Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

Back to the Fox Collection elections now, and you can’t really argue with this one, given its huge B.O. success, rousing score and oft-uttered line “I will find you!” even if most often snarkily.

For some reason, back in 1992, crime-drama impresario Michael Mann (Miami Vice) decided to take a whack at James Fennimore Cooper’s musty tome The Last of the Mohicans. Was he locked into a deal at Fox for which he would be proffered a tidy sum for his directorial services? Or was he feeling nostalgic for a required reading selection from his high school years? Or, and probably most likely, did he feel he could add a modern day spin to a timeless tale of action, adventure and the great America tradition of whupping the ol’ redskins? For whatever reason, Mann’s take on the story took in a mighty fine 85 million at the box office, made actress Madeline Stowe a major star and proved that Daniel Day Lewis could carry a film that wasn’t a British indie about a physically handicapped artist.

So what does a film about the French/Indian war look like in the hands of the man who brought us Sonny Crocket and our first cinematic look at Hannibal Lecter? Not terrible, believe it or not. Mann is a visual director, make no mistake, but he settles comfortably in between the video-game sensibilities of your Michael Bay and the art-house leanings of a Terrence Mallick (both of whom have also helmed war epics). Sure, we get the overwrought bombings of the film’s centerpiece – the evacuation of Fort William Henry (I mean, can we be realistic about pre-20th century warfare in film? It took time to pack those muskets, load those cannons). But we also get tender moments between Hawkeye (Lewis) and Cora (Stowe), with better-than-average dialogue for films of this ilk. The Brits and the French deliver their lines with the appropriate, mannered histrionics, and the whole thing is corralled together with a steadying quasi-realism that gives us the veracity without its requisite tedium.

Of course, we know the story (dust off  those books), but Mann’s Mohicans takes more than a few liberties with its source. Yes, it begins pretty much the same – Cora and Alice Munro are being escorted from Fort Edward to Fort William Henry to meet up with heir father, the soldier in command. Major Duncan Heyward escorts, but Magua, the Huron native, protects – at least he’s supposed to, When he leads them into an ambush, Natty Bumpo (Lewis) intercedes. We know him as Hawkeye – a white man raised as a native by Chingachgook, who also has a purebred son named Uncas. Hawk and the others lead the women safely to the fort as Magua escapes. Don’t worry; he’ll be back.

And here’s where movie version breaks from the book. Alice gets hot and steamy over Hawkeye – as the fort falls to the French, they fall in love. Colonel Munro, in refusing to offer succor to his Native American guests, and ordering Hawk’s hanging, comes off as the bad guy. And when everyone evacuates and Magua comes back to slay the loathsome redcoat in cold blood, we’re not exactly choked up. Another departure – Alice (not Cora) becomes attracted to Uncas, and Major Duncan gets burned alive by Magua when the soldier offers to trade his life for Cora’s. And instead of a big bloodbath when our heroes meet up with the Delewares, we get more precse deaths – Magua kills Uncas, Cora kills herself out of grief Chingachgook kills Magua out of vengeance. All that remain are Chingachgook, Hawkeye and Cora, facing the future – the horizon – intent on forging the new land with the memory of their slain brethren and the hope of a brighter frontier.

Mohicans didn’t exactly set the Oscars on fire that year – as I recall it had Oscar bait written all over it being a Fall release and having epic themes – and part of that might have to do with the fact hat it simply didn’t much to say. The costumes looked great and it was well shot – by today’s action standards it comes off looking refreshingly deliberate – but in the end we’re just looking at a sturdy adventure yarn. If they still taught he book Mohicans in schools today I can see this being well-viewed, but without its mandatory source material I can’t see an overwhelming reason to revisit this flick.

Ok, maybe a few. It was a pre-CGI, so all of the action scenes were real people, hard negative, no F/X. The Trevor Horn score is fantastic, no matter how many times you hear it.

And then there’s Madeline Stowe, who just might have been the most beautiful woman in the solar system when she was big. Mann knew it too, with loving, candlelit closeups and lingering profile shots of her fair-skinned face. Stowe was on fire then, in good films too, and she set my heart on fire. Boy, I loved the early 90s.

Oh, right, Back to the movie. Overall good stuff. Rent it on Netflix and have a beer or two. And it might teach you something about early American history. Maybe.

Rating:  ***

Monday, September 4, 2017

My Cousin Vinny (1992)

(Another supplement to the Fox collection – this one a personal fave of mine, and it’s also grown to become a minor classic to boot. Serendipitous!)

Few actors had the kind of career resurgence that Joe Pesci enjoyed in the early 90s, momentary as it was. Hot on the heels of his Oscar-winning, Oscar-deserving performance as hair-trigger-tempered Tommy DeVito in Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas, Pesci went on to star in seven films, all within the course of two years – and most of them pretty good. His clear apex during this period, though, has got to be My Cousin Vinny, a surprisingly solid courtroom comedy, which proved to be just as much an announcement of a rising talent in the form of Marisa Tomei, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar for her role, as it was a career-reviving break for its headliner.

And Vinny may also be the most epitomal of his performances: it aptly captures the actor’s ability to swerve between both drama and comedy, often within he same scene (although the overriding tone of the film itself is decidedly comical, and broadly so). He also somehow manages to convey an actor’s empathy – and this is no mean feat considering how potentially unlikeable his characters can be. (Didn’t we al feel a little sorry when he got offed in Goodfellas?) And in Vinny we absolutely want his poor schmuck of a lawyer – a completely inept yet earnest fish out of water – to win the case in the end. And (spoiler alert) when he does, it’s a surprisingly euphoric moment – the film’s script has calibrated it that way – but it’s also due to Pesci’s masterful, unassuming handiwork.

Pesci’s lawyer is Vinny Gambini – the last-ditch saving grace to cousin Bill and his best friend Stan, wrongfully accused of murdering a convenience store clerk in the sticks of Alabama. Vinny and his fiancĂ© Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei), Brooklynites to the core, make the trek to the deep South – but their hospitality is decidedly not Southern. They’re treated like an alien species anytime they set out, their sleep always seems to get disturbed by blasting noises outside their window, and Vinny has a devil of a time collecting 200 dollars Mona had lost husting pool. And the case isn’t looking so good either – beset by sleep deprivation and his overall greenness in lawyering, Vinny keeps striking out in the courtroom, getting arrested on multiple occasions for contempt of court, and ding nothing to stop the prosecution from aligning a row of witnesses who all attest to seeing the boys’ exact car peel out of the parking lot after the gunshots.

But then Vinny gets his mojo back – and one by one is able to discredit the witnesses’ accounts. When the DA brings in a federal forensics expert on car tires, it looks pretty hopeless – until Vinny calls Mona to the stand who proceeds to confirm, unequivocally, that there can be no conclusive evidence that the defendants’ tires matched the tread marks in question. With the judge (Ed Wynn) close to calling Vinny’s bluff (he had misadvertised himself an accomplished counsel), the dismal of all charges couldn’t be better timed. And now Vinny must answer to another order: his fiance’s demand that they marry, as per his promise to do so after winning his first case.

I’m always a sucker for a Rocky-like crowd-rouser, and My Cousin Vinny is a prime paradigm. In fact, it reminds me very much of another favorite – The Verdict – and the two films in fact share the same plot: down-on-his-luck lawyer takes an impossible case, only to prove himself with perseverance and gumption (and both also share a specific element – an eleventh-hour, surprise witness, who turns it all around). And both contain hat all-important lynchpin: the hero you desperately want to succeed. Both films accomplish this with crystal-clear miscarriages of justice, and through protagonists you are fully invested in.

The other hero of Vinny must be the screenwriter, Dale Launer (Ruthless People, Blind Date). He not only craft a narrative rich with laughs but he makes damned sure it’s all legally sound (another parallel with The Verdict). There wasn’t a moment in the film that I didn’t believe, and, despite the generally broad tone of the comedy, it all seems quite possible in the quirky courtroom of the South, where even the legal eagles must at least somewhat loony. Perhaps my favorite supporting character here is the judge, played by Fred Gwynne. As Vinny’s other nemesis, he rides a fantastic balance between officious courtroom procedure and a delicately unspoken admiration for Vinny’s moxie. I really loved this guy, and it’s just sublime that it was Gwynne’s final role, as underrated a character actor as there ever was.

Yet it was another supporter, Mariso Tomei, who gleaned the most praise, and it’s hard to naysay it. It’s no wonder they saw a rising star in her based on this – she essentially took a New York caricature and filled it with a mix of insecurity, impatience, and an overriding devotion to her man. I was always watching her in the margins, from her clearly improvised foot-thumping during the “biological-clock” scene, to her witness stand testimony – essentially a rambling of car facts with a “take that!” ‘tude, the Oscar-bait scene. And she sure is sexy as all hell; what male in the audience wasn’t secretly wishing they had a woman like that, gutsy yet gushy, taking no s**t from anyone yet unflinching in her support for her man.

Vinny was a modest BO hit, but has since enjoy cult favorite status (Tomei’s Oscar, and the urban legend surrounding it, doubtless helped). And I’ve always liked it too – one of those word-of-mouth goodies that can actually stand repeated viewings.

And a good start if you want to explore Pesci’s post-Goodfellas canon. Try The Super next.

Rating:  ***1/2

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Grand Canyon (1991)

[Another supplemental choice – I picked this one because, although not a hit, it was a critical darling, and certainly a film I’ve thought much of since I first saw it all those years ago…]

Although he didn’t know it yet, Lawrence Kasdan, in 1991, began a subgenre. His Grand Canyon, which he wrote and directed, alongside Steve Martin’s L.A. Story earlier that year, sought out to explore the frailty of life, ad how the random ways we interact with each other, often as strangers, are sometimes only the things that can offer us salvation, physically, psychologically and spiritually. It’s no accident the films of this ilk take place in Los Angeles – the home of most of these filmmakers but also a discordant brew of various races, ethnicities and generations in which harmony does not always come easy. Later films, like Short Cuts, Magnolia and Crash continued up this theme – all feature ensemble casts, too, showing us those lives that bounce around the room, and somehow give us the meaning to it all we so desperately lack in solitude.

But I think it all started with Grand Canyon, and it’s a worthy progenitor. It doesn’t have the distinctive style of an Altman or an Anderson, but it’s got a style nonetheless – a glassy, straightforward and often jarring timepiece of he early 90s, with B&W basketball scenes for the opening credits and a synth-beat score that gives the film just the dreamy ether it needs for such an examination. But, more importantly, it depicts a group of people just on the verge of a shattering chasm – the 80s just recently ended, a few months before the L.A. riots, nine years before the new millennium and and ten before 9/11, it so perfectly depicts the collective anxiety of America culture on the precipice. Sure, it’s L.A., but it could happen here, or there. We all feel it coming.

But yet, Grand Canyon is a hopeful film. Its players all yearn to find fulfillment in one way or anther, despite the likelihood that, as the Danny Glover character puts it, “we’ll all have at least a few truly terrible things happen to us in our lifetimes.” He oughta know – as Simon, a tow-trucker driver in the bad part of town, he’s got a thankless beat. But one night, he must give a lift to an upper-class immigration lawyer named Mack, lost and broken down, and about to be mugged – or worse – by a street gang. The two start up a friendship, and Mack, vowing not to let a savior’s good deed go unrewarded, buys Simon breakfast, sets him up with a date with a woman named Jane (Alfre Woodard), and arranges a better-located apartment for his sister and her family, currently struggling in a crime-riddled neighborhood.

Perhaps Mack’s benevolence has something to do with the uncertainty of his own life. His wife, Claire (Mary McDonnell), while jogging, had discovered an abandoned baby, and now wants to adopt it, possibly relating to the anxiety of her upcoming empty-nest syndrome. Their marriage may be on the rocks as well; Mack had an affair with a co-worker named Dee (Mary Louise-Parker), and her story is told too – through the tears of a young woman who just wants love, and knows she will never get it out of infidelity. And last we have Davis (Steve Martin), a violent-action movie producer (based on Joel Silver, of Die Hard and Letha Weapon), who, who after getting shot in the leg by a robber, gets an epiphany – no more glorification of blood. No matter that his change is to be short-lived; he’s changed nonetheless, as is everyone in this story. In he end, Simon takes them all on a trip to the Grand Canyon, as a measure of their own insignificance in the grand scheme of things.

Kasdan, of course, is mining the same territory that he did with his 1983 masterpiece The Big Chill – coming to grips with one’s own mortality while at the same time relying on each other to make sense of it all. Chill was a work clearly borne of the director’s post-collegiate existentialist dillema, and his antipathy with those outside his generation who couldn’t understand what all the “love-in” nonsense was all about. It was a loving picture, as loving as the people who inhabited it, about a pack of baby-boomers who get together after the suicide of a colleague, and, although each of them have individualized feelings, it’s soundly structured around that weekend together – on a crisp, fall day, when the sanctity of their sanctum is all that makes sense.

Canyon is sort of a follow-up – it’s characters don’t all share the same graduation date but they’re all experiencing the same ennui. But the film lacks the focus of Chill; it doesn’t have that anchoring timeframe; rather, it circulates in and out of the characters’ lives like a new-age music video, and we’re sort of left to find a connecting thread. It’s not terribly difficult, and to make our lives easier Kasdan uses the symbol of the Grand Canyon, quite literally, to rope it all together (like Altman did with the earthquake and Anderson did with the frogs). In the end, we feel beaten up by the black strife and the gang warfare and the shooting and Mack’s cut finger, but we somehow feel an affinity with these characters because they’re all talking about their experiences, as if we’re a fly on the wall of their therapy sessions. And that’s what ultimately lifts Canyon above and beyond others of its kind.

This is nothing to sneeze at, either – how often do you hear discourse about the infinitesimalness of life in a major studio picture? Never, I’ll bet, but Kasdan wisely cloaks it as a social satire of modern L.A. life. Yes, it is that, but it’s so much more. Watch the film, and glean for yourself its messages. (I found it enormously ahead of its time in its chronicle of race relations; far superior to the later, heavy-handed Crash). That’s because I applaud its “we’re all in this together” bottom line. When Kevin Kline and Danny Glover share a beer, not as blacks or whites but as people, I was gladdened. I had a similar conversation with a black man not too long ago. We didn’t talk about racial differences – we talked about life. And maybe that’s what we all need to start doing.

Grand Canyon has some intense moments – too intense perhaps – and some of it is a bit indulgent (Kevin Kline flying over L.A.? to spy on his mistress?). But on balance I admired the reach of this film. It’s a film of ideas.

And we just don’t get that too often.

Rating:  ****

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Commitments (1991)

[Okay, I’ll be honest – this is barely a Fox release. Produced by Beacon Pictures (their first), it was only distributed by Fox; even the home video rights was handled by MGM/UA. But I couldn’t help including it. You’ll see why in this review.]

The Commitments was given the unfortunate release date of August 14th when it came out in 1991. But then, it wasn’t exactly supposed to be a blockbuster, just a modest crowd-pleaser about an Irish R&B band, directed by no stranger to musicals, Alan Parker. The low-profile approach worked: though by no means a commercial hit, word of mouth turned it into a cult favorite, and helped launch a genre. You know, flicks about small town, blue collar workers somewhere over the pond, who get out of their doldrums by stripping (The Full Monty), dancing (Billy Elliot), designing ladies wear (Kinky Boots) or supporting gay rights/labor unions (Pride). These films nearly always work because the verisimilitude is so authentic, and the characters so immensely likeable. This last item says a lot for The Commitments, where part of the problem with the band is that its members are always at each other’s throats.

But The Commitments’ greatest asset is its music. We have absolutely no problem believing their success, short-lived that it is, because they’re so damned good. Director Parker knows that’s what we came for, and he doesn’t waste time with the obligatory, boring set up scenes of rehearsals, starting out bad and then gradually getting better. He gives us one rehearsal scene, period, and ends the film with nearly a solid half-hour of music, including Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” and “Midnight Hour.” And knowing that these essentially concert scenes need to be cinematic, he makes them eye-catching without being flashy. It’s a nearly perfect movie musical.

But this is not to say there’s no plot – it’s there all right, but it’s mostly character driven, essentially about the highs and lows of putting together a blues/R&B band in the age of metal and punk, with musicians struggling to make ends meets 24/7. It all starts with Jimmy Rannitte, young entrepreneur with his sites set on creating a band. No, not a boring old R&R band, or even a jazz band, but a great, old-school R&B group in the rough, raw tradition of BB King, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. Of course, collecting up all the talent he needs for such a project ain’t easy – a lot of people want the fame associated with taking the stage, but Jimmy has high standards. (His auditions for a lead singer – the lynchpin of the band – are a tedious process indeed.) But, after all is said and done, he gets his band – a pianist, a sax player, a trumpet player, a drummer, a lead and bas guitarist, three backup singers and a lead singer (clearly modeled after the intensely strained vocal style of Joe Cocker). They are the Commitments.

But it’s not long before friction ensues. The self-spiritual sax player has a proclivity for the women, promptly bedding all three of them, successively, inciting tension amongst the girls and with his bandmates. The lead singer can’t seem to get along with the drummer, the pianist has a Catholic-induced crisis of conscience with his involvement, and the manager has money problems with just about everyone. The only time, it seems, that the band gets along is on stage – when they focus on nothing else but the unifying, driving beat of the music. They get a shot at the big time one night at a local bar where Wilson Pickett is expected to show up – everyone sings ad plays their heart out. But Pickett never shows, and Jimmy disregards a potential record deal when he sees his band infighting yet again. It’s not worth it, he thinks, until he realizes the hope in instilled in his band members’ lives, and in an epilogue we realize how each one of them took that hope on to future endeavors.

I have to say that I loved this film. Everything felt so immediate, so real – the music the dialogue, the setting. As I mentioned, this is a perfect example of a British blue-collar drama  - a film so knowing, honest and loving of its characters. They drink with each other, swear at each other and fight with each other, but somehow it all feels so innocuous. (The film gets its R rating from abundant use of the “F word,” yet the Brits use it so freely, so inoffensively.) Americans can’t do this kind of film. It either turns out to be overwritten, so you think there’s no way in hell these salt-of-the-earth types could possibly speak in this kind of lofty language. Or it plays it broad and sanctimonious, tagging at your heartstrings that these poor are so noble, and just need a break to wipe the soot off their s shoes. The Commitments never grandstands – it just is.

I was particularly moved by the ending – Wilson Pickett does eventually show up, too late. But it wouldn’t have mattered. It would’ve just extended the Commitments’ dream that much longer – their die was cast from the minute they formed. What the film tells us is that wish-fulfillment never really lasts, but aren’t we fortunate to have those wishes fulfilled in the first place? Jimmy tells us this in so many words as he fake-interviews himself in a mirror – a brilliant device that runs throughout the film and acts as a sort of Greek Chorus. It lets us know his dreams, his goals, as well as his disappointments. It gauges the ebbs and flows of the film’s narrative.

And then, once again, there’s the music. I bought the soundtrack, and haven’t stopped listening to it. These actors play the group, but I had no trouble believing that they were the group themselves (not unlike This Is Spinal Tap). I’d easily see them in concert.

This was a film that I caught up with on video, probably in ’92 after the word of mouth. At the time, young film snob that I was, I admired the technique but was ho hum about the “lack of plot” and “oldie” music. I couldn’t disagree more, young Chris, with your critique.

This is a musical film for the ages.

See it, on a TV with a good sound system.

Rating:  ****

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Sleeping With the Enemy (1991)

In 1991 Julia Roberts was huge. Probably the biggest movie star of the year, certainly the biggest female star.

But how do we know it was her who was big, and not just someone lucky enough to star in good movies? Sleeping with the Enemy.

A film like this is sort of a rite of passage for a rising star. Michael J. Fox had his, with the incredibly mediocre yet surprise hit The Secret of My Success; ditto Sandra Bullock’s mega-cutesy While You Were Sleeping.

I mean, you could argue that Roberts’ smash Pretty Woman owed at least part of its success to its modern-day fairy tale script and steadying performance by Richard Gere. Steel Magnolias was based on an acclaimed play, with fine work by a stellar cast. Flatliners had a pretty nifty concept; it too was more of an ensemble.

But in Sleeping With the Enemy, she’s on her own. She has no support from the two male drips with whom she co-stars, and the story is merely a well-mounted Lifetime Movie-of-the-Week. There is literally nothing else in the movie that can account for its success. And it was a success – to the tune of 170 million dollars – ironically the movie that knocked Home Alone off its number-one perch after nearly three months (both are Fox films). And it’s for this reason that I’m including it as my own personal choice for this collection.

And goddamned it if it doesn’t actually work – barely. It’s all due to Julia: she keeps the whole thing afloat (pun intended; you’ll see what I mean) with her incomparably empathic performance – you really feel for her and, most importantly, you just want her to be happy. In every scene she’s in, every fiber of your investment is in her; she bends fragility and vulnerability with just the right amount of spark and spunk. Women want to be her best gal friend and men want to fall in love with her – everyone wants to rescue her. Few, if any, modern movie starts possess this innate screen quality; you’d probably have to go all the way back to Marilyn Monroe for the last time we’ve seen it.

The plot? It’s just a vehicle, pure and simple. Julia’s in a woefully abusive marriage with a real scumbucket (Patrick Bergin); one night they go sailing off the coast, and she falls into the water, assumed dead since she can’t swim. But wait! She’d been waiting for this moment for a long time – because she’d been taking swim lessons at the Y, and managed to get to shore, where she can now start a new life, in Iowa! She rents a house that looks like it was furnished by Restoration Hardware, and forges a friendship in the form of a chic-mullet sporting local college drama teacher (Kevin Anderson). Romance inevitably follows, but not so fast – Bergin’s in town, having tracked her down through location of her ailing mother. He sneaks into her house, knocks her new beau out and prepares to kill her, but not before she kills him first. She shoots him a few times, but that still doesn’t keep him from getting up one last time in a post-fake-death attack.

Sleeping came out during of wave of films that fit in the “Don’t rust your lover” subgenre, essentially begun by the surprise success of 1987’s Fatal Attraction. You know the type – everything seems normal, but then, the One You Trusted turns out to be a real whacko, all leading up to the inevitable gunplay, and the aforementioned fake-death. But Sleeping cuts to the chase early on – the husband is revealed as the whack within the first ten minutes. That’s because the film follows another subgenre popular in the early 90s: the “Go to a rustic, pastoral place and you’ll find true love and happiness” subgenre. (Doc Hollywood, City Slickers) Well, she does, and then we get those associated clichĂ©s: the carnival scene, the first-date dinner scene, the music montage, etc. Sleeping couldn’t be more commercially cobbled – it plays like a perfect early 90s timepiece what with its timely tropes.

 But despite many dated elements (including the men’s hair and Bergin’s villainous moustache), it holds up as well as it could, again due to Roberts. In fact, there’s not a whole lot of difference between the sensationalism in this as compared to that in the recent release The Girl on the Train, with both films sharing a rescuing, lead female performance. It just shows how a healthy dose of star power can equal any number of screenwriters, any amount of special effects, any budget.

And in the case of Roberts, I’m not kidding. Her salary throughout the nineties kept increasing until, in 2000, she became the first woman to net 20 million for the film Erin Brokovich. Clearly, Hollywood figured out she was worth her weight in gold.

But her work in Sleeping notwithstanding, the film wasn’t exactly a critical darling, and it hasn’t turned into much of a classic over the years either. But if you’re so inclined, and want to see Julia Roberts at the top of her game, check it out.

As a postscript, I’ve got a story to share. I was given the chance to see the film with my parents, at the Shore Mall Towne 16, during my Spring Break from college. But I instead opted for the DeNiro film Guilty By Suspicion, which I enjoyed very much. And as a college student and Film major, I couldn’t be bothered with pop-Hollywood tripe (even though they were both studio pics). But my folks liked their choice, and secretly I always wondered if I had missed something. Now I finally realize that I didn’t.

Rating:  **1/2

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