Monday, July 14, 2008

City Hall: so much talent, and yet...

Had a John Cusack DVD double-header yesterday, with High Fidelity followed by City Hall. The latter's a film I find fascinating and frustrating in equal measure, a classic example of a creative endeavour being less than the sum of its parts. City Hall is a political thriller set in New York, directed by Harold Becker. There's a crackerjack cast, great visuals and a stunning score - yet it doesn't quite work in my humble opinion.

For a start there's a bookend voiceover that adds little, telling the story instead of simply letting the visuals show what happens. There's a feast of scenery chewing from Al Pacino, in stark contrast to restrained turns by the rest of the cast. It's amazing the depth of acting talent this project attracted, yet so little use is made of their manifest talents. Wonderful Brit Lindsay Duncan plays Pacino's wife and gets all of seven lines in the whole film.

It's a political thriller but the thrills are few and far between. Dodgy moments drag down the film. Where a dead character gets fished out of water, the corpse is laughably bad. Scenes take place in random locations for no apparent reason. One sequence on board a jet boat at night features feeble back projection that only serves to draw attention to itself. There's an epilogue that feels like it wandering in from another movie by mistake.

I always feel there's a better movie fighting to escape from City Hall, but that doesn't stop me enjoying it, flaws and all. Jerry Goldsmith's score is a thing of beauty, full of aching melancholy and Copland-esque brass. Every time I watch the film I spot another great actor buried in a minor role, like Richard Schiff [better known as Toby Ziegler in The West Wing] or John Slattery [Roger Sterling in Mad Men]. Plus John Cusack's always watchable.

But I'd love to know how a film written by Paul Schrader [whose past credits include Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull], Nicholas Pileggi [Goodfellas, Casino] and Bo Goldman [One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Scent of a Woman] ended up misfiring. Too many cooks? Not enough focus? Bad test screenings leading to reshoots? I reckon City Hall would make a good case study for screenwriting students - does this film need fixing? How would you improve it?

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