November 13, 2003

Take One

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Writing a screenplay is challenging and arduous. But imagine writing one that engages nine story lines involving 19 characters who are to be played on screen by some of the most graceful and capable actors in the world. The romantic comedy Love, Actually attempts to do just that, as on-screen time is shared by Hugh Grant, Kiera Knightley, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, and Laura Linney, among many others. A dream cast, coupled with a compelling script, can propel a film to greatness. Last year, Chicago and The Hours were successful in assembling talented casts that flawlessly brought their characters to life. Since the film won’t make it to Ithaca until next week, I’ll whet your appetite with some of my other favorites.

The Towering Inferno

This classic thriller tells the dramatic tale of an intense fire in the brand new 138-story Glass Tower, the world’s tallest skyscraper, in San Francisco. Three hundred guests, who are in the building for a gala celebrating the tower’s opening, are trapped on the 135th floor. A resolute fire chief and architect fight against time to save the guests as the fire rages. An impressive script and a breathtaking musical score by 42 time Academy Award nominee John Williams are only two of the ingredients contributing to the film’s appeal. The cast of Steve McQueen (the original Thomas Crown), the legendary Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire and even O.J. Simpson (no, he did not start the fire) is exceptional. Newman, the architect, and McQueen, the fire chief, may be the stars, but an immeasurably important role is played by the minor characters, those trapped in the building, whose overwhelming fear contributes to the ambiance of the film. Inferno is much more than a disaster movie; it is also a genuine homage to the consistently heroic efforts of firefighters.

Quiz Show

Much of the attention received by this Robert Redford directed movie was for its portrayal of the real life story behind-the-scenes of the hit NBC game show Twenty One. An impressive screenplay by Paul Attanasio was no doubt a catalyst for the creation of a sound cast. John Turturro and Ralph Fiennes are joined by Rob Morrow (Northern Exposure), David Paymer (Nixon), Hank Azaria, Mira Sorvino, and — get this –Martin Scorsese. Together, they create a unique sense of tension that accurately reflects the true story, in which a lawyer uncovers the sinister and complex world of a show in which the producers actually fix the winner beforehand. Herb Stempel, played by Turturro, becomes obsessed with the attention he has received as a quiz show winner but is asked to lose to Charles Van Doren, a Columbia University literature professor played by Fiennes. The authenticity with which each actor portrays his or her character is impressive. As the film builds to a striking conclusion, the end result is intensely satisfying.


The cast list is simply magnificent: Robert DeNiro, Brad Pitt, Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Bacon, Jason Patric, Billy Crudup (Almost Famous), and Minnie Driver. The premise of the film involves four boys sent to a juvenile facility in upstate New York for accidentally killing a man. Heavily scarred, mentally and physically, by the abuse they receive from the vicious guards, the boys look to exact revenge as men a decade later. The film is dark and troubling, and the obvious on-screen chemistry between the main foursome is vivid and seemingly unfeigned. The attraction of this cast is that, despite the star power, no one actor stands out above the rest; but instead each is consistently sound. Together, they transcend an already superior script by accurately depicting the true emotions behind the words on paper.

Magnolia and Traffic

Common to these two films is the approach of developing initially different storylines that end up cleverly and artistically interconnected. The risk is, if one storyline is not supported by the actors in it, the rest of the film can suffer. Nevertheless, both films develop and blend characters and storylines impeccably, Magnolia with Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Traffic with Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Benicio Del Toro, Don Cheadle, and many more. Of course, some credit has to be given to gifted directors P.T. Anderson (Magnolia) and Steven Soderbergh (Traffic) as well.

Archived article by Avash Kalra