Rating: The Ugly – 63.1 Genre: Horror Duration: 186 mins Director: Jeff Bleckner Stars: William Petersen, Karen Sillas, Charles Martin Smith
It’s one of the most overploughed terrains in B-movie cinema but, when the mood strikes, you could do worse than this TV adapted version of Peter Benchley’s “Beast”. William Peterson plays an old school fisherman trying to make a living in fished out waters who begins to suspect that a giant squid with a taste for people has staked a claim off his peaceful island. Joining up with local coast guard lieutenant Karen Sillas, he sets about proving it but a local business man in the form of Charles Martin Smith thinks he sees a profit to be made. As was often the case for a TV miniseries back in the 1990’s, the production values are low and so any thrills The Beast delivers are largely a function of Benchley’s concept which, on the scale of marine monsters, features quite highly. The cast are solid so, beyond the production quality, you won’t be constantly reminded that you’re in the “bargain basement” of movies and with an always watchable and safe pair of hands in the lead, there’s even a bit of charm there too. There are some originally conceived action sequences that director Jeff Bleckner takes his time to buildup and J.B. White’s teleplay contextualises the entire thing with some modestly engaging sub plots. Sure, a lack of expertise behind the camera ensures that the movie isn’t the sleek thrill-delivering device that Jaws was (despite borrowing heavily from its tool-shed), or even Jaws 2 for that matter, but it chugs its way comfortably over the finish line. As is often the case, there are a few versions of this movie floating around on DVD so be sure to get the full extended version rather than the abridged one as a significant amount of good stuff has been omitted in the truncated cuts.
Rating: The Good – 75.4 Genre: Crime, Thriller Duration: 105 mins Director: Chris Gerolmo Stars: Stephen Rea, Donald Sutherland, Max von Sydow
Stephen Rea excels in this true life dramatisation as a Russian forensic investigator, Viktor Burakov, who in the 1980′s found himself charged with tracking down the country’s most prolific ever serial killer. This is a captivating tale about moral and personal fortitude as much as is it about a deeply disturbing serial killer. Burakov was almost entirely hampered by bureaucratic squabbling, political influence, and desperate lack of resources which for years prevented him from getting close to his man.
Rea brilliantly captures the quiet steel-like determination of his character, his emotional exhaustion, and utter exasperation at the endless obstacles he recurrently faced. He carries the film with an almost indescribable ease which feeds into the strength of Burakov’s character perfectly and in the moment when Burakov finally breaks down, the payoff is immense. Donald Sutherland is on hand as his unlikely ally, Colonel Fetisov, and provides a great foil to Rea’s more intense role.
Director Chris Gerolmo is to be commended for giving this one the appropriate time to breathe and not rushing any part of it. Not shying away from the horror of the events, the grizzly killings are shot in an almost unbearable fashion. But Gerolmo doesn’t attempt to gloss them up either. In fact, the film’s style is very much in keeping with the feel of Soviet Russia at that time thanks to the aforementioned pacing and some subtly excellent production design. Made as it was for TV, Citizen X never really got the credit or praise it deserved but it doesn’t just compete with the majority of bigger budget theatrical features toiling in the same genre, it overshadows them. In fact, Citizen X is easily one of the best serial killer films and it probably only stands second to the seminal Manhunter.
Rating: The Good – 76.1 Genre: Drama Duration: 97mins Director: Michael Mann Stars: Peter Strauss, Richard Lawson, Brian Dennehy
This made-for-TV movie is an early outing for Michael Mann but it nonetheless has many of the hallmarks of his later features. Gritty realism, a fresh prison-based story, and clever dialogue elevates this film well above the fold. Peter Strauss plays a lifer who spends his days running around the prison yard as fast as he can in an attempt to exorcise his demons. Jeffrey Lewis plays the prison counsellor who after noting that he’s running close to Olympic qualification times on a dirt track and in basketball shoes attempts to help him in his rehabilitation by bringing his running to the attention of the athletics commission. The Jericho Mile isn’t as much about the running as it is about the internal strife that his high-profile running generates. Strauss is fantastic but he is helped ably by Lewis and the always impressive Brian Dennehy. This is an original and fascinating film that is not marred by any of the numerous prison cliches such as nasty wardens and guards. For that reason alone it’s worth watching.
Rating: The Good – 85.6 Genre: Horror Duration: 112 mins Director: Tobe Hooper Stars: James Mason, David Soul, Lance Kerwin
It may be a miniseries but this adaptation of Stephen King’s novel is a lesson in atmosphere setting. David Soul stars as a writer who moves back to the small town he grew up in ostensibly to write a new book but in reality to face a childhood fear of an old house he could never shake. His arrival coincides with a new series of murders that have all the hallmarks of vampirism and he’s not surprised to find that it traces back to that house. Soul is terrific and he is surrounded by a top supporting cast which includes Bonnie Bedelia, Geoffrey Lewis, and the great James Mason as the man at the centre of all the dark happenings. Some of the make up effects have dated but thanks to Tobe Hooper’s brilliant direction, it doesn’t seem to diminish the film’s ability to scare. On the contrary, Salem’s Lot is one of the more frightening film experiences and it’s got the floating child vampires to prove it!
Rating: The Good – 78.9 Genre: Crime, Neo-Noir Duration: 110 mins Director: John Dahl Stars: Linda Fiorentino, Peter Berg, Bill Pullman
Smokey, sultry, and a 24 carat bitch, Linda Fiorentino takes the femme fatale concept to a whole other level in this outstanding made-for-tv John Dahl feature. She stars as a devious manipulator who flees to a small town outside Buffulo while on the run from her slightly deranged husband (Bill Pulman’s finest performance). Peter Berg is the small town guy with big city aspirations who is enchanted by Fiorentino’s sophisticated grittiness and ultimately becomes the central pawn in her attempt to rid herself of all her problems at once. Everyone involved in The Last Seduction acts their pants off (in many cases that’s a literal truth) and Steve Barancik’s script sizzles as the likes of Fiorentino, Pullman, and the late great J.T. Walsh revel in its delivery. Berg plays the perfect rube throughout managing to be even less savvy than William Hurt in the not dissimilar Body Heat. Dahl’s atmospheric stamp is all over the look and sound of the film as shadow, eye lighting, and cigarette smoke combine with Barancik’s dialogue and Joeseph Vitarelli’s cheeky score to tie it all together into such a nice little package that you’ll find yourself revisiting this modern noir gem time and time again.
Rating: The Good – 66.4 Genre: Crime Duration: 97 mins Director: Michael Mann Stars: Scott Plank, Alex McArthur, Michael Rooker
Michael Mann’s TV-movie dry run for Heat is in its own right a thrilling and edgy crime thriller that is sufficiently different to warrant an independent viewing and appreciation. The story is identical in that we have a crack cop and a master thief attempting to outfox each other on the streets of LA while developing a mutual appreciation for each other’s expertise. However, though far leaner and with fewer subplots, the script is burning with Mann’s trademark über-slick dialogue much of which never made it into the remake even though it further elucidates several key sequences. It’s clear Mann axed this surplus dialogue to make room for Heat’s meaty subplots concerning Pacino’s private life and Kilmer’s gambling problems because most of it is just too damn cool to cut for aesthetic purposes. Yes, some of it is slightly overcooked but the same criticism can been levelled at Heat. Heat of course had better actors to compensate and reign it in when needed.
The acting in L.A. Takedown drags the movie down for a number of reasons. Firstly because some of the actors just weren’t up to it, secondly because some characters, important though they were to the story, hadn’t enough screen time to develop (such as Daniel Baldwin and Michael Rooker’s detectives), and thirdly because Mann didn’t seem to know what to do with certain characters just yet (Xander Berkeley’s “Waingro” being the best example of that). That goes for everyone except the two main players who, while never as good as Pacino and De Niro, were great bang for their buck and gave their characters a unique charisma. Alex McArthur is intense (in a role De Niro seemed to define with his ice cold interpretation) and he carries Mann’s words with a compelling conviction. If anything Scott Plank is even more comfortable with Mann’s crime dialect and he adds a modest but effective presence to the film.
From a technical point of view, the film suffers from the types of shoestring budgets typical to TV movies but even still, Mann’s style shines through its production limitations with some striking visuals sprinkled throughout and that commanding holism which the director has always brought to his projects. The action sequences are naturally smaller in scale than the kinetic masterpieces served up in Heat, but their substantially different choreography gives us yet another reason to see this movie in addition to Heat.
The reputation of L.A. Takedown has always suffered under the heavy weight of its comparisons with Heat and it’s very likely that if Heat didn’t exist, L.A. Takedown would have been a sure fire cult hit. But the later film does not negate the relevance of this curious little project. Fans of Mann in particular and film-making in general will get to see how Mann honed many of the techniques and styles he used in Heat and indeed in his later films while fans of terrifically original crime dramas will get a slightly different take on one of the greatest crime thrillers of them all.
Rating: The Good – 69.5 Genre: Thriller Duration: 97 mins Director: John Carpenter Stars: Lauren Hutton, David Birney, Adrienne Barbeau
It might be a made-for-tv movie but this early offering from John Carpenter is a chance to see him hone his skills because many of his trademark shots and scares can be seen here for the first time. On top of that, the story of a television director who moves to LA to start her life anew but finds herself the victim of a methodical and clever stalker is a compelling and well told one. The build up is immensely patient with sharp moments of fear or trepidation interjected unexpectedly to keep the audience on their toes. There are some modest but enjoyable set pieces at key moments in the film and, as you’d expect from the man who made Halloween that same year, they are precisely structured and composed.
Lauren Hutton is (mostly) very good in the lead role and she achieves that all important balance between independent woman and vulnerable victim perfectly. That said, when in the former mode, she tends to play it a little coarse and while not damaging the integrity of her character, she would have better ingratiated herself with the audience if she had toned it down slightly (of course, as her director, the young Carpenter may have been a little light on notes in this regard). David Birney as the love interest and (the director’s future wife) Adrienne Barbeau as her friend are very well used in support to both lighten the mood and also add substance to the tenser moments.
The film’s style and look are clearly inspired by Hitchcock. For example, there is an excellent North by Northwest inspired title sequence and some obvious nods to Rear Window in both plot and set-up. This is interesting in its own right because while much of Carpenter’s influences were more overtly coming from George A. Romero and Howard Hawks, his Hitchcockian influences persisted albeit in more discrete ways. Thus, in addition to being a cracking little thriller, Someone’s Watching Me offers us some nice glimpses into the shaping of Carpenter’s style.