civil Action is somewhere in between a modestly budgeted Hollywood drama (you know, the kind they don’t make anymore unless it’s for Oscar season) and a wildly passionate–well, not art film, but it’s certainly something else. Steven Zaillian casts the film with a knowing grown-up indie eye (William H. Macy, Dan Hedaya playing a villain almost on par with Blood Simple, and James Gandolfini) but he tells the story in a truly (as truly as possible for the 1990s) filmic fashion. Sure, John Travolta’s reformed ambulance chaser is the film’s main character, but Zaillian concerns himself and the audience with the surrounding characters throughout. Even the film’s antagonist, Robert Duvall, is given some wonderfully engaging material. While Travolta’s lawyer learns, through the process of the film, to value the pursuit for the truth over the cynical dismissal of it, Zaillian never does–the film’s passionate about it’s content, totally sure of all its moves, but all of these moves are precisely calculated for an effect. They’re well-executed, well-conceived, but there’s nothing in A Civil Action I found magical. It’s a true story in that real sense. While Zaillian can do the great comedic bit of the bank manager thinking bankrupt Macy has got a gun, he can’t find a way to lie to the viewer. There’s no wool to A Civil Action–it’s an example of what Hollywood filmmaking has been doing well since 1924 or whatnot. Proof the recipe and casserole dish aren’t broken.

The problem with the film is the ingredients. It’s not a movie. Not a dramatizable film. Zaillian’s apparently not willing to sell out the truth to package it into something consumable. To some degree, he could have made A Civil Action a more satisfying tale about Travolta’s redemptive change, but it’s not about that change. It is a little, but it’s mostly not. He could have made the trial more thrilling, maybe made John Lithgow’s judge a little more treacherous, maybe made Duvall’s lawyer corrupt. Something. The experience of watching the film is incredibly satisfying and filling, but only because of how Zaillian tells his story. For example, he never gives the audience a shot of the redeemed Travolta. Instead, he leaves the audience off-balance, not stumbling, but certainly not on solid ground.

All of the acting in the film is excellent, with Gandolfini probably getting the best role. Macy’s got some good stuff to do, so does Duvall, but it’s really all Gandolfini in terms of depth. Travolta’s performance is a little perplexing–to some extent, he’s doing the Travolta thing (that Travolta used to be able to do), but he’s expanding on it, much in the self-refrential manner of Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, but more significant success.

The film’s probably not challenging to watch, but fully appreciating it requires a certain confidence in what Zaillian’s doing. Zaillian doesn’t start doing it right away–he obviously didn’t want moviegoers to get up and leave in droves–but, quite analogously, around the time Travolta accepts the case, the viewer has to accept the film.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Zaillian; screenplay by Zaillian, based on the book by Jonathan Harr; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Wayne Wahrman; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, David Gropman; produced by Scott Rudin, Robert Redford and Rachel Pfeffer; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring John Travolta (Jan Schlichtmann), Robert Duvall (Jerome Facher), Tony Shalhoub (Kevin Conway), William H. Macy (James Gordon), Zeljko Ivanek (Bill Crowley), Bruce Norris (William Cheeseman), Kathleen Quinlan (Anne Anderson), Peter Jacobson (Neil Jacobs), Mary Mara (Kathy Boyer), James Gandolfini (Al Love), Stephen Fry (Pinder), John Lithgow (Judge Skinner), Dan Hedaya (John Riley) and Sydney Pollack (Al Eustis).


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Gone in Sixty Seconds (2000, Dominic Sena), the director’s cut

I just watched the recent–let’s see what they’re calling it–director’s cut. A director’s cut without director’s audio commentary. It features nine extra minutes, the most noticeable being a few shots where you see tit. Before DVDs, directors’ cuts meant something (even if they weren’t exactly the director’s cut). Blade Runner and Touch of Evil meant something. Maybe not so much with Touch of Evil, actually. The recent directors’ cuts or extended versions often mean very little. They change the route over the topography, without changing the starting or ending point.

From this particular director, before Gone in Sixty Seconds, I wasn’t expecting much of anything. He made Kalifornia–which is great–then disappeared. After Sixty Seconds, he made Swordfish (a Bruckheimer knock-off, who knew such a thing could exist) and then… disappeared. He’s not a young turk either, he was 51 when he made Gone in Sixty Seconds, which makes sense more for Kalifornia (it had a sure, adult feel to it). Still, I thought this director’s cut might mean something….

Gone in Sixty Seconds has a number of great ingredients. It has a story rife with human conflict–responsible brother saves numb-skulled brother–in addition to the best-ever Bruckheimer cast: Delroy Lindo, Will Patton, Robert Duvall, Vinnie Jones, Chi McBride, Frances Fisher. Giovanni Ribisi is fantastic, back when he got work. Cage holds it all together in one of his “big movie star” roles, never counting the paycheck in his head, as visible in his other Bruckheimer collaborations (The Rock and Con Air). Angelina Jolie is mediocre more often than bad (though I didn’t realize her lips were so big in this one, so I guess the image is punk rock collagen) and the less said about Christopher Ecceleston the better. And for most of the movie, it works.

And I’m not even talking about the multiple false endings. The film, from the opening credits, establishes itself as a family drama. Sure, a big budget, Bruckheimer family drama, but one none the less. Then, all of a sudden, the family drama disappears. If it was replaced by the set pieces, the car thefts and such, I’d understand. But it isn’t. It isn’t even replaced by the Jolie/Cage romance subplot (which doesn’t work–she looks like his kid). It just disappears. Luckily, the film falls back on Delroy Lindo to hold up the rest of it and he does. Except when it relies on Will Patton and Robert Duvall, who are also very good people to depend on.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Dominic Sena; screenplay by Scott Rosenberg, based on the film by H.B. Halicki; director of photography, Paul Cameron; edited by Tom Muldoon and Chris Lebenzon; music by Trevor Rabin; production designer, Jeff Mann; produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Mike Stenson; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Nicolas Cage (Memphis Raines), Giovanni Ribisi (Kip Raines), Angelina Jolie (Sara Wayland), T.J. Cross (Mirror Man), William Lee Scott (Toby), Scott Caan (Tumbler), James Duval (Freb), Will Patton (Atley Jackson), Delroy Lindo (Detective Roland Castlebeck), Robert Duvall (Otto Halliwell), Christopher Eccleston (Raymond Calitri), Chi McBride (Donny Astricky), Timothy Olyphant (Detective Drycoff), Grace Zabriskie (Helen Raines) and Master P (Johnny B.).