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 clichés: 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

Monday, August 7, 2017

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

(Another personal selection, what I consider a modern-day classic.)

By the time Tim Burton released Edward Scissorhands for Christmas of 1990, he was at the top of his game. With Batman a bona fide success the previous year, and his Beetlejuice fast becoming a cult hit and now a Saturday morning cartoon, Burton had made his way up to the list of A-list directors in just under four years. And if Scissorhands isn’t his best film, then it certainly best typifies his signature style – the one that helped set him apart from other directors of his generation.

And, of course, we all know what style that comprises: taking classic elements like Grimm and gothic horror, mixing it with a little Roald Dahl and serving it up for the MTV generation; embracing an outcast protagonist who marches to his own beat ad revealing the inner wisdom of the pariah; and setting everything in a small town stuck in the 50s as a metaphor for brain-addled conformity. All these traits are in perfect display in Scissorhands.

And yes, there’s another one: Johnny Depp. This was Depp’s first film with Burton, obviously not his last, and you can see why the director was drawn to the star. He plays the title role with a quizzical simplicity, the embodiment of all things innocent yet just complex enough to wonder what’s going on behind that pasty-pale face and wild, snaky hair (his appearance feels inspired by the band The Cure). And his scissors? The story explains that he was created by an eccentric inventor (Vincent Price), who had died just as he was ready to replace Ed’s steely fingers with real ones. Now alone in the castle, the malconstructed boy lives as a recluse, bothering no one so long as no one bothers him.

Switch to – an idyllic suburb, circa present day but culturally a page out of Peyton Place. Peg Boggs (Dianne Weist) finds Edward as she attempts to make a Avon call at his castle, and winds up taking the waif home as a live-in guest. Before long he becomes the small town’s cause célèbre, as his dexterity with knives come in mighty handy with topiary, ice sculptures, barbeques and setting the local ladies up with some pretty funky avant garde hairdos. But when Peg’s teenage daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder), returns home from a camping outing, things change. Edward is smitten with her, even following shameless her order to break into her boyfriend’s parents’ home to steal money. The boyfriend, Jim (Anthony Michael Hall), is a real crumball, and pushes Edward to the point that he loses it completely, putting the local police on his tail and riling the whole town up (except he Boggs’) against him. After dishes out just desserts to Jim – permanently – he retreats back to his castle, and to the storybook pages from whence he came.

Of course, there are a great number of logical inconsistencies and lapses of credibility in Edward, starting with notion that an inventor would put knives on his creation until the hands were ready (why not just stubs?). But such queries are foolish – because Burton’s film is a music-box myth, a haunting, ethereal tale filled with snowflakes and choral voices, and its tone prohibits any kind of heady analysis. And no one does it better than Burton, perhaps because he never forgets to tell a clear story amidst all the snow. At no point does style overcome substance – both work in perfect tandem to deliver a work that in stimulating for the eyes and the mind.

And despite some critics and naysayers’ opinions, I believe Burton has a point to make. Unlike other eye-candy directors like Wes Anderson, there’s usually a salient theme in a Burton flick. Here, he’s saying something about an outcast, specifically a physically flawed outcast, and how that individual might somehow benefit society, even one that shuns or oppresses him or her. Like the greatest fantasy or horror works, Scissorhands purveys meaning in metaphor – Edward could have a more realistic deformity, the film could have a more realistic setting, and it would make the exact same point. But it wouldn’t be as palatable an entertainment.

My only quibble with the film has to do with its ending – as Edward is confronted by his nemesis, Kim’s boyfriend, Jim, he stabs his assailant in the gut. Ed receives absolution only through Kim’s lie – that Edward and Jim both killed each other, and that the whole thing is over. The scuffle, and the tension leading up to it, is unnecessarily violent and mean-spirited, and tonally out of sync with the rest of the movie. Burton is no stranger to heavy action and suspense, as evidenced by Batman, but here it just feels out of place.

As we all know, Burton would go on to use Depp in several more of his films – the actor’s innate chameleon-like ability to depict eccentrics with empathy was a perfect for the director’s oddball agenda. (My personal fave was always Ed Wood.) But Scissorhands was where it all began, and it represented the best of both men, and their deliciously off-center perception of the world.

Oh, and let’s not forget Winona Ryder, playing someone relatively “normal” here but still typically fragile and vulnerable. Great work.

And great work all around.

Rating:  ****

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Home Alone (1990)

Back to what the Fox Collection picked, and they had no choice but to pick this one, right?

Fox didn’t necessarily have a banner year in 1990 – their big hit was the summer release Die Hard 2 (which probably would’ve been a pick were it not for the Collection’s “one film per franchise” rule). Most of their energy was spent on TV that year; the Fox network had a little show called The Simpsons; perhaps you’ve heard. And so expectations were mighty low for a modest little holiday comedy with a cast of largely unknowns, helmed by a novice director and written by a man not yet known for his family fare. But when Home Alone came out in November it went on to gross an astounding 476 million against a budget of a mere 18. That’s an unheard-of profit margin, the likes of which are pretty rare in today’s movie climate.

Of course, back then movies stayed in theaters long enough to build up word of mouth. In fact, the other two megahits that year, Pretty Woman and Ghost, both achieved their success the same way. I caught Home Alone at a NYC theater on Broadway on the Upper West Side – in January after the winter break. By this time it was January, so I wanted to see what all the hype was about. I liked it, didn’t love it, but couldn’t exactly understand its popularly beyond the Road Runner antics that dominate the film’s second half.

But I would sure look like Ebenezer Scrooge if I badmouthed the film that has since become a perennial staple, shown countless times across the country every year from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. And so I’m happy to report that I was being a little harsh on Home Alone back then, in the throes of my highfalutin’ film-school haught, and not able to truly discern what a marvelous job writer John Hughes does of getting in touch with his inner child – knowing what it’s like for a nine-year-old, the baby of the family, to feel neglected. And the euphoria he might experience if, somehow, he gets his wish of making his family disappear, but in turn experiencing the regret over having made such a wish in the first place.

The boy in question, Kevin McCallister (Macauley Culkin), gets his wish courtesy of his family’s (and uncle’s family’s) manic, hectic, chaotic departure for a trip to France. Thanks to the expected melee of his oversized brood, along with an unexpected overnight power-outage that knocks out all the alarm clocks, he’s left behind, and gets the whole house to himself (and it’s a damned fine house, I do have to add). After overcoming his initial fear of abandonment, he settles in to a life of Riley, only to discover there’s a threat looming around the neighborhood. Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern) are on the prowl, robbing the homes of residents away on vacation, and that includes the McCallister’s. But Kevin’ got a few tricks up his sleeves to thwart their plans, including hitting them in the head with swinging irons, burning their scalp with a blowtorch, setting up an assortment of toy cars, Christmas ornaments, nails and ice for them to slip on many, many times.

Most, if not all, of these booby traps would cause instant death to their hapless victims. But by the time Kevin sets them up in the third act of Home Alone, we’re so invested in the character that we gleefully go along with the ride. And you laugh in spite of yourself too; writer Hughes knows that this stuff is funny – just as funny for us a it would be for a nine-year-old – and this affords us just the cathartic regression we need to get in touch with our inner child. And that, in essence, is the salient theme of the film.

As I mentioned earlier, this was new territory for John Hughes – his protagonists had mostly been teenagers in such films as Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. But the line between childhood and adolescence is so often a fine one – Hughes likes theme of wish fulfillment because it removes the strictures of the governing adult world from the freedom-seeking confines of youth. As Kevin gets his wish in Alone, so too did Ferris get his day off, and the hormone-driven teens of Weird Science got to create their own female. But, in all three cases, Hughes reminds us that getting your wish isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. For Kevin, being an adult for the first time in his life means contending with loneliness and vulnerability…. oh, and having to fend off burglars with a series of traps that would ordinarily require the engineering skills of an MIT graduate.

But John Hughes did not direct this film; that credit must go to Chris Columbus, and he’s a fitting surrogate. He’s got the same chops for slapstick that Hughes possesses, but he also knows how to switch gears and sling out the pathos in a way that’s neither too cloying nor cynical. A perfect example can be found in the subplot involving Kevin’s relationship with the neighborhood kook. Inside a church, the man confides in Kevin why he’s misunderstood – he’s estranged from his son and his family and can’t make the first move toward reconciliation. It’s a touching moment, and character Roberts Blossoms performs the role to sheer perfection. You’d think such a moment would be tonally incongruous with the rest of the picture, but it’s not. Columbus, like Hughes, somehow makes it all work together.

I was also impressed with Catherine O’Hara’s performance as the mother – something I had apparently always overlooked. He has a witty irony about her, but she, to, can switch to heartfelt drama, and she does in her tearful reunion scene with Kevin in the end. And what a delight to see her and fellow SCTV alum John Candy as a polka musician she must hitch a ride with. They’re both great to watch, but it got me wondering: is this a recurring inside joke that all any former SCTV member must share at least one scene in his or her movie with one or more other SCTV members? It happened in Sesame Street Follow That Bird with Candy, Dave Thomas and Joe Flaherty, and again in Innerspace with Martin Short (the star), Andrea Martin and Eugene Levy. I think it’s pretty cool, and if anybody has some other examples let me know.

More Christmassy than I thought, too, which would explain why it gets shown so often during the holidays. I was initially against it being considered a “Christmas” movie but I guess it really is.

This is the part where I’d say go see it, but everyone already has.

Rating:  ***1/2

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The War of the Roses (1989)

(Another supplement to the Collection. Not a huge oversight, but it was Fox’s big release of the ’89 holiday season, so I figured, why not?)

One thing that doing this blog has afforded me is the ability to evaluate many of these movies in hindsight, in particular the ones that have become classics and which ones have not. Seeing Big again, for example, and Working Girl, I can now understand their endurance and popular appeal. Once in a great while I’ll see a mediocre or flat-out lame selection and wonder, What the hell did people see in that?

And then I’ll see a film, one that I liked at the time and then later couldn’t understand why it hasn’t become a classic, and then realize the reason. Such a film is The War of the Roses, Danny Devito’s second film as director, and third to co-star Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. It’s a black comedy about a marriage gone wrong, terribly wrong, and it sure has its moments of macabre humor and outlandish situations. But the curious thing about it is just how off-putting the whole thing is, as if it’s missing a key element to its wickedness. Sure it’s a black comedy, but it’s certainly not a fun black comedy, the way black comedies ought to be. And that, I think, is what keeps it from its would-be classic status.

Gavin D’Amato (Danny DeVito), a divorce lawyer, tells the story of the Rose couple, Oliver and Barbara, to a prospective client. Oh, things starts off just peachy: they meet-cute at a pastoral locale in Nantucket, have a delightful courtship, marry move into an apartment and have a couple of kids. Oliver is an up-and-coming attorney and a well-respected practice, but he’s a control freak, and doesn’t exactly appreciate his wife’s free-spirited nature, or entrepreneurial inclinations. But no matter; they both have their eyes on a beautiful mansion, and, despite their shaky financial situation, they buy it, moving in right away.

And that’s when the sh*t hits the fan. The kids are now grown up and move out, so the Rose are left alone, with no one to impress or model good behavior. Barbara feels the love has gone out of the marriage; Oliver can’t figure out why. Things get ugly real fast – he starts to destroy her possessions, she his, he accidentally runs over her cat, he destroys his vintage automobile in retaliation. Soon it gets so bad that cohabitation is out of the question, but since they both love the house, clearly more than each other, they find themselves at an impasse. Oliver has the solution; he realizes that according to law, they can legally stay in the same house (they have joint ownership), and so the abode becomes a war zone. When Barbara uses Oliver’s near-death love note, giving up “everything to her,” against him, it becomes the last straw. After verbal and physical fisticuffs, they both wind up dangling from a three-story-high chandelier, crashing down to their death after its cord gives way. Gavin’s client is convinced to go home and settle with his wife amicably.

The War of the Roses is, of course, part of that film subgenre about the unstoppable force and the immovable object – in other words, two bullheaded people, or more, who face off against each other, only to all lose in the end. Several films come to mind – Neighbors, A Simple Plan, Very Bad Things. A few of these films have the characters ultimately coming to their senses and resolving said conflict, but most of them do not, leaving us with the obvious moral that we need to settle our disputes amicably, lest face the inevitable consequences. It’s a risky move – the filmmaker is essentially asking us to spend two hours with essentially unlikeable people, promising that the message at the end will make it all worth it. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.

But The War of the Roses goes beyond this one step – it’s also a love story, and then a love-gone-wrong-story, and that complicates things. Because now we’re invested in a ostensibly happy relationship, only to have the rug pulled out from under us, or I should say, yanked out ruthlessly and thrown at us. That’s another element that makes Roses even riskier, and I don’t think it pays off. We like Douglas and Turner together, and we feel a bit betrayed, particularly when the shenanigans go too far for comfort.

Yes, I know there are successful examples of marital discord – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and its model, Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, to name a couple. But in both of those we get character backstory, and a reason for the troubles. And therein lies the problem with Roses: we don’t really know why they split up – just a cursory scene in which Barbara is “dissatisfied.” For that matter, we don’t really know why they fall in love either. Of the two, perhaps Oliver’s begavior is more discernable; he, apparently, does have some feelings for her (in their last breaths, he attempts to touch her, and she brushes him off), so then why is he such a brute to her? Maybe these questions could be better explored in a drama, and indeed many parts of the film are pretty near a drama anyway. But the bottom line is this: by the time we get to the scene where Barbara feeds Oliver’s own dog to him as a pate (not really), we’re amused by the extent to which they despise each other but still have no emotional investment in the characters.

But Devito has a good eye for camera placement (he loves the diopter shot), and his score doesn’t overwhelm the action, as it so often does with dark comedies (e.g. Desperate Housewives). It s certainly a well-made film, and I did appreciate the ending, in which Gavin dissuades a potential client who evidently got the message (his walking out of the office as a window reflection is pitch perfect). But it’s just one of those movies that I wished I liked more, as I love all the talent involved, and love a black comedy as much as the next guy.

But it’s not one of those movies you see all the time on TBS or Channel Z late at night. And it probably shouldn’t be.

Still, watchable enough to get….

Rating:  ***

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Abyss (Special Edition) (1989)

Another digression from the Fox DVD set roster: this time, a film that surely has attained cult-classic, if not classic, status despite being a box-office bomb when it came out in August of 1989 (small wonder). Its reevaluation is partially due to its reissue in the 90s as a “Special Edition,” which restores about 25 minutes of footage originally cut from its original release; this is the version I am now reviewing.

James Cameron is a director who really knows how to make your pulse race.

And that’s not just an idle compliment. Cameron has directed film after film, for a good 15-year stretch, that pushes the viewer like no filmmaker in recent memory has ever done. He crafts every scene so that they work, in progressive tandem, to fuse action and suspense without ever letting up. Oh sure, there are a few breaks here and there to let you catch your breath, and to do a little perfunctory character developing. But before long, we’re back in the fray, and our sweat has just dried in time for another round of perspiration.

He does this through sheer talent – a innate sense of where precisely to put the camera, how exactly to photograph his kinetics and how to edit it al together for maximum effect. It’s something you take for granted until you see another director try to do it, and either fail at it or do an entirely mediocre job. This pretty much describes every action director who works in current Hollywood.

And another thing – he pumps up his screenplays with as much antagonism as possible. Sure, it’s easy to do that with the Terminator movies – you just have one unstoppable automaton from beginning to end. But with something like Titanic, you need more than just Mother Nature and man’s overzealous folly of engineering, and so Cameron wrote in Cal, Jack’s foe in his quest for Rose’s heart, and for his life once the big tub starts to sink. And now here in The Abyss, he knows that some oil-riggers who find aliens at the bottom of the ocean just isn’t enough; hence, Lt. Coffey, a deranged Navy Seal who provides the monkey wrench for our heroes’ best laid plans.

Cameron is so expert as his adrenalization that he gives us nary a chance to question some of his plot incredulities. For example, why would the military try to go after a live nuclear submarine in a hurricane? And what really are the chances they’d draft a ragtag bunch of oil rig workers to assist the with the operation? And that guy – Lt. Coffey – how likely is it they’d send a psycho like him on a mission that could precipitate a third world war if it were to fail? But you know, you just don’t think about stuff like that in a Cameron movie – somehow he doesn’t give you time to think. And if you do, he throws some dialogue at you that makes you say, “Oh, okay,” so you can prepare for the next crisis.

But in the long run, it’s not really the plot details that fuel your long-term investment in an action film; it’s the characters. And Cameron gives us two of his finest in The Abyss: Virgil Brigman (Ed Harris), the oil riggers’ foreman and Lindsay Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), his estranged wife and designer of the rig (“Deep Core”). Their performances, and chemistry with each other, play a large part in why The Abyss thoroughly deserves to be considered among not only Cameron’s finest works, but of all great sci-fi thrillers.

Now character development is not one of the director’s strong suits. His players, particularly his supporting players, tend suffer from contrivance – and that is indeed the case with The Abyss’s background crew, from the sassy black crewperson to the quirky rat-toting conspiracy theorist. They could easily have been replaced by his crew from Aliens and no one would’ve noticed. And Cameron’s tin-ear for dialogue induced more than groan from me, particularly in the first hour.

But Cameron casts well – he gets real actors to star, and they tend to be my favorites. (Perhaps he knows they can make some of his lame lines work.) And getting in Harris and Mastrontonio for his leads he has suffused his film with an emotional resonance that his waterbound saga desperately needs. Their heart-wrenching work is a perfect match for the spine-tingling momentum that Cameron provides as a director. By the end you’re a blubbering mess, just like you were at the end of Titanic.

There are two portions in the film that perfectly demonstrate this. In the first, Virgil and Lindsay have just disposed of Coffey in their mini-sub when his own vessel tumbles down an undersea trench and explodes. But their sub starts to flood, and, with only one suit, Lindsay agrees to “drown” since the water is so cold, hoping the hypothermia will allow her to be resuscitated. (Again, not sure if this is medically sound, but Cameron Tells Us To Go Along With It.) From the moment she hysterically gasps for air as the compartment floods, to the scene in which Virgil frantically defribulates her over and over and over (longer than we’re comfortable with, but effective as a result), we are on the edge of our seat with emotional trauma.

And the other scene – just as effective – is essentially the film’s climax. Virgin plummets lower and lower and lower, into the titular abyss, with every few hundred feet being an added cause for concern. It gets to a point where it looks hopeless, until finally – “touchdown!” Virgin defuses the missile, but hasn’t enough oxygen to return. He knows he can’t make it, and decides to stay, in an act of self-sacrifice. Need another tissue?

So let me briefly cover the plot, or at least that portion which I haven’t already covered. Virgil and Lindsay’s undersea oil rig, and all its crewmen, are asked to join a team of Navy Seals to recover a nuclear submarine that had sunk after it saw an unidentifiable object. One of the Seals, a renegade Lt. named Coffey, takes it upon himself to confiscate one of the sub’s missiles, and to make matters worse, a hurricane destroys the above-water ship and destroys its crane, sending it plummeting into an ocean trench, nearly taking the oil rig with it. That trench is popular these days; it’s where they see some strange, glowing life forms too – the sort of life form a now fully deranged Coffey wants to kill.

He takes his mini sub to launch his missile into the trench, but is stopped by Virgin and Lindsay in their own mini-sub. After a sub-battle, they win, but their damaged vessel quickly floods. She enters hypothermia and is resuscitated back at the rig; with the human threat removed they must now contend with mother nature – Virgil volunteers to go down and diffuse that missile. But he depth becomes too great; he makes it, barely, and cuts the cord, but sacrificially stays down, knowing he can’t make it back.

Enter: The Aliens. Those glowing beings from before show up and create a breathing environment for him. No, they can’t talk, but they show him, with a huge IMAX screen, that they want to destroy humanity, because they are destroying the planet. (Interesting logic.) So they send huge tidal waves to do the deed, but stop just short. The reason? They’re mightily impressed by Virgil’s selfless act. They’ll spare the planet… for now. And they give all the oil riggers, including Virgil, a free ride back to the surface, no decompression needed.

I know that a lot of people had some issues with the ending, and yes, it is heavy handed. And yes, despite some nice early CGI effects, it is pretty pale Spielberg. But, quite frankly, that’s what gives the whole film its point – these green boys are down there (and caused the nuke sub accident in the first place) because they’re pissed off. The edited version, which doesn’t include the post-apocalyptic warning and only shows that they help him because they’re impressed with his martyrdom, misses that crucial element of admonition. I mean, some of the greatest sci-fi classics of all time like The Day the Earth Stood Still, were laden with moralism. Sometimes ya just gotta lay it on for the greater good.

So, yes, it works as polemic and exhilaration. And Cameron, despite loving his CGI toybox, has never overused it, except possibly with Avatar. The Abyss, released in 1989, is all about a real mis en scen. Very few effects, no hovering camera, no food processor editing. Just solid, hard-camera, storyboarded filmmaking. Gotta love those days.

Warts and all, The Abyss is an experience not to be missed. This is what the movies are all about.

Rating:  ****

Friday, July 21, 2017

Say Anything (1989)

 Another oversight on the Fox collection, and this one, I think, is an egregious one.

Say Anything came out in the spring of 1989, just as I was limping in the final stretch of my freshman year at college. It was a rough year (more on some other time), and the warm weather after a frigid, often lonely, winter meat hat there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Seeing Say Anything was a much-needed bright spot during a time of stress, depression and uncertainty.

The film is essentially the classic “ordinary” boy hoping to go out with the most popular girl in school formula, you know, the premise that carried a good portion of all those teen-sex comedies of the 80s (I was always partial to Can’t Buy Me Love).But Anything is not only a cut above all of those movies, but it may very well go down in history as the first, great modern teenage love drama, if it hasn’t done so already.

Yeah, I’m making that call. It’s that good. Writer/director Cameron Crowe burst onto the scene with this one, after having penned several screenplays for others, and he knows the territory. Of course, he got a strong assist from John Hughes, who primed the pump with his own genre-defining works – films about highschoolers hat showed us how they really talked, and what they really felt, and what they really did when the grown ups weren’t around. And – surprise – it’s actually, for the most part, not that far removed from the way we adults talk. And it’s even entertaining to boot.

But Crowe forged his own path. While Hughes films were, for the most part, comedies (his most dramatic work, The Breakfast Club, was really just a comedy with a few sprinklings of sobriety), Cameron focused more on the dramatic aspects of adolescence, and adolescent relationships in particular. He is keenly observant of the details of, for example, breaking up – in Say Anything, we see the girl, Diane Court, breaking down in her parked car, sobbing with visible grief, while the boy, Lloyd Dobler, tears up subtlety, stoically, as he drives away.  And throughout the rest of he film, we get little moments like these, and it is precisely their emotional efficacy that makes the big moments work so well.

It all comes down to a phone call. It’s high school graduation (a refreshing timeframe), and class valedictorian Diane Court has her college plans all laid out nicely in front of her – a fellowship in England, among others – mostly courtesy her career/academic-minded dad, the guardian she chose amid a custody battle when Diane was 12. Enter Lloyd Dobler, a profound thinker and overall funny guy but majpr-league underachiever. With no immediate career plans, he opts instead to focus on his kickboxing, and hang around with his gal pals, one of whom can’t quite get over her ex. So what are the chances that untouchable Diane will go out with ne’er-do-well Lloyd when he calls. Pretty good. Why? “He makes me laugh.”

They go to a huge graduation bush, and the mutual attraction grows, with Diane particularly impressed by Lloyd’s charming blend of old-school chivalry and modern depth of thought. Diane, too, likes to dig beyond he surface, a quality, perhaps, that Lloyd wasn’t expecting in a girl so pretty and popular. But then, maybe that explains her disenfranchisement with the school elite, and her attraction toward Lloyd, which by now has entered a more carnal phase, much to the disapproval of Diane’s dad, Jim.

But Jim’s own relationship with his daughter is threatened by his past. The owner and operator of a nursing home, he appears to have a strong moral fiber. But the IRS has uncovered some duplicitous dealings, including his fleecing of deceased nursing home residents out of thousands of dollars. After Diane breaks up with Lloyd, in no small part due to her dad’s disapproval of him, she discovers the larceny. Realizing Dad should no longer have any real control over her life, she trusts her heart, and gets back together with Lloyd. They both pay one last visit to Jim, now incarcerated, before both heading off to England for that fellowship.

Any meaningful discussion of this film must necessarily include praise of Crowe’s screenplay, work that is as honestly observed as it is majestic in its theatrics. Crowe had been a protégée of James L. Brooks for several years (Anything is produced by Brooks’ Gracie Films), and you can tell the influence. Both writers understand that balance between over and underwriting – the urge to load the characters up with smart, witty dialogue while holding back just enough to allow then to be… human. And Crowe also loads his film up with other characters and subplots too. but he never overloads – something he would be guilty of I later pictures. But here, for his starter, it’s just enough so to buoy his central story without overshadowing it – and it shows us the social satellites that play an important part in his lead characters’ lives.

I mentioned before that this is a formula pic, and although it elevates it impressively it still holds true to it; indeed that is part of its appeal. We’ve all been there, and surely often wished, desperately, that the one girl or boy who would be so perfect to date could be just down to earth enough to get to know. Yes, of course, it’s an absolute fantasy, but Say Anything renders it credible by having two socially polar opposites possess enough intelligence in common to make it work, knocking that social strata down handily. It’s a fantasy all right, but just like credible science fiction it uses intelligence to make its conceit just squeak by.

And here’s another thing I liked. By having the father under criminal investigation, Crowe tells us that there are always reasons for interpersonal issues inn or lives, some which may not be so visible on the surface. When Lloyd and Diane break up, it’s not just the fact that they’re s different – she has her own familial demons to wrestle, beyond Lloyd’s purview, and it serves as a reminder to al of us that maybe it’s not always we who are at fault. Again, it’s this kind of attention to the cause/effect realties of life that afford the film its knowing verisimilitude.

And I also want to focus on one other element: Ione Skye, who plays Diane. She is a wonder to behold, and gives the film its heart and soul, but especially heart. Not only is she ravishingly beautiful, but she possesses both a admirable maturity and empathic vulnerability. She’s the girlfriend we all had, or at least wish we had, at some point in our lives. You wait, so desperately, for her to reconcile with Lloyd, who represents us (or at least the guys). Who among us couldn’t identify with him when he shakes as they’re in the car making out? Or want her back so bad he holds a boom box outside her window in that classic scene? I’m convinced the film would have had nearly the same impact with another actress in the lead – Ione pretty much makes the film, and that says a lot given all the other superb elements at play here.

I could go on and on and on here, but I’ll stop. You get the point. If there is a better film about teenage love, teenage heartbreak… teenage life… then I haven’t seen it.
I’ll say it again, my star-rating system caps at 4, so I regret that I can only give Say Anything…

Rating:  ****

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Working Girl (1988)

If you were to look up the word “throwback” in the Funk & Wagnall’s, you probably find Working Girl, a throwback to the classic era of Hollywood filmmaking, where clever, well-crafted scripts were buoyed by a healthy dose of star power. No grandiose messages or in-you-face polemics, either; just a fine old time at the movies – bring the whole family!

It must’ve taken some moxie, too, for Fox to release it for the 1988 holiday season, putting it up against films that dealt with, among other things, autism, 1960s racism in the South, a shock-jock’s murder, and an estranged marriage after the death of a son. But Fox had the last laugh when the ostensibly lightweight Girl scored several Oscar noms, including Best Picture and Actress, and went on the gross 80 million dollars.

But when you think about it, perhaps it ain’t so lightweight. Sure it’s essentially How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, except now our upwardly mobile protagonist is class-challenged but ambitious secretary from Staten Island, Tess (Melanie Griffith). But in transplanting a familiar archetype from the 50s to the 80s, it also addresses some of the changes that characterize the 80s. Tess is not just right time/right place go-getter, she’s also a metaphor for contemporary women the workplace. By impersonating her boss, Katherine (Sigourney Weaver), and handling a corporate acquisition under a false identity, she essentially states that just because a few women now old power positions, things are still just as hard for women who start at the bottom.

And there are a few twists along the way. Tess’s boss is also a woman, allowing the former to learn a few tricks of the trade, like how to balance femininity with power, and even how to use feminine wiles to achieve that power. Laid up from a skiing accident, Katherine sets the whole thing in motion, by stealing Tess’s idea for orchestrating a corporation’s purchase of a radio network, when it really wants to get into television. She partners with a executive named Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford), and together they pitch their idea to Trask Enterprises. All the while, Tess’s business acumen impresses Jack to the point that not only is he thoroughly convinced that she’s a seasoned businesswoman, but he falls in love with her. All this as Tess is in the process of leaving her loser boyfriend. Their only obstacle: Katherine, who turns out to be Jack’s flame (or ex-flame, according to him), and now threatens to blow the lid on Tess’s true identity. But all’s well that ends well – true love conquers all as Jack stands by his woman, even if she is a recepionist. Or, ex-receptionist; Trask likes her so much they hire her in an executive position. Kiss those Staten Island Ferry-riding days goodbye, Tess!

This was the first screenplay by Kevin Wade, and it’s a marvelous first outing by any writer. The jokes aren’t too broad, the business dialogue not too dry, and it keeps things moving lively along by cutting back and forth through all aspects of Tess’s life: her business dealings, her romance, her blue-collar life on SI. And director Mike Nichol’s maintains a sensible direction that’s all about character. He stays on his actors’ faces during those emotional moments just long enough. He’s got a nice touch that balances both the grit and the gloss. Of course, we’re talking about one of the great lensers of the 6s and 70s, so the man knows what he’s doing.

And most importantly, he knows what to do with Melanie Griffith, something so many others have been clueless about. Griffith is pitch perfect here – the role she was born to play. She achieves great balance too – channeling the vulnerable, childlike qualities of Marilyn Monroe while also somehow conveying the sense that she’s a very smart woman. I mean, some of those business lines, thick with info and numbers, are a pretty hard sell for anyone, let alone a bubbly blonde. But Griffith makes it work, and even if she doesn’t, the movie’s tone – a “wink-wink” fairy tale – pushes it smoothly along. Like I said, it’s all about tone.

Since Girl came out, nearly 30 years ago, it’s become the 80s film about women in the corporate business world, complete with Big Hair and IBM computers. It was a wake-up cal to America about the realities of the glass ceiling and, sadly, I fear little has changed. They could probably remake this with smart phones and twitter and it would still seem fresh and relevant. But it would also seem fresh because it’s a damn fine story, with a credible romance even if its core storyline fees a bit less than credible. Some things never go out of style.

Oh, and extra props for Carly Simon’s marvelous theme song, “Let the River Run,” which also provides the film’s score. Just jazzes the whole thing up nicely.

Go see it.

Rating:  ****

Friday, July 7, 2017

Die Hard (1988)

The 80s, of course, was the decade for the action/adventure film, but by 1987 it was in need of a major overhaul. The genre’s two top stars, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, were having mixed success by then: Stallone had just hit rock bottom with his arm-wrestling saga, Over the Top, and Arnold’s films, while still profitable, didn’t exactly requite a degree in quantum physics to follow.

Enter producer Joel Silver. Following the lead of pals Don Simpson and Jerry Brickheimer (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop I and II), he gave audiences Lethal Weapon. A reinvention of the buddy-cop drama, it was slickly produced, sure, and loaded with extreme action and violence, but yet it was expertly directed (Richard Donner) intelligently written, and featured villains that you wanted dead. It was just the shot in the arm the genre needed.

The following year, Silver gave us Die Hard, and his time we have one cop, a NY cop to be precise, visiting his estranged wife in LA. When her building is taken over by international terrorists, it turns out he’s the only guy that can stop them, and thusly, a subgenre is born. That premise of the unlikely hero – the guy in the wrong place at the wrong time – would spawn countless imitators, some good, some bad, and refuel the thrill-a-minute action flick for a god ten years or so.

Die Hard was a surprise hit. Dumped in late July of 1988, no one expected fireworks. But I think it was such a wild success not simply because it was well-made but also because it filled a void in our appetite for action and suspense. Throughout the 70s, producer Irwin Allen made a cinematic name for himself with the Disaster Film, a new genre that touched the collective nerve of a populace skittish about a world changing too fast – supersonic jets, ocean liners, skyscrapers. Those fears never really went away; in fact they intensified in the 80s with the advent of faster planes, taller towers, and now a new threat: global terrorism. Die Hard exploited all these fears, and then some. And it gave us a new everyman hero for the changing times – Brice Willis – sort of the Steve McQueen for the MTV generation.

And he has a backstory. McClain’s in LA to see his wife, Holly, but he resents her leaving the marriage to take a corporate job on the East Coast. As he visits her office building, a towering skyscraper and home of the Nakatomi corporation, her company, it’s not long before trouble arrives – in the form of Hans Gruber and his 12 cohorts, a group of heavy automatic weapon toting-terrorists. They seize all attendants of the Christmas party as hostages, but McClane manages to elude them, and for the duration of the film he becomes the fly in the ointment of their plot: to steal the 640 million dollars in the company vault, using the brainpower of a tech wizard and the detonators and explosives they bought along. Only problem: McClain now has them, and all their efforts to get them back come to no avail. Oh, sure, the outside world steps in – LAPD, FBI, SWAT – but they’re no help; in fact they make things worse. Only a police sergeant on his radio seems to be of any assistance, right down to the end, when McClain pops off the baddies one by ne until he reaches, Gruben, whom he sends to his falling death after the half the skyscraper is a mess of rubble and ashes.

I think my salient reaction after seeing this now us the same as it was when  first caught its original theatrical release nearly 30 years ago: how in the world did they make this? It’s a reaction I usually after seeing the more accomplished action flicks of someone like James Cameron, and, to a lesser extent, Jan DeBont, Renny Harlin and Andrew Davis. It’s two hours of pure adrenalin, gripping from beginning to end, with hardly a moment for the viewer to question any of the inconsistencies or implausabilities (and there are several). At he end, you’re breathing a sigh of relief, wonder what the hell just happened, and giddy that you can be so manipulated by he magic of the movies.

But directors like the one I mentioned, and the one who lensed Die Hard, John McTiernan, make it look easy. There’s clearly a lot of craftsmanship going on here, and a few key elements that are part of the equation. The first lies in he villains. Hans Gruber, along with associates, are some bad motherf**kers, but they're equally as brilliant. The film spends the first 20 minutes or so showing us how insanely unstoppable they are. They’re a well-oiled machine, and Gruber never misses a beat in showing us how charming he is. So charming in fact, that we don’t much question his motives. He’s a West German (despite his British accent), so he’s not a communist, essentially after money but also seeking the release of political detainees from around the world, and opposed to Nakatomi’s imperialist profiteering. All this is for naught anyway, it seems, for Gruber just admits to his terrorist front as a smokescreen for the robbery (he plans to fake his own death in a rooftop explosion, which would kill all the hostages). Huh?

But we’re not going in to Die Hard for its politics, muddy as they may be. We want to see the protagonist kick some Euro ass, and that brings me to the next element: the audience’s identification with the hero. McClain isn’t some haighfallutin secret agent, nor is he a monolithic muscleman. He’s a regular Joe, with snappy one-liners and an abundance of street profanity to underscore the point. And the screenplay affords him some heart and soul, too – a few scenes, including his tearful “I’m sorry” letter to his wife lest he perish in the fray. Producer Silver knows this is key to a likeable hero; he did the same thing with his leads in Lethal Weapon.

The script has some clever surprises along the way, too. McClain doesn’t just use brawn to get ‘er done – he pulls a few McGuyver-esque students when he’s off own his own, like scaling down an elevator shaft using his gun as a rope support. Or rigging up a fire hose so he can swing down from the rooftop on the outside of the building. There’s also a clever scene where Hans finally meets his nemesis face to face, and pretends being a hostage as McClain isn’t yet aware of his true identity. The script only commits one major misstep: in the final, epilogual scene, when everyone’s on terra firma catching their breath, one of the assumed-dead thugs, Karl, blows out the front door with his gun a blazing, only to be brought down by that cop McClain had been talking to on the radio. This is one of those “not-so-fast” post-climax clichés, so common in horror movies, but completely unnecessary here. (It’s only thrown in to show that the ground cop is able to fire his weapon once again.)

But Die Hard was a real game changer, and for good reason. It raised the ante on the action film, for better (Under Siege, The Fugitive) or worse (anything by Jean Claude Van Damme). I prefer to remember the better.


                                           Rating:  ****

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...