Rating: The Good – 73.8 Genre: Thriller Duration: 108 mins Director: Damian Harris Stars: Laurence Fishburne, Ellen Barkin, Frank Langella, Michael Beach
Lawrence Fishburn stars as a disgraced former CIA agent who moves to the world of corporate espionage where he immediately becomes embroiled in a double cross involving his devious new partner Ellen Barkin and a host of other nefarious individuals each with their own agendas. The plot may be as mad as a box of frogs but there’s much to recommend in the manner of this thriller’s execution. It’s an eminently slick and determined piece of intrigue that panders little to an impatient audience. A psychological homage to the murky combination of intelligence and greed shot in the soft glow of 90’s lighting and set against a emphatically sinister Carter Burwell score. Ross Thomas adapted his own novel and didn’t compromise an inch in how he depicted the ambiguity of this dark world and while Damian Harris repeatedly spills the tension of his expositional scenes, he crafts his key moments with some real finesse and proper power. So much so that the bleak rawness of the emotional landscape can become quite repelling towards the end. The acting is for the most part as competent as you’d expect from a cast as good as this but it’s their ability to see the hidden qualities in their characters that hooks the audience and keeps us guessing. Fishburn in particular gives us a colder more unsettling anti-hero than we are typically used to and Michael Beach treats us yet another seriously intimidating 1990’s villain. Where the movie falls down quite significantly is in its progression. Too many crucial sequences are omitted or rushed through so that the plot loses cohesion as it twists and turns to avoid our expectations. Bad Company is more than worth a watch but one suspects this could’ve been a genuine classic in more capable and/or artistic hands.
Rating: The Good – 66.7 Genre: Thriller Duration: 119 mins Director: Adrian Lyne Stars: Michael Douglas, Glenn Close, Anne Archer
“The film that scared the pants onto every man in America” was the tag line and the film itself lives up to its promise. If you’re looking for an edge-of-the-seat thriller that eschews the traditional conventions of cops and robbers or murderers and victims then Fatal Attraction could be the film for you. Michael Douglas plays the cheating husband, Anne Archer the wife, and Glenn Close the raving lunatic who refuses to go away after Douglas gives her the boot. There is a patient but engaging build-up of tension in this film, marked by a nice sense of realism, and the acting from all parties is excellent. The standout scene remains the bunny-boiling for its shock value but it’s the way in which it was shot and edited that gives it so much power. Hitchcock himself would’ve been proud.
Rating: The Good – 90.1 Genre: Mystery Duration: 147mins Director: David Lynch Stars: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux
Easily one of the most awe-inspiring feats of film-making to come out of America in recent decades, David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. is the culmination of an approach he had been tinkering with for years. This is nothing short of the most subjective horror film you’re ever likely to see, the horror of the subjective if you will. A car-crash on the winding roads of Mulholland Drive leaves Rita (Laura Harring) without any memory but circumstance or something else pairs her with an aspiring young actress (Naomi Watts) and, together, they attempt to discover the clues to the woman’s identity.
Although, Mulholland Dr. represents one of the more extreme examples of Lynch’s surrealism, there is a definite tangible link to the real world here and that is what’s so damn frightening about the whole thing. Lynch manipulates us for long periods and then, almost without warning, holds a mirror to our faces and chills us to the core. One moment in particular (that won’t be flagged here) stands above the rest and must surely count as one of the most disturbing scenes in the history of the medium. Watts is terrific in the lead and her and Harring work so well together that much of the film’s success should be put down to their willingness and ability to understand and buy into what Lynch was doing. Mulholland Dr. is not as accessible as Blue Velvet and so the rewards are not as conventional but it is perhaps the closest thing to a no-foolin vision quest as cinema has given us.
Rating: The Good – 69.7 Genre: Thriller Duration: 113 mins Director: Harold Becker Stars: Al Pacino, Ellen Barkin, John Goodman
Al Pacino’s return from his self imposed (post-Revolution) exile was in this highly effective thriller about a cop who gets romantically involved with a suspect in a series of murders. Pacino’s old colleague Harold Becker handles the drama well and Ellen Barkin (as the suspicious love interest) and John Goodman (as Pacino’s partner) are in great form. For his part, Pacino is superb and reminded us all of what we were missing during those five years of abstentia. Sea of Love is made the way thrillers are meant to be made with a great story, gripping tension, and top actors playing well rounded characters.
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.
Michael Douglas stars as an IT executive who struggles to keep his job when his new boss and former girlfriend (Demi Moore) accuses him of sexual harassment after he spurns her advances at a late night meeting. Barry Levinson’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel could’ve been dismissed as just another sexual thriller coming as it did on the back of Douglas’ controversial Basic Instinct, but thanks to some delicious plot and character construction, it becomes a cleverly gauged and robust investigation into sexual politics set against a colourful background of corporate intrigue.
Douglas was always a dab hand at playing the wounded cad but he puts a nice spin on the concept in this movie by playing a dedicated family man who, with the exception of partaking in a few risky water cooler jokes and some presumptive behaviour towards female colleagues, has put his wildcatting years behind him. As the splash of ice water from his past, Moore is impressively biting, and her character is used exquisitely to phase plot and commentary multiple times over. Some impressive acting talent rounds off the cast with Donald Sutherland and the always excellent Dylan Baker playing the ruthless head honcho and slimey lackey respectively and Roma Maffia weighing in as an expert sexual harassment attorney (“She’d change her name to “TV Listings” to get it into the paper”). Most importantly for a dramatic thriller, the cast and director are all working from the same page. A persistent yet delicate intertwining of the various subplots arises not just through their characters’ energetic dialogue but also their mannerisms and the way in which Levinson’s lens seems to nonchalantly capture them.
But what truly sets Disclosure apart from the standard thriller is the confidently skewed approach from its director. The palette of soft colours and generous lighting combine with eye catching production design to give the film a distinct personality which Ennio Morricone’s imaginative and low humming score keys in on. This furnishes the proceedings with a terrific sense of excitement in place of more traditional physical drama and prevents the 24 carat mind-games from setting too dry a tone. Enriching this context further is the 90’s tech boom, in the middle of which, the story is set. As usual, Crichton gauged the future of digital application with a certain degree of insight but more important than any such historical relevance is the manner in which it helps sets a modern “verge of the future” vibe and so augments the more updated conceptions of sexual harassment that the film presents us with. Disclosure has been unfairly pigeon holed over the years as everything from a run of the mill thriller to a piece of fluff. If anyone cares to inspect it, they will see it’s much more.
Rating: The Good – 79.8 Genre: Drama Duration: 108 mins Director: Andy & Lana Wachowski Stars: Jennifer Tilly, Gina Gershon, Joe Pantoliano
An ex-con (Gina Gershon) gets a job as a plumber/handy-woman in an apartment building and soon attracts the attention of the seductive girlfriend (Jennifer Tilly) of her her mobster neighbour. When they work out a clever scheme to take two million dollars of the mob’s money from him, things naturally go sideways pretty quickly. The Wachowski brothers tell a masterful story of sexually-charged suspense, full of twists and turns in much the same way that another famous pair of brother directors did in their debut. Though not as cleverly worked out as the Coen Brother’s Blood Simple, the latter was made back in the days when the budgets of independent films were truly shoestring. Bound is a much slicker production shot in the same starkly contrasting colours as the Wachowski bothers’ later film The Matrix (kudos to cinematographer Bill Pope). Although, Bound is shot mostly using staged interiors, the directors switch between wide and long lenses and high and low angles at ease to create an incredibly tense atmosphere and keep the audience hooked throughout. The dialogue is perfectly weighted to the pace of the film and the acting from all three of the leads is outstanding particularly in the case of Joe Pantoliano as the mobster who the two girls are trying to swindle. Bound lacks the rich thematic underlay of Blood Simple or Fargo but it’s just as tricksy in its plot and dialogue. That combined with its unique look and the quality of the performances makes it one of the best thrillers to come out of independent cinema in decades.
Rating: The Good – 84 Genre: Thriller, Film-Noir Duration: 113 mins Director: Lawrence Kasdan Stars: William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Richard Crenna
Writer/director Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat is one of the very few “neo noirs” which stands toe to toe with the best the 1940’s & 50’s served up. From that magnificently sultry opening blanketed by John Barry’s utterly captivating score, this film is as perfect a blending of pace, personality, plot, and momentum as we have seen in a thriller since the latter part of the 50’s with the possible exception of Chinatown. Essentially, this is Double Indemnity only the male lead (William Hurt) is a crumby defence attorney instead of an insurance salesman (his profession gives him a similar insight into how one might commit the perfect crime). Kathleen Turner is just as scheming as Stanwyck but if anything, she’s even more subtle and even more manipulative. Her plan to reel Hurt into the murder of her husband is spun with more delicacy and patience and downright craft than that of Wilder’s and Chandler’s story. It is these little differences that represent the true strength to Kasdan’s film in that it is less archetyped than typical films noirs and, as such, the characters and their deeds are refreshingly more true to life. For example, Hurt’s character isn’t exactly the prototypical tough guy we see in so many of the 40’s thrillers. Instead, he’s a little bit charming but also a bit naive. A bit sly, but also a bit dumb. This is film-noir with real people!
Though Kasdan is clearly having fun with the genre by subverting its character conventions, he also pushes it forward through his clever use of those conventions which he does embrace. For example, his use of light and shadow in the context of the coloured photography helps to make the various characters’ sweaty bodies (the film is set during a heat wave) an oppressive force which works wonderfully on a metaphorical as well as visceral level. The colour also gives his brilliantly staged locations and sets a more striking level of detail while light shines through blinds and cell bars alike hiding or revealing eyes to suit the purpose of the scene. Much of what’s caught on camera, therefore, is bathed in a rich darkness, which accentuates the deeply seductive themes running through the film (again much like Chinatown).
As you would expect with Hurt and Turner in the leads, the acting is straight out of the top drawer. Hurt gives a peculiar little performance even by his standards and throws just enough bewildering stares at his co-stars to keep the audience engrossed through the slow build-up. Turner is masterful as the veiled predator as she manipulates her audience in much the same way as her character is manipulating her quarry. The dialogue too is as razor sharp as the best noirs (“You’re not too smart. I like that in a man”) but also softly nuanced when it needs to be. All of this plays out in neat step with Barry’s sublime score which, like everything else in this perfect little movie gem, sets and maintains the atmosphere from scene one.
Rating: The Good – 77.1 Genre: Drama Duration: 100 mins Director: Steven Soderbergh Stars: James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher
Steven Soderbergh’s debut is a low-budget and languidly paced drama about four people, their relationships, and their intertwined attitudes towards sex. It’s a well crafted exploration into voyeurism and works very well as a meta-analysis given the conversational/confessional nature of that exploration and the purposeful lack of nudity or any explicit sex scenes. Andie MacDowell and Peter Gallagher are just about good enough as the estranged couple but given that both have never been great at imbuing their characters with personality, it’s difficult to relate to either. Adding James Spader’s typically skewed performance was risky in that it could have alienated the audience further but it’s in his soft and meditative performance that the other characters are tied together. That and Soderbergh’s intricately connected constructs of loneliness, deception, and sex. Of course, Soderbergh’s delicate craft in combining visuals and sound is the primary driver of this film and it’s a remarkably insightful piece of film-making. It’s through his talent that an ostensibly simple story develops the thematic layers it does and it’s that quiet complexity that allows the film to be appreciated more with each viewing. Though controversial on its release, Sex, Lies, & Videotape has lost much of its edginess but it did pave the way for even more intense explorations of the subject such as Cronenberg’s Crash which also starred Spader.
Rating: The Good – 77.7 Genre: Crime, Romance Duration: 125 mins Director: David Lynch Stars: Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern, Harry Dean Stanton, Willem Dafoe
David Lynch’s ‘Wizard of Odd’ tale of young love in an ugly and dangerous world is arguably a more visceral experience than his magnum opus Blue Velvet – though not on that same level of brilliance. Laura Dern plays a new age Dorothy named Lula who together with her recently paroled boyfriend, Sailor Ripley, heads out west and down their own yellow brick road where the madness and depravity of the adult world (powerfully embodied in her mother’s obsession with them) threatens to engulf them at every turn. Dern is sensationally good as the bright-eyed yet wounded heroine while Nicolas Cage is electric as the dualistic Sailor. Diane Ladd turns in an extraordinary Wicked Witch performance as Lula’s mother and Harry Dean Stanton is the usual safe pair of hands as her devoted servant.
Wild at Heart is very much about duality. It’s complex yet simple, pessimistic yet optimistic, disturbing yet elating. The characters themselves are all either teetering on the brink of the two worlds or firmly implanted in one (usually the darker). As is typical for Lynch’s films, there is a host of weird and terrifying characters on show, keeping everything off-kilter and played with relish by a host of scene-stealers. Willem Dafoe’s repulsive Bobby Peru is most certainly the standout example of such and his performance – messed up teeth and all – will stay with you for a long time. Lynch’s direction is searing as he streamlines all the instinct behind Blue Velvet into the soul of this film leaving you with a tornado of imagery and sound.
Rating: The Good – 66.3 Genre: Thriller Duration: 127 mins Director: Paul Verhoeven Stars: Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, George Dzundza
Given its notoriety for what at the time was a relatively high level of sexual explicitness (and probably still is), Basic Instinct was quickly labeled as “controversy for controversy’s sake” and few saw the film as being anything more than gratuitous and shallow. However, when one takes into account Paul Verhoeven’s previous films such as Soldaat van Oranje, RoboCop, and Total Recall, one might be tempted to give him and his Basic Instinct project the benefit of the doubt.
Basic Instinct is an admirable and often entertaining attempt to play on the rules and traditions of the thriller genre which ultimately fails to reach the heights it aspired to. Michael Douglas stars as a troubled homicide detective investigating Sharon Stone’s deviously clever writer when her boyfriend is murdered in a manner she described in her previous novel. The early parts to this movie are quite engaging and a tantalising game of cat and mouse between Stone and Douglas offers many possibilities. The first one and a half acts are quite efficiently driven by a sexually and psychologically charged suspense even if the efforts to generate that suspense were overt and indelicate. There’s a distinctive visual style to the film as Verhoeven orchestrates his lighting, framing, and production design to successfully produce a soft and enticing noiresque vibe. The detail of the plot and the many intertwined subplots complement that vibe and gives the director and his much maligned writer Joe Eszterhas plenty of opportunity to expose and jauntily probe the rules by which studios market their films and the related rules by which audiences form expectations.
Unfortunately, the film struggles to get through the latter stages of its second act and as it does so, all that moderately sophisticated jibing gets dialled up to increasingly ridiculous and blunted levels. The final act is too drawn out and with it, the relevance of Verhoeven’s statement gets lost. The supporting cast (George Dzundza in the form of Douglas’ partner and Jeanne Tripplehorn as his on-again/off-again love interest and psychiatrist) don’t help this either through a combination of poor writing and confused acting. On the plus side, Douglas is strong throughout and coming as it did in close proximity to films like Fatal Attraction, Falling Down, and Disclosure, the sense of edginess which defined his career at that time can still be perceived in this performance. Stone for her part is in devilish form and despite all the controversy it caused, it’s one of her better performances. She really does command the screen when she’s on it independent of the help which Verhoeven was giving her. Overall, Basic Instinct is an interesting little thriller that tries to rise above its genre in a playful style. That it fails to do so because of a lack of delicacy and focus certainly reduces its impact but doesn’t fully negate its strengths.
Alan J. Pakula’s first installment in his seminal 1970′s paranoia trilogy is a mesmerising exploration of power and control in the seedy underbelly of New York. Donald Sutherland plays Klute, one of cinema’s more ambiguous characters who is charged with locating a friend and wealthy corporate executive who has disappeared without a trace save some lurid letters which he may or may not have written to a New York prostitute.
Jane Fonda appears quite inspired in the role of the high class prostitute who avoids her insecurities by embracing her professional persona through which she becomes expertly adept at manipulating the men in her life. It’s a complex performance in which she strikes a subtle but believable balance between confidence, harshness, and vulnerability. However, good as she is, she is arguably outdone by Donald Sutherland’s finest ever turn as the inscrutable small town detective. At times, Klute appears lost in the big city and prey for anyone with an edge but at other times that ‘s turned on its head as he takes on a strength which destabilises and confuses those who were previously laughing at him along with the audience. This clever device could’ve been completely lost in the hands of a lesser actor so it’s to Sutherland’s eternal credit that he pulls it off. What’s more, the secret seems to lie entirely in a clear and robust conception of his character for the manner in which Sutherland uses his eyes when showing both sides to Klute’s persona convinces the audience this is genuine personal complexity we are witnessing rather than merely conflicted writing.
Klute is a very dark movie which feels more like a European film from that time thanks to the manner in which it’s structured and shot. Full of hard to make out images and psyche tapping sounds and music, Pakula scintillates us from reel one until the close and keeps us immersed in a murky world of contradiction and anxiety. There are few answers and it is very much left up to ourselves to decide where the characters end up. That of course, is the true strength to this fascinating piece of cinema and the performances which lie at its core.