Tag Archives: Steve Zahn

Steven Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight


No one does the breezy, goodnatured crime drama like Steven Soderbergh, and after rewatching his 1998 romantic caper Out Of Sight, I’ve realized it’s my favourite of his films by a mile. The easygoing love story between George Clooney’s hapless career criminal Jack Foley and Jennifer Lopez’s feisty federal Marshall Karen Sisco is a pairing for the ages, and the two not only smoulder up the screen with their obvious presence, but have effortless chemistry in spades and know how to sell the romance until you feel that tug on the ol’ heartstrings when the stakes are raised. It doesn’t hurt that cinematographer Elliott Davis beautifully frames each encounter with them, the best being a gorgeous airport dinner where the two croon out Elmore Leonard’s savoury, measured dialogue against a snow laden Tarmac outside, the perfect romantic ambience. Foley is a trouble magnet, embroiled in scheme after scheme with his older, wiser partner Buddy (Ving Rhames). After their dipshit pal Glen (a stoned Steve Zahn) gets them mixed up in a plot to rob a pompous Wall Street millionaire (Albert Brooks) via some truly nasty jailbird thugs from their collective past (Don Cheadle provides the film’s only true dose of menace amongst the charm), all hell breaks loose and against odds, Jack and Karen find themselves falling in love. Elmore Leonard’s scripts always seem to find their way to great directors (Barry Sonnenfield made magic with Get Shorty), richly varied casts (Jackie Brown is an ensemble for the time capsule) and end up as films that are simply timeless. Dennis Farina mellows out as Karen’s concerned ex-cop father, Luis Guzman does his grimy cholo rat shtick, and watch for Catherine Keener, Nancy Allen, Isiaah Washington, Paul Calderon, Viola Davis, an uncredited Michael Keaton playing none other than his Jackie Brown character (an Elmore Leonard cinematic universe!) and a surprise cameo right at the end that I won’t spoil except to say it sets up any potential sequels nicely. The whole deal rests on Lopez and Clooney’s shoulders though, and they’re nothing short of mesmerizing. It’s a rag tale romance, classy but down to earth, two beautiful souls from very opposite sides of the tracks who generate sparks and circle each other like cosmic magnets. Stuck together in the trunk of a speeding car, they discuss life, love and films, reminding us that no romance is alike to another and the best way to start off something like that is perhaps on the wrong foot and in the least imagined circumstances possible. Like any love story it knows that a pinch of sadness is necessary to balance the bittersweet recipe and tweak our emotions just right. A career best for George, Jennifer and Steven and a film worthy of classic status. 

-Nate Hill

THAT THING YOU DO! – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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That Thing You Do! (1996) is Tom Hanks’ tribute to the slew of rock ‘n’ roll bands that followed in the wake of the Beatles’ phenomenal worldwide success. Record companies in the 1960s were desperate to find the American equivalent in the hopes of making the same kind of profit. The result was a lot of one hit wonder wannabes. Hanks’ film (his directorial debut) is a fictionalized account about one of these bands.

After their regular drummer (Giovanni Ribisi) breaks his arm, a band approaches one of their friends to fill in. They rehearse for a talent show, playing the one original song, “That Thing You Do,” a slow ballad-type deal. However, at the show, the overly enthusiastic drummer speeds up the tempo and the crowd eats it up, breaking spontaneously into dance. They easily win the show and realize that they are onto something. Guy (Tom Everett Scott), the drummer, becomes a permanent member of the band and they call themselves the Oneders (bad idea) and start playing gigs in their home town of Erie, Pennsylvania. Jimmy (Jonathan Schaech) is the good-looking singer and primary songwriter. Lenny (Steve Zahn) is the wisecracking guitarist who is interested in picking up girls. The bass player (Ethan Embry) doesn’t say much and is content to go along with what everybody else wants to do.

Guy uses his family connections to allow the band to make a record, a single of “That Thing You Do” and it transforms them into a minor local sensation. The Oneders soon get their song played on the radio and their popularity only increases. They meet Mr. White (Tom Hanks), a slick executive from Play-Tone Records, who signs them to his label. He changes their name to the Wonders, changes their look to smart-looking suits and takes them on a whirlwind promotional tour across the country. Along for the ride is Jimmy’s fun-loving girlfriend Faye (Liv Tyler) and, to a lesser degree, Guy’s uptight girl, Tina (Charlize Theron).

Hanks does a nice job of recreating the time period, complete with vintage cars, outfits and hairstyles but doesn’t dwell on them too much or draw unnecessary attention to them. Best of all, is the music. The band’s hit song is indicative of the era’s pop music (think of it as the whitebread flipside to the Dreamgirls’ music), a catchy three-minute ditty that sticks in your head. Hanks also captures the youthful energy of these young guys – the rush of playing in front of an appreciative audience that loves their music and the excitement of hearing their song on the radio for the first time. He is also successful in conveying the dynamic between the band members and how it changes over time, especially after they enjoy national exposure and success. Predictably, it affects them in all kinds of different ways. Hanks shows how success can spoil a band. Egos get inflated and this often leads to conflicts within the group. There is also the pressure to follow up a hit with another and another so that the record label continues to make money.

For his directorial debut, Hanks wisely doesn’t try to bite off more than he can chew. He keeps his ambitions modest and isn’t too flashy with the camerawork. He understands that nothing should get in the way of the story or the characters. However, his script does show a lack of experience as little things, like a repeating gag of Guy proclaiming, “I am Spartacus,” wears thin very quickly.

That Thing You Do! is an affectionate, nostalgic look back at simpler, more innocent times, just before the country became mired in the Vietnam War and the social and political climate changed radically and with it the music. Hanks recaptures a time when hundreds of screaming teenage girls would mob the bands that they worshipped, a time before the Internet so that music was promoted via the radio which had the power to make or break a band.

Captain Fantastic: A Review by Nate Hill 

Somewhere deep in the rugged mountainsides of the Pacific Northwest, a mother and father have chosen to raise their five children off the grid, away from society and by a completely different set of rules and customs than anyone in our day and age is used to. Viggo Mortensen doesn’t take on just any film, and in fact since his breakout role in Lord of The Rings which allowed him some clout, he’s done nothing but carefully thought out, worthwhile cinema, Captain Fantastic being probably one of the best. He is intense and caring as Ben, an intellectual renaissance man who has been bitterly put off of capitalism and commercialism. His wife (Trin Miller, angelic in flashbacks) is mentally ill and eventually passes away, leaving him on his own with the brood. He does what he knows best, sticking to the rigid physical and intellectual education plan in place for them. They learn to hunt wild game with homemade tools, read from classics like Lolita and Brothers Karamazov every evening, grow all their own grains and vegetation, practice complex defense, combat and survival skills, and live a life of elemental potency, far from the lemming’s march of consumerism just beyond their verdant and very isolated homeland. Trouble has a way of finding paradise though, however well it hides, and here it arrives in the simplest form of all: the absence of a mother. Things aren’t the same following her death, and they all take up arms and head south to New Mexico for her funeral, in a big old repurpoused school bus. They’re the most ecentric family you’ve ever met, and the ironic part is they’re the closest thing to what we were meant to live like in this world you’ll find. The real absurdity is the technicolor strip mall fast food fever dream we inhabit today, far removed from our earthy origins. It’s just because it’s become so commonplace that it seems normal to us. The family clashes spectacularly with an unprepared outside world who react to their behaviour in many different ways. The children all have the physique of a professional athlete and the academic abilities of six college professors, but somewhere along the way Ben forgot to teach them about what matters most: How to interact with one another, how to care for and love another human, and the simple social cues one aquires from growing up around a large number of people. His jaded father in law (knockout work from Frank Langella) sees Ben as a loose cannon, a danger to his grandchildren and the cause of his daughter’s death. At one point the film levels out and let’s us see things in a complete objective way: yes there are extreme benefits to a method of raising children like this, an experience that no one else could have and an implementation of their human potential that goes several degrees farther than usual. But how far is too far? Is there a dangerous element to their training and conditioning that goes beyond what they’re capable of and poses a threat? Mortensen is a picture of conflict, his undying love for his children tested when he’s thrown out of the comfort coccoon he has forged for them. Suddenly he is not the all knowing protector they’ve gotten used to, and the world outside is just as much a cause of fear for him as it is for them. They are a family though, which is achingly, evidently clear in each performance. George Mackay is the eldest and bears the brunt of realization when it comes time to meet other people. The others, including Annaliese Basso, Shree Crooks, Nicholas Hamilton and Samantha Isler are all sensational and have a lived in, well worn and often quite hilarious dynamic. It’s essentially a fish out of water story that begs us to question both the water and the land, and how going from one environment to the other, both worlds apart but in the same realm, can affect a human being. This is the best film I have seen so far this year, one that challenges us to ponder what we see unfold, urges us to be more than just another fish in the school, but to laugh, be crazy, think for ourselves and pitch in an effort to find the scattered pieces of the puzzle we call the human condition. Fantastic is the word indeed.

Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide: A Review by Nate Hill 

In terms of submarine movies, nothing will light your fire or get your pulse racing quite like Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide (well maybe Das Boot, but that’s another story). Scott just has this way with hyper kinetic tension and a knack for causing whirlwinds of propulsive energy in his work, and even when the material is more melancholy there is still a rousing climate to every frame. Pair his visual skill with Quentin Tarantino’s sterling (and uncredited) ear for dialogue and you’ve got one simmering package. Not too mention the actors and the blood stirring score from Hans Zimmer which is one of the composer’s best and richly orchestrated works. This is the second time Tarantino and Scott have done the writer director duo, albeit the lesser of the two films, it’s still a stunner. When lunatic Russian extremist Vladimir Radchenko (Daniel Von Bargen, RIP) goes off in a huff and threatens nuclear warfare, the Yanks get nervous and send in an ace in the hole submarine loaded with warheads of it’s own, cause, you know, ‘just in case.’ The vessel is captained by an intense and corrosive Gene Hackman, backed by a more reserved and introverted Denzel Washington. The two clash right off the bat and its obvious that fireworks of conflict will erupt between them once the shit hits the propeller. It soon does, in the form of a command order that is partly lost in translation. It could mean go ahead and fire the nukes on Radchenko. It also could not. Hackman, that spitfire, wants to engage and eradicate any chance of action on the extremist’s part. Washington insists on holding back, terrified by uncertainty. This troublesome personal disagreement eventually leads to flat out mutiny amongst the crew, in more ways than one. The crew has no concrete leader to direct their devotion to, and that’s a dangerous thing aboard a military vessel. Hackman and Washington are pure electricity as opposite sides of the same coin, facing off in a claustrophobic arena where one wrong move could end up in cataclysm. Along with internal disruption concerning the crew, there’s also the fact that they’re on a submarine miles below the surface to contend with, and it’s one whopper of a suspense cocktail. Viggo Mortensen is terrific in a conflicted supporting role, and watch for solid turns from Danny Nucci, George Dzunda, Matt Craven, Ryan Phillipe, Steve Zahn, Chris Ellis and a fiery James Gandolfini. Ooo and Jason Robards in an uncredited cameo, which he’s also done for Scott in Enemy Of The State. It’s pure movie bliss, but what can you expect from Scott other than the cream of the crop? The guy gave us pure gold for decades, bless his soul, and this is one of his best.

REALITY BITES – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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The early to mid-1990s was a period of time when popular culture was dominated by Generation X, from films like Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1990) to Douglas Copeland’s book, Generation X to the massive popularity of Seattle music spearheaded by Nirvana. During this decade three films were made that provided a fascinating spectrum of how this generation was depicted. On one end, there was Linklater’s low-budget independent film. On the opposite end there was the glossy, studio picture Reality Bites (1993). Somewhere in between was Singles (1992), which shared the big studio backing of Reality Bites but with the authenticity of Slacker.

I can remember when I first saw Reality Bites, I hated it. I had recently seen and was blown away by Slacker, which felt so authentic. In comparison, Reality Bites tried in vain to capture the essence of Gen-X, but came across more like an episode of Friends. Slacker presented everyday settings with realistic, albeit eccentric people, warts and all, while Reality Bites introduced perfect looking people with perfect problems. Now that some time has passed and the whole Gen-X thing has died down, I see Reality Bites in a different light now. When I think of the film, I think of the videos for “Stay” by Lisa Loeb and “Spin the Bottle” by Juliana Hatfield – the two big singles to come off the soundtrack album. Back in the day, it seemed like those two songs were everywhere. The film is still lightweight material but it has a more nostalgic vibe now as a dated piece of mainstream ‘90s culture. It’s a pretty decent snapshot of that time and reminds me a lot of what I liked about the decade.

Reality Bites
also features one of my favorite performances of Winona Ryder’s entire career. She had just come off making several period piece films and was clearly looking to do something contemporary, something that spoke to her generation. She used her star power to pluck an unknown screenwriter out of obscurity and, with the help of Ethan Hawke, got the film made where it would normally have languished in development hell for years. However, Reality Bites was seen as and marketed as a Gen-X film and its supposed target audience wasn’t interested in seeing their lives and interests writ large in a mainstream commercial film. It underperformed at the box office but has since gone on to develop a sizable following. I don’t want to say cult following because it isn’t that kind of film but it does have its fans.

Reality Bites
is about four college graduates dealing with life after school as they try to figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives. Vickie (Janeane Garofalo) works as store manager at a local Gap. Sammy (Steve Zahn) is trying to figure out a way to tell his conservative mother that he’s gay. Troy (Ethan Hawke) is a struggling musician. Lelaina (Ryder) aspires to be a filmmaker and chronicles the ups and downs of her three friends for a documentary about her generation.

Lelaina, like her friends, is a child of divorce and her parents (Swoosie Kurtz and Joe Don Baker) want her to get a regular 9-to-5 job so that she can become a productive member of society. To pay the bills, she works as an assistant/gofer for a morning television talk show called Good Morning Grant! where she caters to the whims of its obnoxious host (played with two-faced gusto by John Mahoney). She’s roommates with Vickie and their friendship is summed up rather nicely in a scene where we see them singing along to Squeeze’s “Tempted” in Lelaina’s car. Who hasn’t done that with their friend(s) at some point in their lives? I don’t mean necessarily to that song but to music in general.

One day, she literally runs into Michael Grates (Ben Stiller), an executive at MTV wannabe, In Your Face TV, when they get into a minor car accident. She finds herself attracted to his inability to articulate a sentence much less a thought and he’s drawn to her nervous, awkward energy. It’s baffling what they see in each other but they’re both young and attractive and start dating. However, when Troy is fired from his day job, Vickie invites him to stay at their place (“Welcome to the maxi-pad.”) until he can find work, much to Lelaina’s chagrin (“That’s the American Dream of the ‘90s. That could take years!”). Me think she doth protest too much (“He will turn this place into a den of slack!”). See, Lelaina has a thing for Troy and he for her but they’re too busy getting on each other’s nerves in a meet-cute kinda way to do anything about it.

Lelaina’s first date with Michael has to be one of the most inarticulate ones ever put on film as they stammer their way through dinner. They each come up with some real gems to woo each other, like he tells her about how Frampton Comes Alive! changed his life while she explains why the Big Gulp is the most profound invention in her lifetime (?!). Maybe these two are really made for each other. As superficial as Lelaina comes across a lot of the time, Winona Ryder, with her adorable presence, keeps me interested and engaged. Away from Michael’s I.Q.-sucking black hole presence, Lelaina seems smarter.

When he’s not spending time pretending he can’t stand Lelaina, Troy writes awful, subpar Beck lyrics and quotes from Cool Hand Luke (1967). While he waits for her to realize that he loves her, he has sex with a succession of not-too bright groupies (one of them is a blink and you’ll miss her, Renee Zwelleger). Vickie also has a revolving door of sexual partners – so much so, that she gets an AIDS test and anxiously awaits the results – her character’s big dilemma that is resolved fairly quickly and a little too neatly.

Ben Stiller, in what was not only his first major acting gig, but also his directorial debut, does a good job of portraying a guy who means well but is so clueless when it comes to things that really matter. He isn’t afraid to come off as an idiot while also hinting that underneath it all Michael does appear to have the best intentions, he just goes about articulating them in all the wrong ways. Troy, on the other hand, is mean-spirited and channels his jealously in vindictive ways, like when he pretends to tell Lelaina that he loves her. The hurt that registers on her face, especially in her eyes, says it all, reminding one of how good a silent actress Ryder could have been if she had acted in another bygone era.

Ryder shows a capacity for comedy in a montage where Lelaina applies for a series of film and T.V.-related jobs featuring brief but amusing cameos by Andy Dick, Keith David, Anne Meara, and David Spade. Watching Ryder try to define irony under pressure always gives me a chuckle as does her interaction with Spade’s condescending burger jockey (“Ms. Pierce, there’s a reason I’ve been here six months.”). She was one of my earliest cinematic crushes and I know I shouldn’t like this film but dammit, she’s in vintage adorable Manic Pixie Dream Girl mode – smart and gorgeous with a vulnerable quality that I find irresistible. Sorry Natalie Portman, Zooey Deschanel and you other Pixie Dream Girls, Ryder is the original – accept no substitutes!

Coming from the world of stand-up comedy, Janeane Garofalo gets some of the film’s funniest lines (“I think I was conceived on an acid trip.”) and delivers them effortlessly like she was born to play Vickie. She also interacts well with Ryder and an even more interesting film would’ve been one where Vickie’s friendship with Lelaina was the focus. Obviously, others thought she had something special and for a brief while, Garofalo flirted with a mainstream film career with The Truth About Cats and Dogs (1996) and The MatchMaker (1997). Out of the four friends the one that suffers most in terms of screen time is Sammy. It often feels like his storyline was reduced so that more time could be devoted to the Michael-Lelaina-Troy love triangle. It’s a shame because Steve Zahn is such a gifted comedic actor with excellent timing and he’s given little to do in Reality Bites.

If I sound a little too harsh on Reality Bites, I don’t mean to be. The film does nail what it’s like to sit around with your friends, get high and comment ironically on old 1970s sitcoms. There is a fun bit where our four friends go out to get junk food and dance spontaneously to “My Sharona” by the Knack. It’s nice to see the normally reserved Ryder cut loose and act goofy. The film’s best scenes are the ones where all four friends are interacting with each other, bantering back and forth in a way that feels authentic and has a relaxed air that only comes from people who have known each other for some time.

In 1991, the producer of The Big Chill (1983), Michael Shamberg wanted to make a like-minded film for people in their twenties. He read Helen Childress’ Blue Bayou, a writing sample from the 23-year-old University of Southern California film school graduate. He liked it and wanted her sample to be the basis for his project. She met with him and told him about her life and friends and their struggle to find work during the recession that had hit the United States at the time. She had used her friends, their personalities and some of their experiences as the basis for her script. Shamberg, along with co-producer Stacy Sher, saw the pilot for The Ben Stiller Show and approached him to direct not act. At the time, Sher and Childress were developing the screenplay and had Lelaina and Troy figured out but couldn’t quite come up a credible character to complete the love triangle.

In February 1992, Shamberg sent Ben Stiller a copy of Childress’ script while he was editing the pilot for a show on Fox. He soon signed on to direct and worked with Childress for nine to ten months, developing her script. He suggested that he could play the third person in the love triangle. Over time, the Michael Grates character changed from a 35-year-old advertising man attempting to market Japanese candy bars in America to a twentysomething executive at a music video T.V. station. Childress and Stiller also changed the structure of the film, with the focus changing to the relationship between Lelaina and Troy while the stories about Vickie and Sammy, which were originally more fleshed out, were scaled back.

Childress and Stiller had a script that could be filmed by December 1992 and began shopping it around to various Hollywood studios all of whom turned it down because it tried to capture the Generation X market much like Singles had attempted to and failed. They finally got TriStar interested and began developing it there. The studio soon put it in turnaround. Childress, Sher and Stiller managed to convince the Film Commission of Texas to fund a location scouting trip to Houston despite no studio backing, no budget and no cast. As they arrived in the city, they got a call and learned that Winona Ryder had read Childress’ script. She wanted to do it and Universal Pictures agreed to finance the film. Coincidentally, Childress had Ryder in mind when she wrote the character of Lelaina.

The previous three films Ryder had made were period pieces and she needed a break. She wanted to do “something about people my age and in my generation growing up in today’s society.” She read Childress’ script while making The House of Spirits (1993) and it made her laugh: “It was very familiar to me – the way they talk, the attitude they have towards each other, the places they go. These were things I could relate to.” It was exactly the change of pace she wanted. At the time, Ethan Hawke’s career was in a rut after the buzz from Dead Poets Society (1989) had subsided. Up to that point, he had been known mostly for playing clean-cut characters and so the role of Troy would be something of a departure for him. Ryder was a fan of Hawke’s work and stipulated in her contract that he would co-star opposite her.

Stiller met Steve Zahn through Hawke as they were doing a play together at the time and was impressed by how funny he was. Zahn borrowed some money from his agent and went to Los Angeles to test for the film. He responded strongly to portraying a gay character coming out of the closet. Janeane Garofalo knew Stiller through their work together on his show and the producers felt that her style of comedy was perfect for the role of Vickie. According Garofalo, it came down to her, Parker Posey, Anne Heche and Gwyneth Paltrow. The studio loved and wanted Paltrow but Ryder liked Garofalo and had developed an instant connection with her.

tumblr_nn20i1aWFx1rkd2bio2_1280Ultimately, Reality Bites plays it too safe and veers dangerously close to being a feature-length sitcom by wrapping things up too conveniently. The characters often come across as superficial which tends to undercut the sincerity of the film’s message. Singles and the hilarious short-lived MTV sitcom, Austin Stories, were much more successful in documenting the trials and tribulations of Gen-X. And yet I’m oddly fascinated with Reality Bites, mostly because of Garofalo and Ryder. They play characters that deserve to be in a better film. I always thought that at the end of the film, Lelaina should’ve dumped both guys and stayed single. I mean, look at her options: Michael is a clueless T.V. executive that listens to generic gangsta rap and Troy is a pretentious wannabe musician that screws around with her emotions. Hell, she should’ve hooked up with Vickie, who is funny in wonderfully sarcastic way and digs ‘70s popular culture in a sincerely ironic way. Despite all of its flaws, I still enjoy watching Reality Bites when I just want to turn off my brain and let a film wash over me – junk food for the mind. Films like that have their place, too.